When he started the first Feast BBQ just across the river from Louisville in New Albany, Indiana in 2012, Ryan Rogers wanted to make the experience of barbecue, which he termed "America's food," better. Meticulously restoring a small brick storefront, then applying the same focus to his ingredients and menu, Rogers almost instantly made Feast a popular destination. As the 1500-square-foot space became increasingly crowded, Rogers began seeking an expansion site. Last year he opened another Feast BBQ in downtown Louisville — this time rehabbing a 1920s truck dealership into a large communal space.
Barbecue should bring people together
The open layout is a projection of Rogers' belief that barbecue should be something that "brings people together." This belief also extends to the back of the house, where Rogers brought together a group of classically trained chefs who are as passionate about barbecue and food as he is. Rogers says Feast has grown to "something like 35 employees now," many of whom have worked with "some of the best chefs in not only Louisville, but the country." Chefs with experience under Tom Colicchio, Edward Lee, Laurent Gras, Wylie Dufresne and Marcus Samuelsson now work under the direction of Margaret Lawrence, who has been with Feast since its beginning. Every day, they execute carefully-smoked proteins, standard barbecue sides and some of Rogers inspirations, like pork cakes (a riff on a crab cake, highlighting their often-praised pulled pork). It's all served up alongside bourbon slushies, which are made in rotating flavors, like sidecar and mint julep.
Classic barbecue prepared under the direction of classically trained chefs isn't that surprising given Rogers' eclectic background. His parents moved him around as a kid, meaning Rogers traveled through "all the barbecue havens" from Western North Carolina to Tennessee, Texas and Mississippi before ending up in Oldham County, Kentucky during his junior year in high school. He attended college in New York City, had some success in an internet startup in Utah, then went back to New York for culinary school and the hard life of a chef in the city (including a stint on the line at Momofuku Noodle Bar). Coming home to visit family, Rogers decided to take a chance (and relieve a large chunk of his living expenses) by moving back to the South and opening Feast in New Albany.
For Rogers, taking a chance includes his careful calculation of trends and situations. He says that since the downtown location opened, "we've seen a drop in customers coming from across the river and into New Albany, but that was our plan all along." Now the restaurateur/chef is making his way into the fried chicken business, and the new concept should open up in Louisville in a few months.
He admits that with the increase in volume "it always feels like we're trying to play catch-up," striving to maintain Feast's fabled consistency through "the phenomenal amount of steps" good barbecue takes. When he's traveling and studying restaurants, he examines every angle of a place, from the style of service and music selections all the way down to the check presenters. When Eater surveyed the Young Guns about how they define a successful evening, he shared something he wrote for his employee handbook:
Success can only be measured after the last mop at the end of the night"Success can only be measured after the last mop at the end of the night when everything has been put away and labeled correctly and you finally get a moment to slow down and breathe. But I don't think you ever have a completely successful night. You could have always done something better, or faster, or cleaner."
Rogers seems to have little interest in his own celebrity, and usually appears in photographs with his face partially obscured. He says he's been fortunate to receive "immensely more press, recognition, and invitations to events than I've ever thought reasonable." A generally private person, one confidant is his pet rabbit, Pork Chop Sandwiches. "I won him at a small town farm festival (where they shouldn't really be giving rabbits away as prizes) and named him after Indiana's culinary gift to the world, the fried pork tenderloin sandwich."