Each Columbus Day we highlight one our favorite FACES of Louisville from the past year. Kathy Cary, you are amazing and we are thrilled to showcase you again!
Though Kathy Cary of Lilly’s Bistro is a cooking legend in Louisville, she answers the phone, makes grocery lists and does most all of the cooking herself at Lilly’s. We spoke to her on her day off, and she was looking forward to spending the afternoon reading cookbooks. She is truly a gem in our town, and we’re thrilled she joins us today as our FACE of Louisville.
How long have you been cooking?
I have been cooking for 40 years. I was always reading a lot of gourmet magazines, looking through recipes and helping my mother in the kitchen. At the time, my mother was taking cooking lessons from Camille Glenn. My favorite things to make were chicken salad, homemade quiche and crepes. When I was a junior in high school, I began giving cooking classes at my house to my friends and peers. I would hold four cooking classes each Saturday. Funny thing was, my parents paid for all the groceries, and I would teach the class and take all the money.
I also used to make this delicious chocolate fudge sauce that I learned from a woman who worked for my grandmother. I would take the sauce to Collegiate, where I went to school, and sell it at recess. This sauce is still on the menu at Lilly’s.
You moved to Washington, D.C., after high school and really learned how to professionally cook there. What was that like?
In 1972, I took a year off and went to Washington, D.C., and I started taking Cordon Bleu cooking classes there. I couldn’t afford the class, so I would help out the owner of the school in exchange for my tuition. Her husband was an international diplomat, and they had lived all over the world. They had no children, and, in some way, they adopted me. Mostly diplomats’ wives took classes there and I started catering for them. They were an audience for me right away, and they trusted me.
Later that year, I enrolled in George Washington University and started catering more. I took out an ad in a Georgetown magazine and was working out of my teeny weeny apartment kitchen in Georgetown. I was doing this at 19 years old.
After catering for a couple of years, you went to work in a restaurant for the first time. Tell us about this experience.
In 1974, I went to work at a restaurant called The Big Cheese. I was a lunch chef on the hot line. I was all by myself working in a professional kitchen. This was a big D.C. restaurant at the time. Henry Kissinger had his wedding reception there.
After all this adventure, what brought you home to Louisville?
I came home around Derby time and met Will Cary, my future husband, at a bar downtown. I returned to D.C., and Will Cary kept calling my parents’ house wondering when I was coming home next. I came home later that summer for my sister’s wedding and reconnected with him. I decided to move back home then.
There was a restaurant opening downtown on Third and Broadway called The Fig Tree that was looking for a chef. I got the job as a 21-year-old. The menu changed every day for lunch, and for dinner, every two weeks. I worked 18-19 hours a day and had an apartment above the restaurant. I had a hard time getting respect as a 21-year-old when everyone who worked there was a lot older than me.
After a year, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had no life. I made a decision right then that if I ever owned a restaurant, I would never manage it as poorly as the owners of The Fig Tree did.
How long have you owned La Peche Catering and Lilly’s?
I have owned Lilly’s for 25 years and La Peche Catering for 33 years.
After my experience at The Fig Tree, I started my own catering company out of our tiny apartment in the Highlands. I wasn’t letting my husband eat anything out of our fridge because it was all sold for catering. He found some space on Bardstown Road for La Peche, which would become the present day Lilly’s. We bought refrigerators and furniture from the old bowling alley under Valumarket in Mid-City Mall. We opened La Peche Catering in October 1979, and nobody could pronounce it. After a long time of people calling it “La Peachey,” they finally got it. We sold desserts, savory food and frozen foods there for pickup as well.
We opened Lilly’s in 1988, after our daughter, Lilly, was born. We put the restaurant name in neon lights and moved La Peche in the back part of the building. When we opened, we couldn’t get a wine license because the front room only seated 40 and we needed 50 for a wine license. So we bought the entire building, which included four apartments upstairs and a dog grooming business.
What is your favorite thing on the menu to make?
What is your typical day at work?
From 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., I order, cook, plan menus. Then I return at 7 p.m. and leave around 10 p.m. I do this six days a week, taking Monday off. But, today is a Monday, and I’m at the restaurant planning menus and planning catering.
How do you balance your job and your personal life?
A lot of my personal life is folded in with the business.
When I had my daughter, Lilly, I nursed her for a year. I would cook with her in my arms or in a baby carrier backpack. We had a crib upstairs in our office where she would nap. When she could sit up, I would sit her in big boxes of broccoli and she could entertain herself for hours. Sometimes we would put her in a big serving plate in the middle of the kitchen playing in the middle of all of us. I never had a sitter or daycare with her. She was just a part of our lives here.
When she got older, she loved to sit up at the bar and look through customers’ purses. She would say to them, “What’s in your purse?” and then start looking through it.
When I had my son four years later, I kept him at the restaurant with me for six months while I nursed him. Lilly was in preschool at the time. I had a crib in my office and a baby monitor down in the kitchen. It got to be too much with two kids and school and work, and I eventually got a sitter for him.
Over the years, everyone has worked here. My husband was the manager here for 11 years and has worked here in all sorts of capacities. Both my daughter and son have worked here, as well.
What is the biggest life lesson you have ever learned?
My family comes first. There is only one me, and I cannot duplicate me. I have a wonderful family and I want to spend time with them.
Who is your mentor?
Camille Glenn. (Editor’s Note: Camille Glenn, who died in 2010 at the age of 100, was a prominent Southern chef and author. She was the food writer for the Courier-Journal and taught cooking classes here in Louisville.) Camille was my mentor and my dear friend. She lived down the street from the restaurant and from my house, and we would visit her often. She was always thinking about food and recipes for another cookbook, even at the end of her life. She changed the way people entertain in private homes.
What is best advice you have received in business?
Stay out of debt and don’t be greedy.
If you were not in your current job, what would you secretly love to do?
Ride horses and compete. I grew up on a farm riding horses since I was 2 years old. My mother still has our farm in Oldham County. I used to ride when the kids were in preschool and on Sundays and Mondays. But when my parents quit riding, there were no more horses around and nobody to take care of the horses. Now I ride on vacations or with friends here. I miss it a lot. Someday when I have the time to take care of an animal, I’ll do it again.
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Between my job at The Fig Tree and starting my own catering company, I modeled and was a fashion director at Stewart’s Dry Goods for two years.
What is your favorite place to go eat?
At a friend’s house.
Where do you like to shop?
What is a treat or a luxury you do for yourself?
Having a personal fitness trainer.
What is your weakness?
Not being able to say no.
What is your favorite thing to do in Louisville?
Going to my mother’s farm and walking my dog.
Three things you cannot live without (besides God, family and friends):
Travel, my dog and a good book.
What are you reading right now?
What are three of your favorite things right now:
Going through the garden catalogs, planning our famous French chefs’ visit to Lilly’s, cleaning out the office.
Thank you to Kathy Cary for giving us access to your world and your life at Lilly’s. Visit the website to learn more about Lilly’s here.
Adele Reding Photography is the creator of these beautiful pictures for our FACES of Louisville articles. For more information on Adele or to see her portfolio, click here.
As Adele said at the photo shoot, “so many major events of my life have been celebrated here,” referring to our trip to Lilly’s. We were positively starstruck.
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