Tim Farmer’s Country Kitchen

Tim Farmer’s Country Kitchen

Tim shares about his recent injury and his recent cravings for seafood! Head to Louisville, KY to River House Restaurant and Raw Bar for a classic cocktail and meal of Grouper Cheeks & Shrimp with Crab Risotto and Smoked Shrimp Vinaigrette.

People to know in retail and restaurants: John Varanese

Years in industry: 30

Why did you get into the industry? Much like anyone I knew, I wanted to make a good living and support myself financially. At a very young age, I started cooking. It came naturally to me and I enjoyed it.

By the time I went to college, I had five years experience in the restaurant industry, and therefore, a huge advantage over others in the kitchen. Not only did I want to be creative in the kitchen, I was fascinated by the business of the restaurant industry. It was a great fit for me, and I’ve been pursuing it for over 30 years now.

What role did location play when opening your business(es)? Location played a huge part in all three of my restaurants. I had my eye on the River Road location since 2001 when it was just a boat storage warehouse. I signed an intent to lease that year and went so far as to commission architectural renderings in 2004. But the timing wasn’t right.

The down economy worked against my plans and the financing was not coming through. As a result, I scaled back my plans and opened my namesake restaurant in an old service station on Frankfort Avenue. For eight years, as I built that business, I kept my eye on the River Road property until I was able to develop investors and revisit my dream of opening a first-class riverfront restaurant. It was an ambitious undertaking, and took a strong team, but River House Restaurant and Raw Bar opened this year along with my third concept, Levee at the River House.

More than half of new business ventures fail within three years. How can business owners defy those odds and find success? I am as hands-on as I possibly can be. I think it is important to stay in touch with your business and especially your clientele. I always say if you’re not moving forward, you’re going backward. So learn from your successes and failures, but leave them behind. You should never stop trying to improve, and never settle for anything less than your vision.

What’s the most common misconception about your industry? That the restaurant industry is extremely profitable, and that anyone can open a restaurant.

What’s the five-year outlook for your industry in Louisville? The labor market is over-saturated and it will become more of a challenge for restaurateurs to find workers to sustain the level of quality we enjoy. But I feel the restaurant industry will continue to do well here in Louisville.

River House Restaurant & Raw Bar – A Dream Deferred

We live in a microwave world where most people expect to get what they want immediately. But Chef John Varanese is proof that a little delayed gratification can be just as sweet. Varanese fell in love 15 years ago, not with a person but with a location. It took 15 years for him to get what he wanted, but in March the River House Restaurant and Raw Bar opened on the very spot that Varanese had coveted. That story, from love at first sight to grand opening, had enough twists and turns to fill a romance novel.


River House at Night

It all began in 2001.  Varanese had just left his job as executive chef at Azalea with the goal of opening his own restaurant. Frustrated after yet another potential partnership fell through, he headed to Carrie Gaulbert Cox Park as he often does in times of stress. As soon as he turned onto River Road, Varanese saw the thing that would fill his dreams for the next decade and a half – the former Falls City Boat Works building beside KingFish. There was a “For Lease” sign in the window and he decided to give it a look. The more he saw, the more he liked it.

“I always had a notion that this location would be a gem,”  Varanese explained. “There is no other property I’d rather have. It has all the intangibles a restaurant needs to be successful. It is accessible by all the major freeways. It has 210 feet of riverfront view and 12 boat slips. And it is in the backyard of one of the wealthiest communities in Kentucky.”

River House Dining Room View of River

Varanese had long thought that Louisville underutilized its riverfront dining. He immediately had visions of an upscale seafood restaurant.

Everyone he talked to thought it was a swell concept, but Varanese soon learned that no one was willing to finance a leased property for a young, unproven chef. The bankers advised him to find a space he could afford to buy, and the 27,000 square foot boat storage facility was definitely out of his price range.

River House Dining Room Aerial

Dejected, but not defeated, Varanese accepted a job as executive chef at the Cardinal Club while he searched for the perfect situation for his restaurant. It took about five years. In 2007, he opened his eponymous restaurant Varanese on Frankfort Avenue at the site of the old Red Lounge at 2106 Frankfort Ave. But he still hadn’t gotten that empty storage facility on River Road out of his system. In 2011, after four and a half years of success at Varanese, the young chef decided to make a play for his first love. But even with the reputation he had established by then, it was still a struggle to finance the $4 million project. The whole ordeal would take four and a half more years before he found the right partners and financing.

