When he was just a 16-year-old serving tourists on the beach in his home city of Cannes, Guy Genoud knew that one day, he would open his own restaurant.
He could envision every detail: It would be a warm and welcoming place where the service was professional but not stuffy, with a large menu of good food at affordable prices. Of course, he never imagined that it would be located in a strip shopping center in Louisville, Kentucky. But as the French say, “C’est la vie.”
Genoud’s journey from the Provence region of France to Brasserie Provence, which he and his wife, photographer Stacy Duncan, opened in October 2013 in the old Tony Roma’s building on North Hurstbourne Lane, may not have been a straight line, but there has been one constant: food. He has spent nearly 30 years in the hotel management business, most recently as food and beverage director of BLU Mediterranean Grill at the downtown Marriott; before that, he was general manager of the Brown Hotel’s English Grill for five years.
He wanted to open a restaurant in France, he said, but that never happened. “I left and traveled a lot. I came to the States. Always, that was in the back of my mind.” Throughout their 23-year marriage, said Duncan (a California native who met him in Washington, D.C., at a party that neither of them wanted to go to), “we’d be driving in obscure places and there would be this really cool old run-down castle or an old church out in the middle of nowhere and (he’d say) ‘What a great place for a restaurant.’ It really was always out in the middle of nowhere.”
Last year, as he approached the age of 50 and started thinking about how he would end his career, Genoud decided it was time to do what he had always wanted to do, with Duncan as his partner. The location they selected seemed to some no less remote than a run-down castle.
“Originally, we thought about a downtown space,” Duncan said. Then Houston Jones, president of restaurant design and development firm The Houston Group, suggested the property in the Forum shopping center. “In the end it’s turned out to be a godsend, really,” she said. “It’s a huge space, we have tremendous parking and there is a real need for it out here in the East End.”
The building was no castle, but after sitting vacant for year, it was run down – a vast, dark cave of a place. “It was a pit,” Duncan said flatly. It was her task to open up the space and bring in the painterly light and colors of Provence – greens, blues, purples.
Now, diners enter the bright space to find a section of tables to the right of the handsome bar and leather banquettes to the left. A chef’s table near the front of the restaurant seats 10 to 12. Further back, several tables cluster near a new brick fireplace in an area that Duncan says reminds her of cozy chalets in the Alps. Photographs she has taken on the couple’s travels in France hang on the walls. There are white tablecloths, but they are topped with butcher paper.
“This is not fine dining,” Genoud said. “I want people to be more relaxed. Some places you go, it’s like, ‘My goodness, I’d better be dressed up to get in there.’ Here, that was not the concept. I want people to feel warm here, for this to be their local restaurant. And I wanted it to be affordable – most of the entrees are under $25.”
They range from mussels in white wine ($16) to Chateaubriand ($42 for one, $75 for two). In between are other seafood dishes (the grouper fillet and scallops, $30, and prosciutto-wrapped cod with ratatouille, $19, are among the most popular) and meats including a honey lavender-glazed pork chop ($22), lamb chops with rosemary jus ($26) and duck breast with olives and thyme ($28). Altogether, the dinner menu has close to 50 items – more if you include the dessert options. “I figured it out: It would take six months to come here once a week and go through the menu,” Genoud said.
The Plat du Jour ($19) is another draw for regulars who know they will find the cassoulet on Thursday and the bouillabaisse on Friday, for instance. On Saturday night, items not featured on the regular menu – rabbit, blood sausage – are introduced via the Chef’s Creation. On a recent Saturday the creation was veal scallopini, and it had sold out by 8 p.m.
Heading the kitchen is Chef Edoardo Bacci, who was sous chef at the English Grill during Genoud’s tenure and had recently moved to the University of Louisville’s University Club. “I never had really opened a place, so it was going to be a new learning experience for me,” Bacci said of Brasserie Provence. “And I had faith in Guy. I had known him for a while, and I know he knows how things need to go. I didn’t have too many issues saying yes.”
A native of Trieste, Italy, Bacci moved to Louisville with his parents in 1988 and attended Sullivan University’s culinary arts program. “My background isn’t French by any means, but the ingredients, well, we’re neighbors, and it was really kind of easy to come up with recipes,” he said. “What is really ‘French’ or ‘Italian’ food? Everything evolves, so you can definitely put your own twist to it.”
He embraced Genoud’s philosophy of avoiding complex, “foo-foo” French cuisine and keeping things casual. The menu skews Mediterranean, with lots of seafood and vegetables. “The food we do here is nothing spectacular. It’s just good ingredients, presented nicely on the plate, and simple. You don’t have to add extra sauce to make it crazy. You know, three sauces for one salmon – you’re not going to taste the salmon. At the end, if you have good ingredients, that is what I want to taste.”
Traditionally, brasserie means “brewery,” so draft beer was a must, Genoud said. In addition to French and Belgian ales, he stocks all Kentucky-made brands. His 35 wines by the glass are all from southern France; the bottle selection also includes a few from California. “If Kentucky had some great wines, I would be doing Kentucky wines, but unfortunately… no. Not yet.” He maintains the local flair by stocking 30 to 40 brands of real Kentucky juice: Bourbon.
But for Genoud, the real fun of having a restaurant is much more than building a menu or a beverage program. It’s building relationships with customers, whether they are the two businessmen, obviously regulars, lingering over lunch, or the couple who’ve never dined at the place before on a busy Saturday night. Genoud greets them all like old friends as he makes his rounds of the tables. “I don’t know anybody’s last name. I tell my servers, ‘You go by your first name and call them by their first name.’ I want them to be comfortable and familiar.”
“I love it when large groups of people come in,” added Duncan. “It just feels like community.” She often helps out on Friday and Saturday nights, and is sometimes joined by the couple’s children, a 17-year-old daughter and 22-year-old son.
“We are a family business,” Genoud affirms. “People are often surprised by that. They say, ‘Is this a chain?’ No, it’s a restaurant with only two owners. I have only one boss – that’s her,” he says, gesturing at Duncan, and then adding with a smile, “It’s always been like that anyway.”