There’s Southern cuisine, then there’s Kentucky cuisine, and then there’s the Northern Kentucky variation thereof. There are fine distinctions among them that boil down to terroir—the combination of geology, topography, and climate that’s unique to a place—and culture.
“Geographically, being the northernmost city in Kentucky, the ingredients locally are a little bit different,” says Chris Burns, chef of Commonwealth Bistro in Covington’s Mainstrasse district. Compared to the Deep South, he says, “we have a cooler climate and different rainfall, which changes what we have available to work with and what the growing seasons are.”
“And with being on the river,” continues general manager Bryan Harris, “there are a lot more diverse cultural influences in this area.”
All those elements came into play when Burns and his wife, Tess, set out to open Commonwealth. The nearly five-year process involved finding the right spot—two adjoining buildings on Main Street—and honing a food concept based on their roots in the area. Burns tapped Project Gutenberg, the online archive of historical printed works, to browse recipes and menus from the Ohio Valley circa the early 1800s. He discovered a mashup of European, North African, and Caribbean foodways—and those flavors come to modern life at Commonwealth.
Burns thrives on cultivating relationships with farmers and producers across the region, including Carriage House Farm, Sixteen Bricks bakery, Union’s Bloom Farm in Verona, KY, Hill Family Farm in Xenia, OH, and Black Hawk Farms in Princeton, KY (for vegetables, bread, rabbits, chicken, and beef, respectively). Other ingredients, sourced more widely, carry a Southern pedigree, including rice grits (broken grains) from the Mississippi Delta that Burns transforms into a lush risotto.
“Our goal is to cycle out products as seasons change, to remain dynamic and fluid through summer and into fall and then, when we have a notable change into winter we’ll probably do a full menu cycle,” Burns says. “It’s not without its difficulties, but at the end of the day, the product and the relationships that we build are well worth it.”
621 Main St.
Sat: 10am–2pm, 5:30pm–10pm
Sun: 10am–2pm, 5:30–8:30 pm
Bryn’s long career in publishing took a left turn sometime around 2010, when she discovered the joy of food writing. Since then, she’s found professional nirvana as the editor of Edible Ohio Valley, author of The Findlay Market Cookbook, and occasional instructor at The Cooking School at Jungle Jim’s. Find her seasonal recipes at writes4food.com.