“It was worth the wait,” Varanese confessed. “There are not many restaurants on this side of the river like they have in Southern Indiana. Captain’s Quarters is good but a bit more casual than what I have in mind. I’m looking to step it up a notch. I’ve always thought this place would be something special.”

Although he’s always been enamored of the location, Varanese’s concept for the River House has morphed over the years. Many of his original ideas went into his Frankfort Avenue location and he didn’t want to duplicate what he already had. The River Road building had 16,000 square feet on the first floor and an additional 11,000 square feet upstairs. Initially, Varanese had considered opening his seafood restaurant and leasing out the other parts of the building to help cover his mortgage payments. However, he found that he couldn’t bring himself to share his beloved riverfront property. Then he thought about having three restaurants in one building, but after much consideration he settled on having two — the River House and the Levee, a more casual companion.

River House Lobster and Octopus

Varanese turned to local architect Doug Karnes, who designed Anoosh Bistro, and Ann L. Swope of Swope Design Group to help him realize his vision. They made the River House look and feel like a true river house. Guests will find a charming “home-like” atmosphere as they enter the space from the front porch garden area. The designers used reclaimed wood from the Germantown Lofts to build the frame of a house, roof included, in the center of the dining area. There is a 20-foot tall by 40-foot wide water wall, and a floor-to-ceiling glass wall overlooking the back courtyard and river. The restaurant also has retractable windows to open the dining space to the river.

River House is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, seating 330 in its main dining room, raw bar and patio. Varanese is handling most of the
cooking until his staff gets up to speed. The building actually has three kitchens: there is the main kitchen for River House, a prep kitchen and a kitchen for the Levee, next to the River House in the same building, serving lighter fare with regularly scheduled live entertainment. Between River House and  the Levee, Varanese is employing a staff of 150.

Future plans include an upstairs banquet area, accessible perhaps with an elevator, that will seat up to 350 guests. Varanese also wants to add more boat slips so he can serve more water traffic. Varanese admits that he sometimes feels as if he is juggling too many balls in the air at once. For the moment, he is merely overseeing the management at his namesake restaurant. Most of his staff there have been with him for years, and he’s depending on them to get him through this rough period.

The River Tower — lobster, jumbo shrimp, oysters on the half shell, colossal lump crab and mussels, with king crab legs
The River Tower — lobster, jumbo shrimp, oysters on the half shell, colossal lump crab and mussels, with king crab legs

“I’ve got a prep girl that has been with me since Varanese opened,” Varanese said. “The chef and bar manager have been with me for years too. They understand that I’m working all day, seven days a week, to get the River House and the Levee off the ground. It’s hard work, but I’m realizing a dream that I’ve had for a long time.”

Varanese has always believed in himself. He got his start in the culinary business at a little mom-and-pop restaurant in his native Cleveland. By the time he was 16 he felt he could run the kitchen better than the adults around him. His next stop was Johnson & Wales University, when it was in Charleston, South Carolina, where he obtained a BA in food service management and AS in culinary arts. During his tenure in culinary school, Varanese worked as kitchen manager for Magnolias, an upscale Southern restaurant in Charleston.

Varanese’s Kentucky and South Carolina roots are apparent in the menu at the River House. The chef sought to keep the menu balanced, but it is really the seafood that is the star of this establishment. The Raw Bar offers the River Tower with king crab legs (pictured on the cover). The dish includes a pound of chilled lobster, jumbo shrimp, oysters on a half shell, and colossal lumps of crab and mussels. It is definitely something meant to be shared.  Another highlight is the oysters on the half shell served with a choice of cucumber mignonette, chipotle cocktail or champagne ice.

Lump crab meat with dijonnaise and warm balsamic butter dipping sauces
Lump crab meat with dijonnaise and warm balsamic butter dipping sauces

The regular menu also features herb-roasted grilled Chesapeake Bay oysters with garlic butter and a blackened rare Hawaiian ahi tuna topped with tomato and ginger chutney and served over a crispy Parmesan grit cake that looks like cornbread. Also tempting are the sautéed mussels tossed in chipotle-lime broth with diced tomatoes and cilantro and served on a grilled baguette; the Colossal Lump Crab Tower, which features over a pound of 100 percent pure lump crab meat served with dijonnaise and warm balsamic butter dipping sauce; and char-grilled octopus served with twice-fried potatoes with bacon-artichoke vinaigrette and roasted garlic aioli.

