Imagine laboring away in a hot, noisy commercial kitchen, slicing, dicing, and sautéing, when you get word that you’ve been named a semifinalist for one of the most prestigious awards in the restaurant business. Think of the Academy Awards, but for food.
“It’s definitely a bit of a shock and a surprise,” says Sam Fore, owner of Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites in Lexington. “I have been cooking around the country for last two years and I guess I didn’t realize who I was cooking for.”
Fore joins fellow Kentuckian Isaiah Screetch of Spark Community Café in Versailles as nominees for Best Chef in the southeastern United States. The annual honor is given by the James Beard Foundation, a national non-profit organization named for the legendary chef and cookbook author that recognizes excellence in the food and hospitality industries.
So it’s ironic that Fore doesn’t actually have a traditional restaurant background or brick-and-mortar location for her customers. The self-proclaimed marketing nerd-turned-chef earned her reputation doing catering jobs and pop-up restaurants in temporary locations in Lexington and around the nation.
“My cuisine is the love child of Sri Lanka and the South, much like me,” she jokes. “I’m Sri Lankan woman who was born in Kentucky, raised in the south, and these are the foods that I grew up eating.”
When Fore serves up a platter of fried chicken, it’s seasoned with the curries of South Asia. Her shrimp and grits get a special silkiness from the addition of coconut milk. She makes a mean southern barbecue, but instead of the usual pulled pork, she uses an Asian meat alternative called jackfruit. She avoids the word “fusion” to describe her cuisine, preferring to describe it coming from her heart and upbringing.
“This is all me,” Fore says.
Her parents came to the United States in 1972 after her father received a visa for medical professionals. Once he completed his residency in Cincinnati, the family settled in Lexington.
“My parents came to this country with $50 in their hands and made life for all of their kids,” she says.
After college in Boston, Fore and her husband settled into careers in the tech industry. For fun, they would host lavish brunches for families and friends that featured foods from her childhood blended with dishes more common to the American south and to Appalachia, where her husband has his roots.
But their lives turned upside in 2014 when her husband got cancer. Once he went into remission, they decided to reassess their lives. Fore admitted she hated her marketing job and decided to give food service a try starting in 2016.
Given the financial risks involved, she resisted telling her mother and father about her new career path.
“My parents don’t come halfway around the world for me to be a dud,” says Fore.
But as her business grew, and her reputation spread, Fore says her parents realized their daughter had found a way to share her heritage and culture with the world.
“I’m honoring my family, and a lot of my best recipes are based on what my family made,” Fore says.
In addition to her travels (she worked the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo., last year and recently did a pop-up dinner in Los Angeles), Fore is planning a physical location in Lexington for her food. Instead of a traditional, sit-down experience, Fore says she and her staff will offer counter service only. She hopes to be open for business by the end of the year.
“I have had a very beautiful, unexpected journey into the food world,” she says. “Hopefully the team can make great food for Lexington [and] create something that our town can be really proud of.”
Food for the Body and the Soul
Isaiah Screetch has a more traditional food service pedigree. He started working in restaurants in high school in Danville, and then after a brief stint at Amazon got a job at Keeneland as a line cook. He spent 11 years at the track, doing service during the regular racing meets and catering special events the rest of the year.
That experience has been crucial for Spark, a café on Main Street in Versailles that specializes in locally grown produce and meats. The eatery proclaims that it offers food for all, but with no strings attached. Those who can afford it, can pay full price or more. Those without the means pay what they can or volunteer their time in exchange for a free meal.
“Our biggest mission is that we want to be able to take care of those that are less fortunate in our community,” says Screetch. “We want to feed your body and also we want to nourish that soul.”
Since opening in 2019, Spark has donated more than 50,000 meals to needy individuals. The café’s pay-what-you-can model can be challenging to sustain in the best of times, but after struggling under COVID-19, Screetch says Spark was on the verge of closing. That’s when he proposed the idea of adding a catering service to help subsidize the café.
It was a good decision. Screetch says this past December alone, Spark did $60,000 in catering jobs. Because that work is so labor intensive, Screetch says they must limit the cafe’s hours to 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays with a menu of sandwiches, salads, and pizzas.
“We have to do that so that we keep ourselves available for all of the other catering gigs that we get that are keeping us running, that keep the lights on, that keep us being able to give back and feed the food insecure,” he says.
Although some people may think Spark is a glorified food kitchen that serves poor and homeless individuals, Screetch says they are dedicated to providing the same level of service and high-quality food to anyone who walks in the front door. He is also committed to supporting the local economy by purchasing vegetables, fruits, and beef from local farmers. Screetch says they’ve paid more than $47,000 to area producers over the last three years.
“I know where my food is coming from, I have had contact with that farmer just that morning,” he says.
Despite the long hours and the struggle to make ends meet, Screetch says he continues to be drawn to Spark because of its mission, the farmers they patronize, the customers they serve, and the people who work there.
“I had one guy that worked there today, and he looked up and he said, ‘Thank you for providing a great place for people to work and for us to come and be able to enjoy each other,’” Screetch says.
The winners of the James Beard Foundation restaurant and chef awards will be announced in June in Chicago.