Local chef turns to crowdfunding, community gardens and collaboration for new Covington eatery

COVINGTON, Ky. - Chris Burns has a laid-back look and a manner of calm that belies the enormity of the project ahead of him. He speaks with fluid measure; his full and gentle voice coating every word.

Burns, a local chef, has been in the restaurant business for 14 years. He got his culinary education at Scarlet Oaks and Sullivan University, and trained with Jean-Robert de Cavel at JeanRo Bistro. 

Burns eventually became the chef de cuisine--a position only second to the head chef--and honed his skills under Jean-Robert for six years. 

"Chris always wanted to do his best, and he worked hard," Jean-Robert recalled. "He was a young man who had the desire to open his own place and make a difference.”

It's about to happen: The Anderson Township native is on the cusp of "opening his own place," Commonwealth Bistro in Covington, and he is asking the community to help.

Bringing community to the table

Burns is seeking $25,000 through the popular crowdfunding website, IndieGoGo.com, to complete construction on a space on Mainstrasse. He has through December 30 to reach his funding goal. Burns has been planning his restaurant for two-and-a-half years. Although he has secured funding for the restaurant from a number of sources, he's turning to the community for this final phase. 

“The crowdfunding part of the Commonwealth allows the community to be directly connected to our success,” Burns said. “We’re blessed to know people in the community who want to see us succeed, and we wanted to provide an outlet for people to take ownership of their locally-owned, locally-sourced new restaurant.” 

Contributors will receive exclusive incentives and updates leading to the restaurant's debut.

Growing collaboration

The aptly named Commonwealth Bistro captures Burns’s philosophy of integrating the common good of the community into the restaurant operation. Burns will source his ingredients locally, from Mainstrasse’s very own community gardens as well as from area farms. 

“Helping to get the community garden off the ground, so to speak, was a special way that my wife Tess and I could take ownership in the community. Many people helped form the garden; its creation was due to a grass roots community effort,” he said. 

Burns intends to make a positive impact on his future employees through “individual learning plans," like development opportunities in their respective areas of interest as they grow with the restaurant.  

There are several community gardens in and around Mainstrasse, one of which is located behind the Commonwealth Bistro. Mainstrasse chefs like Stephen Williams (Bouquet) and Paul Weckman (Otto’s), have worked to shape the community gardens as a source for local restaurants.

Williams got to know Burns through their work on the community gardens, and he’s looking forward to having Burns’s restaurant in the neighborhood. 

“Paul (Weckman) and I have a symbiotic relationship. We’re always sharing stuff and I expect the same will be the case with Chris (Burns),” Williams added.

Serving up local fare

Commonwealth Bistro will offer was Burns calls “homespun contemporary farmstead cuisine, featuring the best produce, dairy, meat, poultry and handcrafted artisanal products the region has to offer.” 

Burns is still developing the menu but did reveal some of the items he plans to serve:

  • venison tartar served with Boone Creek bleu cheese tater tots
  • house-prepared charcuterie
  • corn pudding
  • braised winter greens
  • Kentucky fried rabbit 

Since chefs are known to communicate through food, I asked Burns what he is saying with an offering like "Kentucky fried rabbit."  Burns explained that rabbit, alongside venison and goose, are meats that are common to the region.  

"There are a number of rabbit and goose farms in the area," he added.

As for the play on Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burns said with a chuckle, “Let’s have some fun: Don’t take me too seriously.” 

Burns is no stranger to innovative cooking techniques and tools. He plans to house hi-tech cooking equipment on the second floor of the restaurant. 

On the list is the immersion circulator, an an electrically powered device that heats and circulates fluid in a vessel, with precise temperature control up to one tenth of a degree. 

His kitchen will also feature a Cryovac® machine, used to seal and package food under vacuum. 

Vacuum-packaged food slow-cooked in an immersion circulator are often praised for yielding unparalleled tenderness and full flavor.

Putting down roots

Having lived in Covington with his wife, Tess, for a number of years, Burns is intent on staying. 

“Mainstrasse offers a unique flavor you just don’t get anywhere else," he said. "Covington allows you to have that urban vibe, with a hometown feel."

Burns wants to continue playing a part in Covington’s ongoing revitalization. Commonwealth Bistro is breathing new life to the 160-year-old building it occupies.

“We pretty much

bought this building at the court steps," Burn said. "It was a foreclosed property which had been vacant for a while.” 

Jean-Robert echoes the appeal of the location.  

“It is a very good location, and will definitely make a good destination,” he said. 

Kim Blank, the executive director of the Mainstrasse Village Association, is “super excited” about the Commonwealth Bistro. 

“It is a nice complement to the really good restaurants we have,” she said. She added that the location of Commonwealth Bistro, south of Sixth Street, will help draw people further along Mainstrasse. Blank added that Burns reminds her of the owners of Bouquet and Otto’s. 

“They are residents who love the area and ultimately chose to have a business where they live,” Blank said.

Old and new

As a homage to his former boss and workplace, Burns will be installing chairs and table bases at his new restaurant which once graced JeanRo Bistro. 

He bought them some time ago with the intention of weaving some history into his new venture. Burns also managed to incorporate an antique wooden ladder into the design of the restaurant bar. He salvaged the ladder from the basement of Nicola's Restaurant when it was remodeling.

As Burns and I talked, the construction crew hammered away to get the new structure "gift wrapped" by the end of the day to shield it from the elements. A short distance away, an open pit waits patiently for its transformation into a restaurant kitchen. 

Burns cannot wait to debut the Commonwealth Bistro in January 2014. 

"Community, to us, means supporting and celebrating Covington’s authenticity."

Connect with contributor Grace Yek on Twitter: @Grace_Yek

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