Salads include a crispy fried avocado filled with a chilled shrimp, lump crab and bay scallop salad. There is also a chilled half-pound lobster stuffed with shrimp, bay scallops, and lump crab served with lemons, capers, and dill on a bed of baby greens and cherry tomatoes.  But meat lovers would enjoy the house-cured local charcuterie with smoked Bourbon mustard, seasonal pickled vegetables and lavash crackers, or the bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin served with butternut squash and goat cheese gratin and a dried cherry, Bourbon-sorghum glaze.

Grilled herb-roasted Chesapeake Bay oysters with garlic butter
Grilled herb-roasted Chesapeake Bay oysters with garlic butter

The desserts include a peach and sweet potato biscuit cobbler with blackberry Bourbon sauce. There is also a chocolate-peanut butter lava cake that comes with vanilla bean ice cream and a tasty pecan praline pie with chocolate and caramel sauce. For guests who like their desserts a little simpler there is ice cream and sorbet, though with some unusual flavors like sweet corn, caramel sea salt, brown sugar and banana.

The things diners won’t find on the River House menu are seafood staples like clams, calamari and crab cakes. “I focused on things I could do well and sort of elevate,” Varanese said. “I’m taking full advantage of Louisville being a UPS hub to get fresh fish from Hawaii and Florida. I made some seafood connections through the years that I will be leaning on for specials But I didn’t want to put a dish on the menu just because it was something that people would expect to see at a seafood restaurant.”

Makers 46 barrel plank smoked salmon with balsamic-glazed fingerling potatoes and lemon-caper aioli
Makers 46 barrel plank smoked salmon with balsamic-glazed fingerling potatoes and lemon-caper aioli

Thus far, the River House has exceeded Varanese’s expectations in terms of revenue and guest attendance. But running two restaurants and supervising the opening of another one leaves him little time to do much else. When Varanese married his wife, Jeanne, a local nurse, in 2013, she knew what she was getting into.

“My wife understands that I’ve been trying to make this work for 15 years,” Varanese said. “I never gave up on this location, and I definitely appreciate it more now that it finally is mine. But I am looking forward to the time I can get a little rest and relaxation with my family.”  F&D

Chef John Varanese on Secrets of Louisville Chefs

Chef John shares some his most popular dishes from River House and Levee,

including the Maker’s 46® Barrel Plank-Smoked Salmon with southern

ratatouille. Also featured are the delicious Crispy Grouper Cheeks

and Shrimp with lump-crab risotto.

John Varanese – Chef & Restaurateur – Varanese, River House & Levee Restaurants

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 2.30.28 PM

Taped Friday, October, 23rd, 2015 – Kirt sits down with chef and restaurateur John Varanese as he illuminates the audience on his culinary journey to financial success.

John obtained his BA in Food Serv. Mgt, & AS in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales Univ. in So. Carolina. While there, he was Kitchen Mgr. for 3 yrs. at Magnolias, a Southern cuisine landmark, where he refined his skills & participated in a creative & financially successful environment. It was soon evident he had quickly set himself apart from other chefs after displaying his accomplished understanding of business finance. While working in Magnolias, he showcased his great ability to control costs while producing very high quality cuisine using only fresh local ingredients!

The next great challenge in his culinary prowess came in 1998 when Azalea, a Louisville restaurant, offered him to be Executive Chef. There he developed his own management style, personality & culinary flair! After 3 years at Azalea, Varanese’s culinary & business skills peaked & he was ready to begin plans for his own restaurant, spending the next 4 years as Exec. Chef at the Cardinal Club.

In 2007-he left Azalea to open Varanese at 2106 Frankfort. Ave. in the Historic Clifton neighborhood. It opened Aug. 2007 to rave reviews with an eclectic menu of New American Cuisine, comfortably seating 150 between its bar, dining room & 4 Seasons Patio. The Patio has a dramatic 20-ft. slate water wall & is enclosed by a serpentine of glass doors, which retract to offer an outdoor dining experience! On Aug. 20th, 2008, to mark Varanese’s 1 yr. anniversary, yours truly helped John cut the ribbon on his new restaurant. Varanese is great for a date or any kind of celebration, hopefully you will check it out!

