Dennie Humphrey says that last year he was in a dark place, a pit. “I lost my soul; it was eating me up — this business does that to you,” he says. Humphrey, the owner of the Monkey Wrench — a bar on the border between the Highlands and Germantown known for its nine-year history of all-genres-welcome live music, for Gonzofest (an annual celebration of Hunter Thompson) and for its tropical vacation-vibe rooftop deck — says he felt stagnant and needed a change. “Ten years ago, you could put neon signs up and you had a chance,” Humphrey says, as he pours mimosas at the bar at noon on a Saturday — the Saturday of Thunder Over Louisville and the week before his 42nd birthday.
While a menu has existed since day one, food had always been an afterthought. You’d never find yourself saying, “God, I’m craving a (fill-in-the-blank) from the Monkey Wrench!” Not until Humphrey met Dustin Staggers, 32, last fall. Staggers had been working as head chef at 60 West Bistro and Martini Bar and was running a tax-lien business, but he says that he wasn’t excelling at either. The two men, both divorced and down on their businesses, bonded over their struggles and their passion for Louisville and food. “I might have said burgoo and he said cast-iron skillets,” Humphrey says of the brainstorming session that led them to a “contemporary hillbilly” concept that includes Kentucky-style dishes such as butter beans and fried chicken, a tribute to Humphrey’s Hardin County heritage.
Though their focus is on the home-style menu downstairs, they unveiled a separate rooftop menu in mid-April that includes the Spanish flavors of Staggers’ Tampa, Fla., upbringing. “As I got older, I started to realize how similar Spanish is to Vietnamese,” Staggers says. “They have an alarming amount of the same ingredients.” Other influences on the upstairs menu include Puerto Rican, Cuban and Japanese. “I started Googling the dishes I’ve created and they don’t exist,” Staggers says, referring to the five-spiced lemongrass chicken empanadas and the tamarin-and-cilantro charbroiled Dungeness crab.
Staggers began visiting Louisville in 2005 or so, then decided to move here three years ago. “Every time I came, I loved it more,” he tells me. Chef de cuisine Jose Ivaldy walks out from the kitchen with a spoonful of potato salad for Staggers to approve. The crew is having a Thunder cookout later today — not at work. “Where else are the GM, owner, chef and sous chef all gone at the same time?” Staggers says, adding to his reasons for loving Louisville.
“You know within four months if you’re here forever,” Staggers says. “My mom said, ‘You’re not going to come home for Thanksgiving?’ I said, ‘No offense, Mom, but I am home.’”
Humphrey says he’s seen the demographic change since opening almost a decade ago, and that the new menu has added another dimension. “My friends now come in with high chairs and we can have a sit-down dinner,” he says. “I had to rip my dorm room down and grow up.”
The burgoo ($7), which the menu describes as “Rabbit, Mutton, This is Kentucky so You Definitely Know the Rest,” comes with butter-soaked cornbread. “Food around here, for the most part, is contemporary American: Jack Fry’s, Marketplace. I love those and have mad respect for those,” head chef Dustin Staggers says. “People are cooking local food, but not food that locals grew up eating.” He’s quick to credit some of his favorite burgers from around town but isn’t humble about his own creation, the Monkey Wrench Burger ($9, top right), made of ground sirloin, skirt steak and brisket, house-cured black-pepper bacon, fried spicy pickles, pickled red onions and Creole mustard aioli on a Nord’s Bakery bun, served with house-cut French fries.
The mutton ($15, left) comes soaking in barbecue sauce, and the fried chicken ($14, top left) is butter- and flour-basted in an iron skillet. Both go well with collard greens ($4) and grits ($4). Each “side” is more than enough to share.
Staggers owns a tax-lien business that his brother now handles, allowing Staggers to cook without pay — his conditions being that the other chefs get paid well and that he has full control of the menu.
Humphrey and Staggers were recently inspired by a Nashville spot called Monell’s. “A bunch of men in hockey jerseys sat next to a family at the same table,” Humphrey says. “One of the men asked a 10-year-old kid if he could pass the potatoes.” The owner-chef duo has started hosting “down-home Sundays” with family-style dinners at a communal table and no menu. Their catch phrase is “reinventing the art of Southern hospitality.”
This article appeared in the May 2014 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit Loumag.com.
Photos by Chris Witzke