The 21c Museum Hotels were established to revitalize the downtown areas of small and mid-size cities and to attract locals and tourists alike with contemporary artwork and chef-driven restaurants.
Even the chefs gain inspiration from the rotating collections of contemporary artwork inside the galleries and the restaurants. “We like to talk about how food and art drives commerce,” says Josh Munchel, executive chef at Counting House in Durham, North Carolina, 21c’s latest location that opened earlier this year. “When locals visit our restaurants, they might feel they’re no longer in the city they grew up in, and they probably thought they’d have to go to New York, San Francisco, or Chicago to get the same dining experience.”
Each 21c restaurant operates as an independent brand, giving the executive chefs autonomy in their culinary direction, albeit with some oversight from the parent company.
Sarah Robbins, senior vice president of operations for 21c, frequently visits the restaurants to help train staff and collaborate on ideas. The chefs will even text Robbins photos of new dishes to get her immediate feedback.
“While I might offer direction for the menus so they are balanced between price points, lighter and heartier dishes, and those that are more adventuresome or more simple, I like to see the chef bring his voice and vision to the food,” she says. “Allowing personal creative freedom helps to attract and retain talent, and it’s a lot of fun.”
Proof on Main | Louisville, Kentucky
It all started when Kentucky art collectors Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown of the Brown-Forman liquor family opened the first 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2006. Since then, the onsite restaurant Proof on Main, has earned numerous accolades. In fact, many credit the hotel and restaurant—which took over abandoned bourbon and tobacco warehouses—with setting the stage for the city’s growing and vibrant dining scene over the last several years.
Passionate about local, sustainably grown food, Wilson and Brown even bought their own farm about 45 minutes outside Louisville. Woodland Farm spans roughly 1,000 acres and gives life to all sorts of vegetables, pigs, and even bison.
Proof on Main introduced a new chef this year when Mike Wajda took over for former executive chef Levon Wallace in May just before the Kentucky Derby. Chef Wajda had his hands full—and not just with mint juleps. He had to fill some big shoes left by Wallace and determine the future direction for Proof. He has already begun to do this by showcasing his versatility with an emphasis on the fresh vegetables and meat from Woodland Farms and the bounty of the Ohio River Valley. Chef Wajda also brings his own big shoes: He’s a graduate of the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, has trained under the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Michael Mina, and helped Chef Mina open seven restaurant concepts in just one year across the country.
“I don’t limit myself to one style of cuisine,” Chef Wajda says. “I have traveled quite a bit, cooking in different styles, from classical French to Japanese. But nothing is as great as being able to talk to the farmers at Woodland Farm every week and find out what’s coming out of the ground.”
Wajda, who grew up on farms in Ohio, says he has the unique capability to work with the farmers to plant the vegetables he wants and determine the size of the pigs he needs. He even participates in growing experiments. “Not only am I able to control food in the kitchen, but we also have more control over how our food is grown, and not only because it’s local,” he explains. For example, they might compare carrots plucked earlier in the season to those left in the ground year-round to develop their sweetness even further.
This fall, he looks forward to those super sweet carrots as well as fennel, kohlrabi and other root vegetables, digging into the pickled and preserved tomatoes, corn, and other treasures from the summer harvest. For larger events at the restaurant, he’ll bring in the whole heritage mulefoot hogs that have feasted on acorns all summer and that make for great pork chops.
Metropole | Cincinnati
In late 2012, 21c opened Metropole at the company’s Cincinnati location, where Chef Jared Bennett focuses on dishes cooked in a custom-built wood-burning hearth visible to diners.
“We use the fireplace as a combination grill and plancha set over live coals that we can move around to play with the heat,” says Bennett, who has cooked leg of lamb like a rotisserie, goat leg, even whole chickens, and the ever-popular pork shoulder. Also a hit is his burnt carrot salad, made by sous-vide cooking the carrots with orange, garlic thyme, and olive oil, and then charring them on the hearth and tossing slices with pocked red onions, avocado, lemon juice, Feta, and cilantro. Lately, he’s been experimenting with chive, thyme, and rosemary flowers from one of the handful of local farmers he works with during the year.
Similar to Louisville, the Cincinnati location—with roughly 150 rooms, free gallery spaces open 24/7, and full banquet and catering capabilities—has been integral in helping to rehab the city’s downtown dining scene, which Bennett says has changed dramatically in the last five years. Chef Bennett has worked in well-known Cincinnati restaurants including Nectar and Daveed’s at 934.
“The artwork in the restaurant keeps me more creative, and it’s great we don’t have to follow recipes that a corporate chef designed,” he says. “First and foremost, taste is important, and a close second is presentation and plate design.”
The Hive | Bentonville, Arkansas
The third 21c Museum Hotel opened in Bentonville, Arkansas, in spring 2013 and includes its popular restaurant The Hive. The restaurant’s chef Matthew McClure has already racked in awards during his three-year tenure, including being named a semifinalist for the 2014 and 2015 James Beard Foundation Best Chef: South awards.
Born and raised in nearby Little Rock, Chef McClure focuses on the hunting and fishing culture of the region and has shown a longstanding and outspoken commitment to support local farmers from his home state. Formerly, he worked in Boston as a protégé of the legendary Barbara Lynch.
“The farmers market here has grown exponentially, and the food culture in this town has changed dramatically in the last five years, so much so you wouldn’t recognize the town if you saw it before then,” says McClure, an active member of the Southern Foodways Alliance. He works with farmers to plan ahead for the growing season and often gets first dibs on the good stuff.
Trained in French and Italian cooking, Chef McClure has also focused on influences from the growing Indian population in Bentonville, along with other Asian cooking techniques. In the fall, he serves a Chinese-style duck that is hung for 21 hours, then poached in Arkansas sorghum and roasted in the oven until mahogany in color and rich in flavor. It’s the perfect pairing for roasted seasonal vegetables like acorn squash and sweet potato.
“It’s refined country cooking, but that’s a quick-and-dirty explanation,” McClure says. “My food is more about what’s soulful and honest and flavor-forward. I also have tried to create a culture in the kitchen where people are passionate about cooking delicious food and taking care of the guests.”
Counting House | Durham, North Carolina
As the former lead sous chef at Metropole in Cincinnati, Chef Munchel opened Counting House to celebrate North Carolina’s fresh seafood—through the menu’s “sea snacks” section—as well as multi-ethnic cooking techniques that are influenced by the area’s growing Turkish, Ukrainian, and Indian populations. The diversity has grown in the region thanks to Duke University and Durham’s proximity to Research Triangle Park, home to numerous electronics, pharmaceutical, and technology companies.
At Counting House, the Indian vadouvan-spiced roasted patty pan squash with homemade yogurt and dried blueberries soaked in verjus has become a crowd favorite. Chef Munchel has even sourced locally grown, dried pipe tobacco to use as a cure for tuna loin, inspired by a Spanish tapas dish.
While 21c chefs operate mostly independently, there is collaboration among the chefs. For instance, Chef Munchel has worked closely with Chef McClure in Bentonville while opening Counting House, and they continue to share photos of dishes and ideas.
In each of the 21c restaurants, it’s all about modern art meeting modern food. Rumor has it the company plans to open additional locations in Oklahoma City, Kansas City, and Nashville, Tennessee.