As usually is the case these days, the first sign of changes to come at SOU! Southern Kitchen & Bar was a mysterious Facebook post.

It took a muddled minute or three to realize the page was very familiar, but with a makeover. It had been SOU!, now to be rebranded as CASK, and the rest of the story was made public yesterday by Haley Cawthon at Louisville Business First. Later yesterday afternoon CASK revealed July 16 as its anticipated opening/reopening date.

Less than a year in, a new restaurant in Louisville’s East End is changing ownership — and its name. SOU! Southern Kitchen & Bar, an upscale eatery at 9980 Linn Station Road, will reopen its dining room later this month under a new moniker: CASK … SOU opened in a renovated Skyline Chili location in November 2019, and at the time, it was co-owned by Chef James Moran and Ashley Sayler. Sayler said she and her husband Travis bought out Moran’s stake in the establishment so they could adapt to the new reality created by the coronavirus for restaurants.

Chef Moran commented yesterday at his personal Fb page, and his assessment of the situation is amazingly upbeat. 

So I guess the cat is out of the bag! I’m in the process of selling my ownership to my business partner Ashley Sayler. During these uncertain times I truly felt like this was the smartest business decision for me and my family! Back to the drawing board but don’t blink because something new is coming your way! Thank you to the SOU! staff who jumped in head first with me through this process, I’m forever grateful! Also big shout-out to everyone who came to support SOU! and took to my expression! I’m truly nothing without my staff and the support of the community! I am not associated with CASK in any way and wish the new owners all the best!

Acknowledging these changes, and wishing the rebooted restaurant all the best, it bears reminding that Food & Dining Magazine’s most recent quarterly issue hit the streets in early March, just days before the pandemic food service shutdowns. COVID-19 caused us to cancel our Summer 2020 issue (the Fall edition is on schedule, and will appear prior to the rescheduled Kentucky Derby). 

My feature profile of SOU! from four months ago suddenly reads like science fiction, or perhaps alternate reality, focusing as it did on James Moran’s culinary career.

When our staff assembled on Sunday, January 26 for Dan Dry’s photo shoot, Moran let it be known that the dishes he was preparing to be photographed would be complete, fully cooked and ready to eat. As things were being set up, bartender Grant Williams looked up from his phone and told us Kobe Bryant and his daughter were dead after a helicopter crash. 

I’ll never forget that.

Not only did we eat, but we ate gloriously and voraciously, and the plates were cleaned. I came close to licking some of them. People like to say it’s business, not personal, but we all know there are times when it’s awfully hard to be dispassionate and objective, and for me this is one of them. 

Let’s remember that CASK Southern Kitchen & Bar begins life on July 16, and is fully deserving of consideration and support as a fully-formed food and dining venue.

This stretch of Linn Station Road shows signs of becoming a pocket indie haven, with Moya’s American Kitchen across the pond on one side of CASK, and Brownie’s “The Shed” Grill & Bar just up the street on the other. 

And, as a form of tribute to what came before, following is my “director’s cut” text of the SOU! profile from March. It should match the eventual layout closely, which you can view at issuu.

PROFILE | SOU! Southern Kitchen & Bar
Over the course of his 25-year career, Chef James Moran has become known among insiders as a Chef’s Chef. Now, with business partner Ashley Sayler, his restaurant SOU! is wowing Louisville diners.

A smiling Chef James Moran asked, “so, how can we make our steak frites original?”

We were seated at SOU! (“so you”), his new restaurant on Linn Station Road in the East End, discussing ways to reinvent an 8-oz hanger steak.

“We went Korean on them. I didn’t think people would take to the Korean flavor profile, but now it’s our top seller.”

And the frites?

“For the umami fries I take shaved bonito tuna, nori, mustard seeds, tons of dry spices. We toast them, blend it up and get a spicy, kind of fishy, crazy seasoning. It’s like upscale hot fries.”

Moran’s hanger steak frites is accented with a beef fat aioli boasting expressive gochujang chili paste, and pineapple brown sugar tamari. It comes garnished with pickled carrots, watermelon radishes, cilantro, basil, fresh lime, olive oil and sea salt.

“Let those beautiful herbs and ingredients speak for themselves. That citrus salad’s going to cut through all the spice, all that brown sugar, and balance out the dish.”

This, in a nutshell, is James Moran’s toolbox.

A Hands-On Partnership

SOU! opened last November in Plainview, serving a menu variously described by diners as New American, Southern and Korean-influenced, although as culinary orchestrator, Moran gets the last word.

“At the end of the day, it’s food cooked with love. When you think SOU!, just think food cooked with soul. It’s food for your soul.”

Moran shares SOU!’s soul with business partner Ashley Sayler, with whom he worked at Sullivan University.

“James was the executive chef and I was director of sales,” said Sayler. “We worked really well together. I asked him one day, ‘what do you want to do?’ He said, ‘I want to own a restaurant’ and I said ‘let’s make it happen.’ Fast forward two years, and here we are at SOU.”

