A new concept coming to New Albany will pair hungry diners with local chefs eager to experiment and to explain.
Story by Steve Kaufman & Photo by Danny Alexander
Just imagine you sit down to a dinner prepared by Scott Dickinson, executive chef at The Exchange Pub + Kitchen. And you have a question about something – preparation, or ingredients, or seasoning.
So, you ask.
And Dickinson leans over the table and answers. That’s the concept envisioned for MESA, a new way of dining coming soon to downtown New Albany.
“We call it a collaborative kitchen,” said Bobby Bass – who co-owns MESA with wife Ysha Bass, of Bass Group Real Estate. “Our tag line is, ‘Bridging the gap between the kitchen and the table.’ ”
Table = Mesa. Get it? (“Mesa” means “table” in Spanish. Ysha is from Mexico City.) But it is in no way meant to suggest that this is a Mexican restaurant. In fact, the cuisine on any given night will depend on who’s doing the cooking.
Rather, the “table” in question refers to the idea of a chef’s table, popular in many higher-end restaurants, where the chef sets up a small service in the kitchen for a few preferred customers to chat, watch the prep and eat a specially-prepared meal.
Except, in the case of MESA, you don’t have to go to the chef. The chef will come to you.
“We wanted to have a place where the consumer gets a fabulous three-to-five-course meal, paired with wine or beer, and the chefs get to do what they rarely get to do: engage in conversation with the public,” explained Bobby. “We feel we’re an advocate for both parties: The consumer gets more than a great dinner and the chefs get to experiment or show off their stuff.”
MESA will be moving into 216 Pearl St., between Market and Main in downtown New Albany, the old Peterey-Hedden Building.
Bobby said he’s looking for a late May/early June move-in, purposely avoiding Derby. “It’s hard for a new concept to compete with all that’s going on at that time,” he said. “Too much noise, too many distractions. I don’t want to waste our marketing dollars.”
Also, he said, it will give them a chance to get everything running properly, do a couple of private runs and work the kinks out. “Never a good idea to rush something and risk anyone having a bad experience.”
When it is up and running, the concept seems so straightforward and logical you wonder how it could possibly fail. A visiting chef from one of the area’s many excellent restaurants comes in for a night, using MESA’s kitchen. Bass said he already has commitments from both Ian Hall properties, The Exchange and Brooklyn and the Butcher, as well as from Habana Blues and SuperChef’s Darnell Ferguson. Bass said he has also been in talks with Vincenzo and Agostino Gabriele of Vincenzo’s and Josh Moore of Volare.
Sampling the chef’s efforts will be 20 to 25 diners, sitting at a table around the cooking area, who have paid somewhere between $85 and $150 for the evening. (Bobby pointed out that not all the details – like prices, hours, schedule – have been entirely worked out.) There may also be breakfast events, probably at weekend brunch, which would be less-formal and less-expensive, and could also include children.
Off to one side will be what Ysha called “a kitchen-essential boutique pantry” – a spice bar, salt bar, chocolate bar, oil bar, sugar bar, cookbooks, aprons, knife sets, supplies, kids’ cooking paraphernalia, “a lot of unique things” – where diners can pick up something while they’re there. The items will be supplied largely by local vendors.
Bobby has arranged with local businesses – like Dine Company, Chefs Supply and Bonnycastle Appliances – for the cooking equipment. “It will all be high-end residential equipment, so people can see it and relate to it. Perhaps they’ll want to contact one of the vendors and buy something after they’ve been in here.”
On the nights when a restaurant chef might not be performing, there will be what the Basses call one of their “in-house chefs.” They’ll rotate in and out, taking a turn at a regular dinner and also for special events, like a reception or a corporate party.
“We’ve been talking to a lady who was a finalist on the Food Network’s ‘Cutthroat Kitchen,’ ” Bobby said. “But she doesn’t have her own restaurant. I’ll work a schedule with her to perform here on a monthly basis and can rotate other chefs who also aren’t attached to restaurants.”
Private events are also part of the endless possibilities. “I’ve already had a request for a 20-person wedding reception,” Bobby said. And, he anticipates local companies wanting to have office parties at MESA, or to entertain clients there.
Among the other opportunities for the space are chefs’ lessons and special events, like pairings and tastings hosted by local suppliers – wine, bourbon, cheese, oils. More endless possibilities.
The restaurant business can be a tough one for anyone, especially those who – like the Basses – are new to it. They’ve already been through the Kafka-designed world of licenses and permits for food, wine, beer, liquor. Plus, the building is in a historic district, so what they can and cannot change might limit them as they build and design the space.
“We’re in the real estate business,” said Bobby. “But we work in Jeffersonville, live in Floyd County and eat in downtown New Albany about 12 times a week.” He chuckled. He was exaggerating – but only slightly.
What about the challenges of balancing food supply, having enough of what he needs but not so much that the spinach wilts and the bread turns green on the edges?
He seems prepared for that, as well. His manager is a Sullivan University culinary arts graduate.
“We’re only going to do these events on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, one sitting per night,” Bobby said. “We’ll request that people order tickets online six to eight weeks in advance, so we always have a good idea of who’s coming in the door. This won’t be a place for last-minute walk-ins.”
Though the website currently in place – www. MESAchefs.com – is just a one-page “teaser site” at the moment, it nonetheless has a reservations form.
The grand vision, for both Ysha and Bobby, is a concept that benefits all corners of the local community.
“Chefs will benefit from getting the chance to experiment, and to get feedback directly from consumers,” said Bobby. “Restaurants will benefit by exposing what they do to a wider group of people.
“We’ll give local food and produce vendors a market for their goods, plus the retail opportunities we’ll offer. And the equipment and appliance dealers will be able to sell directly to people whose interests are tweaked by coming to our events.”
They feel downtown New Albany merchants can benefit from more potential consumers coming to the area, particularly those who are drawn from Louisville and are perhaps not yet familiar with what downtown New Albany has to offer.
And, said Ysha, the plan is to have special events that will support food banks, soup kitchens, churches, shelter homes and charities, in collaboration with various non-profit organizations.
Oh yeah, and foodies will benefit, too. “We’ll be giving people an opportunity to try new things, watch the chefs at work, ask questions and learn.” It all adds up to the three E’s at one table: entertainment, education and epicure.