Dean Corbett, the executive chef and owner of Corbett’s an American Place, Equus and Jack’s, doesn’t pull any punches. He’s as frank as they come: “I went to business school, started as a dishwasher at Red Lobster, worked in nursing homes and country clubs and at Pizza Hut...everything imaginable, I’ve been there,” says the five-star chef.
“It’s a matter of hanging in. I have had more challenges in the last couple of years than ever because of the competition in the business,” says Corbett. “When I started, there were a handful of (local) fine dining restaurants. Now there are 40 or 50. Staffing has become a huge issue and maintaining clientele is a challenge. A lot of my customers are getting older so we have to bring in new folks.”
Corbett has mixed emotions about the public becoming increasingly food savvy. He likes that they are knowledgeable and appreciative about what restaurants are doing, but wishes guests would trust chefs and stop trying to dissect a menu and change dishes to the point they don’t resemble what the chef intended. “Making so many accommodations get old and it seems to be getting worse,” he says. “It has become more difficult to execute fine dining because of the modifiers.”
I'm looking forward to having great conversations in my own dining rooms.
He “casualized” Corbett’s to make it easier on the wallet and the food more mainstream, both in an attempt to reflect changing times in the restaurant world and diners’ preferences. He has opened up his mind to pizza, wings, nachos and calamari and has altered his menu to welcome the trend toward small plates. And, he’s emphasizing that guests don’t have to worry about dressy attire or assume that a meal there will be a long, drawn out affair.
Paul Sant is his choice as new corporate chef for all three restaurants. For many years, the two have known each other through charity events. “When he became available, I thought, golly, if there is any way we can make this work, let’s do it,” says Corbett, who will now be able to get out of the kitchens more often and spend more time with guests.
“I’m still trying to make a buck and take care of my staff. I want every meal to be as good as the last. At the same time, I care very much about the people who work for me. The staff is my biggest weapon. My business model is to work as a team to give guests the best experience possible. I’m not fond of chefs or other people who have big egos. I have little patience for a big head until I see what they can put out,” he says.
A frequent mentor to chefs and personnel in his own and other restaurants, he adopts a “been there, done that” approach and considers it a compliment when asked for guidance about sourcing, employee issues or anything pertaining to a menu or running a restaurant.
Organizers of non-profit events also turn to him, and in a very big way. “I guess it comes with age. I have been doing them for 40 years. People look to me for advice about how to pull off an event without a glitch,” says Corbett. What have become major fundraisers, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and March of Dimes events were first held at Equus in the ‘80s. Since its inception, he has been involved with APRON, an organization that offers temporary relief to restaurant workers who are in financial distress, often because of injury or illness. Bourbon and Bowties: a Taste of Corbett’s, is a high-profile dinner that benefits Norton Children’s Hospital. “I’m especially proud of our Gilda’s Club event, a sit-down dinner which I have done for 450 people and never charged them a dime,” he says. “The next one is November 10. I’ll be the host and my team will lead the food although other chefs and Sullivan University’s culinary program will pitch in.”
Louisville gave me a shot and allowed me to find my voice.... When you look at all the nooks and crannies, you realize it’s a gem of a city.
As he looks back over his career, he makes what some would consider a startling statement. “If given the option of being a restaurant owner, I wouldn’t do it all again,” he says. “It ages you tremendously. Between the human resource madness, making payroll for 30 years and not being able to see my kids grow up… the stress has been unbelievable.”
He can’t imagine a career that didn’t involve cooking, however. “Maybe I would have taught. Maybe I would have worked 9 to 5 for someone else,” says Corbett. “For me, it’s about the fun and creativity of cooking for others.” With Paul at the helm, he is sure to have more time for the fun side of his profession. Says Corbett, “I’m looking forward to having great conversations in my own dining rooms.”