Start-ups need capital, and the partners found their shared dream also required elbow grease, learning curves and sheer willpower. “We did it on our own,” observed Sayler. “No investors and a lot of uncomfortable learning.”

“There was a long time when I thought, when do I get my chance?” added Moran. “Then we connected. The investors finally started coming, but we said no, we’re going to do it ourselves.

“Now her house is on the line, my house is on the line. I have a four year old, she has a new baby coming. We stepped out of our comfort zone, and now we’re standing on our own two feet.”

“We do everything hands-on,” Sayler added. “I handle all 30, 40 of our vendors and all business avenues. James also does the ordering. He mops the floors at night!”

“Everything from deck brushing to spraying cleaning, the bathrooms, we do it,” concluded Moran. “There’s a certain level of pride. I’m proud of her. I’m proud of myself for stepping out on that limb.”

A Chef’s Chef Comes into His Own

Moran’s culinary identity is dualistic. He possesses a poised rationality and self-confidence borne of lengthy experience in top area kitchens like Sake Blue Japanese Bistro, 8UP Elevated Drinkery & Kitchen and the Pine Room (among others), with three James Beard House appearances. Conversely, he is serene in describing his work with words like heart, soul and love.

Louisville’s kitchen collective obviously gets Moran, who might well be the city’s consummate “chef’s chef,” earning seemingly universal endorsements. In the preface to his former boss Anthony Lamas’s book Southern Heat, the Seviche founder praised Moran as his “right-hand man” and “Asian brother.”

Ian Hall, operator of The Exchange and Brooklyn and The Butcher, hired Moran as consulting chef for Longboard’s Taco & Tiki (since closed).

“He is the most polished and professional chef I have had the opportunity to work with over my 25 year career in the restaurant industry,” Hall wrote via e-mail. “He knows 100% what he wants to achieve, but his biggest strength is humbleness as a chef, and his willingness to teach and develop young cooks. A true mentor.”

Moran has kept self-promotion at arm’s length, flying just beneath the radar during his two decades in the restaurant business. SOU! aims to change that. It’s the culmination of a thoughtfully planned journey by a chef whose perspective is expansive.  

From Korean to Cajun to College

SOU!’s story begins in Seoul, birthplace of Moran’s late mother. “I was raised in 100% Korean culture, and I lost my father when I was two years old,” Moran said. “The OCD, the military, the cleanliness, the organization — everything that Korean culture pounded in my brain, I took it and applied it to food. Attention to detail? I just added it to my repertoire.”

After a job as a Logan’s Roadhouse meat cutter, Moran began serving at Micki’s on Main, a fine dining/Cajun/Creole-accented restaurant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he was attending Western Kentucky University. He’d have preferred cooking, but the servers made better money. 

One Friday evening the sous chef and grill cook both walked out. “I hopped back there and started cooking,” remembers Moran, “and the owner said, ‘Why aren’t you in the kitchen since day one?’ Well … because of only nine or ten dollars an hour.”

Immediately Moran inherited the sous chef’s job, and subsequently replaced the head chef. Keenly focused even then, he knew it was only a beginning: “I wasn’t a chef. They would call me ‘chef,’ and I would correct them, and say no, I’m just the kitchen manager. I hadn’t earned that title ‘chef’ yet.”

Moran was sent to New Orleans to learn about roux, stocks and soup (“soaking in what Cajun Creole was all about”), and his shrimp & grits appetizer at SOU! is a throwback to those early days.  

“We do it Cajun style with seared Andouille sausage, blackened shrimp, tons of aromatics, oregano, garlic, cumin, coriander, cayenne smoked chipote – really aggressive, with local Weisenberger grits and a kind of chili chow chow with pearl onions, pickled mustard seeds, pickled corn, pickled fresno chiles. They cut through that richness and round out that dish. We finish with crispy leeks for texture.”

Eventually Moran moved back to Louisville to begin his “earning” process with a culinary degree at Sullivan University. While there, a career epiphany struck him. According to Sayler, “he still talks about it all the time.”

“I tell my young cooks that you’re going to have the epiphany, whether it be sooner or later, and when it happens, it’s such a beautiful thing.”

In 2011 Moran’s last class at Sullivan was Advanced Techniques, taught by Chef Instructor David Moeller.

“He (Moeller) would ride me, and I thought he had a chip on his shoulder, that he didn’t like straight-A students on the dean’s list. But what he was doing was humbling me.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘you don’t know everything, and if you did, you wouldn’t have paid this much money for an education. You need to humble yourself and remember why you took this journey.’ Everything started to click, and I knew that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Moeller remembers, too, sharing his thoughts in an e-mail.

