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    Adam Burress traces his culinary lineage to an unlikely beginning. “On my 16th birthday, I got hired on at Taco Bell, and it was the best job I’ve ever had,” he says. It didn’t take long for Burress to begin tinkering with recipes the taco chain had likely designed to appeal to the widest swath of tame American palates. “I was like, ‘Dude, this tastes like shit,’” he says. If a formula called for one bag of rice and one bag of seasoning, he’d add twice as much of the latter. “I started over-seasoning all their products,” Burress says. “There was this one couple that came in all the time, and they said, ‘Dude, there’s something about this Taco Bell. It’s the best.’”

    Ostra's pickled deviled eggs with smoked salmon and chicken skin.

    Fast-forward 16 years, and now the former rogue Taco Bell cook is an accomplished chef and co-owner of the Louisville restaurants Hammerheads, Game, Migo and Ostra, his latest, which opened on Frankfort Avenue last summer in the building that was once Maido and, more recently, Barcode 1758. The menu features Pacific-inspired seafood, hearty South American-style dishes, locally sourced vegetarian options and desserts using ingredients like bee pollen and crickets. “Being in this industry illuminates certain aspects of how food is created,” Burress says. “It moved me to open this place with a code to be as small-footprint as possible.”

    The 32-year-old eschews labels, both personally and professionally. Though he adhered to a mostly vegan diet for five years, he avoided branding himself as such. He casually refers to his longtime partner and the mother of his two-year-old son as “my lady.” And he deflects when asked to classify the type of cuisine he creates. “I don’t like to label anything we do,” he says. “We just cook.” The furthest he’ll go in characterizing his food is to call it “fusion,” a term that’s applicable to all his restaurants.

    The process of creating Ostra’s menu began with devising a list of sustainable proteins. The result is a lineup that leans heavily toward seafood. “You won’t find cow on my menu,” he says, “or any factory-farm animals.” But you will find rabbit, wild boar and duck, as well as insects, which, Burress says, are “one of the most sustainable and nutrient-dense things you can put in your body.” “Ostra” means “oyster” in Spanish, and the bivalve is a natural fit on the menu from an environmental standpoint, as cultivating oysters purifies the sea. The fact that Burress considers them the perfect food is an added bonus. “I love oysters more than anything,” he says. “When I eat an oyster, it’s like an antidepressant.”


    The restaurant's name is derived from the Spanish word for "oyster."

    When Burress was growing up in Oldham County, pizza and fast food were dietary staples. “Nobody in my family really knew how to cook,” he says, “and if they did cook, it was just covered in cheese or butter.” The one exception was his paternal grandmother. Burress recalls helping in her massive garden by picking beans off the stalks, which she’d then use to make “killer green beans” stewed in a pot with potatoes and tomatoes. But those visits were infrequent and, Burress admits, not fully appreciated at the time. “I didn’t really start getting into food until my teenage years, when I started smoking weed,” he says. “All my friends would be over at my house and it would be munchie time, so I’d have to cook for everybody.” He enjoyed the challenge of using random ingredients — like, say, sauerkraut and mayonnaise — to create concoctions his friends would devour.

    Following his inaugural restaurant gig at Taco Bell, Burress took a job washing dishes at the now-defunct Westport General Store, northeast of Louisville. One night, when the restaurant was slammed, chef Harold Baker (who later cooked at Gary’s on Spring, also defunct) asked Burress to chop vegetables. Soon after, Burress was promoted to line cook. “Every single day, (Baker) fluffed my ego. He’d say something like, ‘Wow, Adam, nobody cuts like that!’ I would think, ‘Why are you high-fiving me so hard for a chopped onion?’ But he was just that kind of guy, and he inspired me to continue,” Burress says.


    Ostra’s style combines industrial elements with soft touches.

    He went on to attend Sullivan University’s culinary arts program, where he and a few other students were tapped to help open Blu Italian Grille (since closed) at the downtown Marriott. From there, he did stints at Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse and Seviche, where he spent five years under chef Anthony Lamas. He worked his way up to sous chef and was in charge of nightly specials. “These specials were selling out. They thought it was Anthony creating them, which was fine,” Burress says. “Ultimately, the knowledge I derived from the situation was that I know how to cook, and that people will buy it, will eat it and will love it. There was no ego involved. It just gave me the confidence to do it myself.”

    Kinilaw (coconut citrus, chile and toasted peanuts) and the Double Dare cocktail. Ostra's cocktails are named after old Nickelodeon cartoons.

