Bottle & Bond graduates first international culinary class

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By Kacie Goode

When David Mandell started Bardstown Bourbon Company five years ago, he never expected to host a graduation ceremony for international culinary students, but that’s precisely what took place Monday night at the distillery’s Bottle & Bond Kitchen and Bar.

Sixteen culinary and hospitality students recently completed a year of study at the restaurant, which opened to the public last June. The students, many of whom are from South Africa, came to Kentucky as part of the J-1 visa program, which allowed them to live in the U.S. for 12 months while taking part in in-depth training opportunities. In those 12 months, Mandell said, the students have made an impact on his business.

“You are now tightly woven into the fabric of the company and our history, and you should be so, so proud for what you have accomplished,” he told the students during Monday’s ceremony. “You stepped into an uncertain environment and you worked side by side with us and our local team to make all of this happen, and to make us one of the most exciting culinary experiences in Kentucky and soon to be the United States.” Bottle & Bond is more than just a restaurant, Mandell said. It is the foundation of the brand.

“If the distillery is our heart, then Bottle & Bond truly is our soul,” he said. “You helped us form that soul and that will never be forgotten.”

While in Bardstown, the culinary students spent the year working under the direction of Executive Chef Felix Mosso learning to prepare a variety of Southern specialties and incorporating bourbon flavors into their dishes. The hospitality students also worked with the company as servers, and took part in classes where they learned how to run a business, take inventory, work with bourbon and wine and more.

During Monday’s ceremony, the students received a certificate as well as reference letters for future employment. Some have plans to go into business for themselves.

“My mom and I are planning to have a small business, like a coffee shop, when I go back,” said hospitality graduate Danielle La Torre.

Others will look to work in other restaurants and companies, and continue their studies.

Garnett Black, vice president of operations, said there are about 1,600 J-1 students in the state, with many hotels in Louisville and Lexington using the program. In his years as a chef, Mosso has worked with dozens of J-1 students, but Monday’s graduating class was the first to study at Bottle & Bond.

“In my opinion, of the 1,600 that came to Kentucky, we have the best,” Black said of the local group. And when she traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa to recruit new students, Black said there was already an interest among many candidates to come to Bardstown.

“Even in South Africa, they know who Bardstown Bourbon Company is and they know the town of Bardstown,” Black said. “That’s how big an impact our J-1 students have.”

For Chef Lerato Lekgwara, entering culinary school and coming to Kentucky for a year took a tremendous leap of faith.

“I was a lawyer before, and my parents were like, ‘Why are you doing this crazy thing?’ ” Lekgwara said. “Everybody thought I was insane to come here.”

But she had a gut feeling it would lead to an experience that would be life-changing, and she was right, she said. Taking part in the program, Lekgwara was exposed to the culinary industry in a unique way and was provided the opportunity to learn more than she ever anticipated.

“I don’t know if Felix, Garnett and David will ever know the impression they have had on my life,” Lekgwara said. “Every success from here on is because they gave us a head start. It’s a chance and I’m going to run with it.”

As the 2019 graduates pursue other adventures, the next class of students will start arriving this spring. Black said the goal is to have 24 students in the next group.  

2019 culinary graduates 


Lianti Blignaut

Vuyiswa Sipoko 

Lerato Lekgwara        

Debra Moyo                  

Chandre Arends        

Abaleng Moragoshele    

Caroline Mabiza        

Refilwe Motlhabi        

Siphoesihle Khumalo   

Legae Legalatladi        


2019 hospitality graduates


Sandile Mkhulise    

Tshegofatso Inno        

Mary Ann Mejica        

Karen Genovia        

Danielle La Torre       

Vijaya Chekuri