People We Love: Chef and Restaurateur Kenny Bowers

Kenny Bowers (photo by Kevin Hunter Marple)
Kenny Bowers (photo by Kevin Hunter Marple)

The idea of wearing a suit everyday, making a ton of money, and exerting minimal energy sounds pretty appealing to most. Then there’s chef/restaurateur Kenny Bowers. He preferred to trade in that lifestyle for a chance to play with his food without judgment and a minivan with his face on the side.

Bowers is proving that stepping over the edge to do what you love combined with a little quirkiness creates a recipe for success. The native New Englander, who brought us Kenny’s Wood Fired Grill, Kenny’s Burger Joint, and Kenny’s Italian Kitchen, recently tacked on Kenny’s Smoke House to his empire. I met with him at the restaurant to pick his brain a little.

Jacie Scott: How did Kenny’s Smoke House come about?

Kenny Bowers: For the last 25 years, I did a lot of seafood. I did new American stuff at the Wood Grill and Italian. In New England and Boston, there’s no barbeque. So, when I came down here, I was fascinated with it because I didn’t know anything about it. I really became kind of obsessed with it.

JS: What kind of feel are you going for with this restaurant?

KB: I don’t want to do barbeque cafeteria style, like it’s traditionally done. I want to do barbeque in a modern, sort of upscale environment with cool music, full bar and full service with kind of a rounded menu. I think the hardest thing for us was trying to articulate to people that it’s going to be a different kind of a deal.

JS: Yea, the Jackson 5 playing in the background is a nice touch! What dish at the Smoke House do you recommend trying first?

KB: The brisket is great, but if I had to pick one thing I’d say the beef ribs. Beef ribs have become, definitely, one of our most popular items. A lot of people don’t do beef ribs because they’re difficult to deal with. You have to cook them for a long time, they’re expensive, and you don’t get a lot of yield. It’s not a real profitable item, but it’s like, you know what? It’s not all about the profit. It’s about putting out a great product. And when they come out on the plate, it’s huge and it’s just great.

JS: What would you say was the hardest thing for you to master?

KB: Brisket was, out of all the things that I’ve ever cooked in my life, probably the most difficult thing that I tried to do. It’s an inexpensive cut of meat, and it needs to be cooked for a long period of time. I’ve been obsessed with brisket for years. I had basically thrown in the towel, and this was way before we even were going to do this place. I was like, “You know what? I just don’t like brisket.” I had tried it many different ways. Then one day, magically, I made brisket, and it was really, really good. But, the problem is, I was hammered! So, I was like, “Is this really good because I’m hammered? Or is it really good because it’s good?” I took time and made it over and over again to where I felt like I could produce it fairly consistently.

JS: And it’s on the menu now as Kenny’s “Hammered” Smoked Brisket. Any other drunken creations?

KB: Uh, gosh. There are so many stories. Oh! The Midnight Meatballs. When I was working on Italian food, I was like, Ok, I got to start getting my recipes. I grew up with Italian food, so it was easy for me to do. Our Italian place isn’t like super high end. We’re a simple southern Italian-American place. We have a really good, I call it, red sauce, and I felt like we’d make a really good meatball. Meatballs are one of those things that can be really, really good or really, really bad. So, I would leave the Wood Grill, and I’d probably get home around 9 or 10 o’clock at night and I’d start making meatballs. If you’re making Italian food, how could you not drink wine? Sometimes it was too much wine or just the right amount. Sometimes I’d have too much wine to where I couldn’t read my own handwriting! But again, it was one of those things where I kept making them over and over again like every single day until I felt like I was close.

JS: Would you say that you are a superstitious person?

KB: Yes. I’m pretty superstitious about certain things. Every restaurant that we have, there’s a Chinese prosperity cat in it. For every restaurant we open, we get a cat. They don’t like to be disturbed. Once they’re put in a certain place, I always tell people, “Don’t f*** with the cat.” I’m superstitious about that. Um, I never walk under ladders. There’s probably a million. I get scared easily, like loud noises. If I could guess what I was in prior life, I was probably like Scooby-Doo.

JS: What do you love the most about your job?

KB: Hmm. What do I love most? You get to eat well. No, honestly, all kidding aside, we’re in the business of showing people a good time and making them happy. Not just through the food. To me it’s really gratifying when somebody comes in, and maybe they haven’t had the best day. But, they walk out happy. That’s really gratifying.

Jacie Scott is a D Magazine intern from Monroe, La. The 21-year-old attended Louisiana State University and graduated in Mass Communication with a concentration in print journalism last May. She’s a lover of all things sports and LSU related, and in her spare time she dances in stars and rhinestones.