March 21, 2017

Take the middle fork to a Kentucky Proud meal

From Kentucky Department of Agriculture
Lexington restaurant is planning a program to support local farmers

Mark Jensen, right, owner/executive chef of middle
 fork kitchen bar, and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles hold
Kentucky Proud pumpkins from Stonehedge Farm in the fall of
2016 that Jensen used to make fire-roasted candy pumpkins.

In a world where many owners list their businesses and products in capital letters to draw attention, Mark Jensen has a different philosophy. It’s no typographical error that middle fork kitchen bar breaks a grammatical rule by preferring its name written entirely in lower-case letters.

“I suppose the lower case name is simply a reminder to stay humble, to not draw attention to the business,” said Jensen, owner/executive chef of the Lexington restaurant, “but to emphasize the process of our cooking and hospitality.”

Jensen isn’t comfortable with describing his Kentucky Proud restaurant as “farm to table.” He feels that should be the role of every restaurant.

“What it [farm to table] means to us is we have a relationship with producers, and they have a relationship with the land, so we’re one step from being with them on the farm,” Jensen said. “A great deal of our proteins are sourced locally, so it puts a face on our food.”

Kentucky Proud sources that middle fork uses include:
  • beef from Black Hawk Farms near Princeton,
  • produce from Creation Gardens in Louisville,
  • lamb from Four Hills Farm near Salvisa,
  • cheese from Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese near Austin,
  • eggs and garlic from Missing Link Farm near Lawrenceburg,
  • produce from Papania’s in Louisville,
  • produce from Stonehedge Farm near Versailles,
  • pork and poultry from Sunwatch Homestead near Lancaster,
  • produce from Boyd and Reid’s orchards near Versailles and Owensboro, respectively, and
  • produce and meats from numerous vendors at Lexington Farmers’ Market.
Jensen said other small farmers and foragers also make weekly stops by the kitchen when their crops are in season.

The chefs at middle fork cook their Kentucky-grown and -raised food in a wood-fired grill fueled by a number of local woodsmen.

Like many Kentucky Proud restaurants, middle fork’s main menu remains fluid.

“We rework the menu as the weather changes and as we get access to more and more variety,” Jensen said. “The big menu changes four or five times a year, and a third of our menu changes weekly.”

Jensen called being a member of Kentucky Proud “a comforting feeling belonging to this group of like-minded food professionals.”

The name "middle fork" refers to the middle fork of the Elkhorn River that runs behind the restaurant, also called Town Branch. Lexington was founded along its banks in 1775.

“It was a good opportunity to put a sense of place of where we are,” Jensen said, adding that “fork” is also “a nod to my earlier beginnings as the operator of a food truck called [also lower case] fork in the road.”

The restaurant is located at 1224 Manchester Street inside the former Pepper Distillery, whose high ceilings make the space unique.

“When you walk into the restaurant, you can feel the thoughtfulness and the history of the craft that has gone on here at the Pepper Distillery,” Jensen said. “It’s as if we’re standing on the shoulders of the great people that worked here before us. And once you have that feeling, it’s easy to design your space with that history at its heart.”

With few walls and a highly visible open kitchen, diners can watch Jensen and chef de cuisine Greg Spaulding create their dishes.

“We really like to be transparent in what we do,” Jensen said. “We don’t want to be opening up cans of this and that when we purport to be Kentucky Proud.

“If turnips are on our menu, you will see a farmer in muddy boots walking in, and you will see us washing and preparing the real thing.”

The bar at middle fork also stocks a large selection of spirits from Kentucky.

Jensen is planning an ambitious program to support local farmers.

“[We’re] searching for a food and farm-based charity to begin a benefactor program,” he said. “We’re not sure how this will exactly play out, but something along the lines of 20 cents per check or dinner or plate will be set aside for a local charity that is doing great work in the fields of food, farms, and food education.

“We very much want to do more to support our farms and farmers,” Jensen added, “and educating and bringing our diners along with us is a big goal.”

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