    In 2010, Burress took a chance by opening his own restaurant with longtime colleague Chase Mucerino. They’d met at Sullivan, and Burress considered Mucerino to be his only friend in the industry responsible enough to run a business. “I was lacking that myself, so together we made a complete machine,” Burress says. The duo found the perfect dive for lease in Germantown, and their flagship restaurant, a smokehouse and barbecue joint called Hammerheads, was born. “Hammerheads took off right from the get-go,” Burress says. “We had never even cooked barbecue before, but when you have a certain understanding of the manipulation of food, you can pretty much cook anything.”

    In addition to Hammerheads, the team now owns and operates Game, which specializes in exotic and wild game meats, and Migo, which serves Latin-inspired small plates and tacos. “I make the rounds at the other restaurants every day, in a comical sense: ‘Hey, you guys need anything? No? OK, peace out,’” Burress says. “They see my face every day, but they don’t need me.” Despite achieving success at all three restaurants, there was a time when Burress considered selling his share of the businesses. Several years ago, he had transitioned to a mostly vegan diet, and he had an ethical crisis. “I had evolved to a point where I wasn’t OK with what we were doing. That’s when we started to source things more sustainably,” he says.

    “You gain insights into where all this stuff comes from, and if you’re not moved by that, there’s something wrong with you, dude.”

    When asked about the prospect of opening additional restaurants, Burress says he has no current plans. But, he adds, “I’m a true entrepreneur at my core and possess a fluid path, so who knows.”


    In addition to Ostra, Burress also owns Hammerheads, Game and Migo.

    As the dinner rush begins at Ostra on a recent Friday evening, a flip-flop-clad Burress chats with a few staffers in the dining room. Most of his work at Ostra takes place in the afternoon, when he cranks up the music and cooks, testing out new recipes and nightly specials. “Once my staff gets here, I just bullshit with them and it’s hard to get anything done,” Burress says.

    Burress opened Ostra with two new partners — Mike Brady, a local event planner, and Chris Derome, former bar manager at Seviche. The trio hired interior designers to help decorate but ultimately ignored most of the advice and followed their own instincts, with a little help from the internet. Burress sought inspiration on Pinterest, which is where he got the idea for wicker-basket light fixtures that cast a warm glow in the dining room.

    Ostra’s style combines industrial elements, like polished concrete floors and charcoal-colored walls, with soft touches like velvet-cushioned benches and colorful throw pillows. It’s all DIY, including the striking, jagged-edged marble and granite tabletops. “The tables are dope,” says Burress, who mentions how they procured the marble slabs from a company that was going out of business. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with it,” he says, “but I knew it wasn’t garbage.”

    My husband and I are seated at a marble two-top. The dining room is already buzzing at 6 p.m., and the dozen or so seats at the bar are all taken. Our server recommends trying one of the restaurant’s oyster dishes, which include a version served with truffle ponzu, and one with kale goat cheese and jalapeño Mornay. She’s enthusiastic about the menu, saying things like, “Cultivating oysters actually cleans the ocean.”


    Ostra's cricket brownies are made with cricket flour and bananas, topped with candied crickets and mealworms.

    We decide to forgo the oysters until our next visit and instead start with the kinilaw, a Filipino-style ceviche prepared with coconut citrus, chile and toasted peanuts, and the pickled deviled eggs with smoked salmon and candied chicken skin. Both dishes are equally stunning and delicious, and they make for a light but flavorful start to our tapas-style dinner. Next, we share rabbit empanadas and wild boar gemelli, hearty items that are perfect counterpoints to our starters. The golden empanadas are flaky and filling, and the gemelli pasta is decadent, made with aged Gouda and cream. The pasta comes with grilled balsamic bread that we finish despite being uncomfortably full.

    Our original plan was to end the meal with cricket brownies, but instead we order them to go. The generous portion includes four slices made with cricket flour and bananas. Two are topped with candied crickets, two with candied mealworms. Back home, our kids are thrilled when we offer to share dessert. Their demeanor changes when we open the box. Dressed in footie pajamas with a cupcake print, our five-year-old daughter declines, despite a serious sweet tooth. Our eight-year-old considers it a dare. After counting down — three, two, one — he takes a bite of the mealworm. “It’s good!” he says. “It tastes… nutty.” When tasked with tasting the candied cricket, however, he pauses, then says, “It’s got a face.” Once all insect evidence is removed, the four of us enjoy the rich brownies topped with shredded coconut and a drizzle of icing.

    Burress acknowledges that insects don’t necessarily taste great — “You’re not going to get a mouthwatering effect from eating a bowl of bugs” he says — so you have to get creative in the preparation. “More people eat bugs globally than don’t, and I think we should all start to evolve on that,” he says. “I’m not saying to replace all your protein meals with bugs, but incorporate some bugs into your life.”

    Cricket brownies are a good place to start.

    This originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Outdaring at Ostra." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Jessica Ebelhar, jessicaebelhar.com

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