Today,John is known for his culinary creativity as well as his dedication to local farmers who provide fresh local products in many of his signature dishes. He is even the star & co-producer of his own TV show, “Big World of Food,”educating viewers on the importance of local farms to the food on their tables. More details at www.bigworldoffood.com. He has won numerous awards & has represented KY’s Dept. of Aquaculture 3 years in a row at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off in New Orleans. He was 1 of only 16 chefs in Kentucky to be invited to prepare a special dinner with James Beard chefs from around the U.S. at the World Equestrian Games in Oct. of 2010.

In 2012, Chef John was invited to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in NYC. He serves on the Kentucky Restaurant Association’s Board of Directors, and was President of KRA’s Louisville Chapter. John has been honored as 1 of the country’s top culinary talents in the premier edition of Best Chefs America & named “Restaurateur of the Year” by the KRA. In Aug. 2015, Chef Varanese announced his 2nd restaurant: River House. Part of a 27,000 sq. ft. complex to open in early 2016, located at 3015 River Rd., it will be Louisville’s premier riverfront dining destination & will represent the realization of Chef Varanese’s ultimate dream of opening a Louisville riverfront dining option!

Trust me, I know, I first met John in 2004 over this very same topic of a riverfront restaurant. Not wanting just 1 kitchen to focus on all of River. House, which could diminish consistency of product, in Oct. 2015 a 2nd restaurant was announced: Levee at the Rvr. House. Levee will be offering live entertainment vibes & a completely different menu than that of River House. John & his wife Jeanna, a nurse at Baptist East, reside in Louisville.

Original article available here.

First Look: River House Restaurant & Raw Bar

River House Restaurant & Raw Bar, likely the city’s most ambitious restaurant project this year, is officially open and teeming with business. Its chef-proprietor, John Varanese, calls it the fulfillment of a vision he had for a riverside restaurant when he first came to Louisville more than a decade ago.

“I’ve said for a long time that there’s no great restaurant on the river, no special place to get really good seafood,” said Varanese, who stopped to chat during one of his customary dining room tours.

As regulars at his first restaurant, Varanese, would expect, he was in full uniform, the top of his chef’s coat unbuttoned, an apron wrapped snugly at his waist with a few towels dangling from its drawstring. Unlike some of his peers, he’s never shied away from greeting guests and inquiring about their experience.

“I don’t see us in direct competition with anyone around us,” he added. “I think this is really going to be big.”

That’s an ideal descriptor for River House. Formerly the Falls City Boat Works building, the space spans some 6,000 square feet and seats 250 inside and 125 outside (when its riverfront patio opens in April). Seating will jump 50 percent more when the Levee Restaurant & Lounge, a casual restaurant, bar and live music venue, opens next month.

From the outside, the whole resembles a massive, blue-and-gray dry-docked river cruiser. Inside the design is sleek, modern and industrial, a single wide-open space that, even when chockfull of customers, isn’t loud. A wall of glass facing northwestward toward the river, and smaller windows facing eastward, allow ample natural light to flood the space. While beautiful, the sunset view led some diners to don sunglasses to block the amber glare the night we visited.

The bar is at the room’s center and, according to Varanese, “is the first thing to open and fills up, and the last thing to close here. People love that space.” About 30 customers can perch ’round it for a drink or a snack there if they don’t want a table.

Varanese said he’s frustrated the two-story stone water wall is not yet operating, but he allowed that “you don’t delay opening because of that. It’ll be nice when it’s finally going.” To add to the outside-inside theme, he said a nearly life-size photograph of an ancient tree will be affixed to the wall beside the water wall.

The dinner menu (click here) is ample and varied, featuring selections from a rotating raw bar($3-$70), 12 appetizers ($8-$14), four sandwiches ($12-$16), six salads ($7-$26) and 12 entrees ($18-$35).

Except for the dessert menu, every page is laden with seafood ranging from a tower of lump crab (for sharing) to oysters (raw, fried or grilled) to plank-grilled salmon, crab legs, whole lobster, king crab legs and more.