“(Moran’s) gifts go far beyond culinary skill. James has always been one of the most professional and positive people I have ever known. In addition, he tends to bring the best out of those around him. Although I was his instructor, I was inspired by James to be the best Chef Instructor I could be.”

The Soul of SOU!

Soul cannot be seen, touched or calculated. Soul is intangible, the non-physical essence of the individual. It encompasses feeling, energy, desires, affections and appetites. For Moran, soul has a practical application to cooking in the form of umami – or in Japanese, “deliciousness.”

“Umami is a flavor profile, Moran explained. “You’ve got sweet, salty, acidic, bitter and umami. But the best way I can describe umami as a flavor profile is … soulful. I was exposed to umami at an early age. Korean cuisine is nothing but umami, so I fell in love with those deep, earthy flavors.”

SOU!’s two best-selling appetizers are crispy Brussels sprouts and crispy cauliflower. Both reflect Moran’s fluency in Asian traditions, as paired with vegetables from closer to home.

Moran said his sprouts embody “southern meets Japan,” combining earthy black garlic and nori for an umami vinaigrette bomb, then adding charred herb aioli, cilantro, scallions and puffed togarashi (a chili-laden Japanese spice blend).

“Our aioli isn’t just mayonnaise mixed with flavor ingredients. We actually do an emulsified sauce with egg yolks and fat, whether it be beef fat, pork fat, oil or garlic oil. Everything is made in house.”   

Moran’s crispy cauliflower is “Chinese meets southern,” with “a homemade hoisin glaze made with local sorghum, a sesame peanut crunch and pickled Fresno chilis.” 

SOU! needed bricks and mortar, and the building chosen by Moran and Sayler, long dormant and accordingly affordable, once housed a Skyline Chili franchise. A tongue-in-cheek SOU! house cocktail called the Three Way pays homage. The building’s configuration as a restaurant made financial sense, but why put down roots in the East End, which tends to be overlooked when it comes to independent restaurants?

“There’s a lot of potential and a good demographic here,” said Sayler, observing that while the Hurstbourne Parkway corridor remains populated primarily by chain eateries, indies like Brownie’s The Shed thrive close by. Added Moran, “we want to be a part of revitalizing the area and creating a buzz (with) a chef-driven concept.”

Emerging after a comprehensive and sensible repurposing, SOU! offers comfortable, uncluttered dining space. The bar is a u-shaped island in the middle, with a long, inviting row of upholstered banquettes beneath large northwest facing windows. In one corner, two rows of four-tops are arranged as community tables, suitable for parties and overflow seating.

Kitchen Matters

The kitchen at SOU! is completely open to view. Diners can sit at a counter (the “Chef’s Table”) and see directly into the eatery’s nerve center.

“You don’t get any closer to the action than right there, beamed Moran. “They get to smell it, see it, hear it. I get to interact with the guests. They see that we’re not chewing gum, we clean our kitchen, our cell phones aren’t out. They see we take a certain level of pride and professionalism in what we do. Our chef coats are ironed. We don’t look like slobs. It’s a level of professionalism that we’re going to carry.”

Diners also see quality control passing straight though Moran.

“I touch every dish that comes out. I finish every dish, I season every dish and put the finishing touches on it. My chefs can focus on cooking the proteins, making sure the temperatures are perfect, the modifications, everything else. But every plate that comes out, I touch.”

“Five things you’ll always see on any one of my dishes,” he continued, “are texture, acid, balance, presentation and flavor. They help me create and not overthink. As a young chef, you want to put more, (but) another epiphany was when I broke down food and understood that less is more.”

As an example, SOU!’s pork chop. “It’s as southern as you can get,” offered Moran, citing sorghum in the mustard glaze and sorghum berries puffed “like little popcorn.” An untraditional Hoppin’ John accompanies the pork chop: savoy chard, savoy cabbage, bacon lardon and black eyed peas.

Moran’s chicken and waffle entrée begins with a pan-seared airline chicken breast and bourbon maple glaze, plus smoked butternut squash puree. “There’s a hash with brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, toasted almonds, and currants, topped with crispy leeks. The waffle is an ancho-chipotle scallion waffle made in house. It’s sweet, spicy and salty; smoky from the squash puree, beautiful colors, tons of texture.”

SOU!’s Verlasso salmon is innovative, with Moran conjuring a coconut milk habanero curry sauce with crème fraiche made from Yuzu, a Japanese citrus. The side is a hearty vegetable quinoa: zucchini, edamame, spinach and onions.  

Our interview was ending, and Moran was off to prepare for the evening service. I asked Sayler if it’s ever too soon to be planning a restaurant’s future. “That’s where I come in,” she replied. “I’m the planning side.” Some of the plans being pursued are for interior décor finishes, weekend brunch, an outdoor patio, warm-weather events, and charitable outreach projects. 

Was there anything else? I feared that all the food chat with Moran had unfairly excluded Sayler.

“That’s okay,” she said. “I told him to do the talking.”