“There aren’t enough strong seafood places in Louisville,” Varanese said. “We want to change that.”


Four of us shared oysters (broiled and raw), diver scallops (seared), grouper cheeks (fried), octopus (roasted) and ahi tuna (blackened), and all were as impeccably fresh as one can expect from an inland restaurant. The kitchen’s twists of a smoky corn-butter (on the scallops), garlicky aioli (on the octopus), garlic butter and smoldering herbs (on the grilled oysters) and ginger chutney (on the tuna) were flavorful and correctly light-handed. That’s welcome given the tendency of some chefs to over-season, over-sauce and, consequently, overpower any and all seafood’s natural flavors.

After dinner we toured the rest of the space, which includes an elegant separate dining room used for overflow and private events. Should you prefer to dine in quieter environs, consider requesting it. (I like the energy of a busy room as long as it’s not deafening.)

Once finished, the outdoor patio — a concrete strip about 100 feet long — will feature multiple fire pits, high tables for standing and sipping, and tables at which to dine. The grass lawn extending off the patio runs down to the water’s edge, where several battered boat docks remain. Varanese said they will be repaired, but not immediately.

The kitchen is massive, easily one of the largest in town for a restaurant that size. Its capacity will be needed when the Levee opens, and when the second floor banquet space opens a year or two from now.

“I’m telling you, we’ll need everything you see,” Varanese said, pointing toward a freight elevator that will lift food to the second floor. Pointing toward a battery of ovens and burners in another corner, he added, “That equipment over there hasn’t been turned on yet. It’s just for when we need it later.”

Sales in the second week of March exceeded $150,000, more than quadruple a good week at Varanese, he said. It’s entirely possible, he added, to rack up $6 million of revenue in a single year — more than seven times the revenue of an average U.S. independently owned restaurant.

“It’s been crazy so far, especially doing that kind of volume while trying to train people continually,” he said. Adjusting an earpiece and microphone set he uses to communicate with managers in the massive building, he said, “I can’t be running all over the place to talk to people. I need this.”

He admitted River House is a massive undertaking, one for which he’s still struggling to assemble a full staff. He’ll need a complete team soon as warm weather crowds crush in and test the restaurant’s mettle severely.

“Cooks are hard to come by, trained ones for sure,” he said. “Servers, there are lots of them. My (general manager) has let some go who didn’t have the right attitude. … I mean, they’re working tons of shifts and making a lot of money. What’s not to like?”

Asked by one of my table mates when he last took a day off, Varanese responded without smiling, “New Year’s Day.” Asked when his next day off will be, he said, “Oh, Thanksgiving probably. But I’m not complaining. I asked for this. There’s nothing to do now but go forward. I’m just glad to see it come together like it has so far.”


River House restaurant opens on River Road


A brand new restaurant is open for business on the waterfront.

Mayor Greg Fischer joined others Monday to celebrate the grand opening of River House.

The restaurant has expansive views of the Ohio River with inside and outside seating. The menu features regional cuisine with southern flair and an emphasis on seafood.

“I actually had the opportunity to open this wonderful restaurant here on River Road with a beautiful riverfront view. (There is a) southern influence on the food a little bit and the design. I’m actually pulling from Charleston a little bit, where I trained. A little New Orleans feel to it,” Chef John Varanese said.

The River House is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.

Monday’s opening will soon be followed by the opening of Levee at the River House.

hat restaurant will use some of the space in the building on River Road.

City gears up for River House opening

  Mayor Greg Fischer and officials are taking part in a ribbon cutting for the city’s newest waterfront restaurant. River House, located next to the Water Tower, the restaurant is the brain child of Chef John Varanese. The menu features regional cuisine with southe read more

5 questions with chef, restaurateur John Varanese

Louisville isn’t short on good places to eat – and now there’s another one. This one in a former boat-storage facility along the Ohio River, right near King Fish. The chef and part of the investor group is John Varanese, who also owns Varanese Restaurant on Frankf read more

EXCLUSIVE: We go inside John Varanese's new riverfront restaurant

“No major hiccups.” That’s how Chef John Varanese described this weekend, when his new restaurant — called River House Restaurant and Raw Bar — held its soft opening. Our photographer, William DeShazer, was there for the opening, and you can see his pi read more

River House Louisville