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Culinary students bring international flavor to Bottle & Bond

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By Peter W. Zubaty, Sports Editor

The gleaming new Bottle & Bond kitchen at Bardstown Bourbon Company opened to the public last week with a menu full of down-home Southern-style favorites.

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But the kitchen itself features an international flair, with 20 culinary students primarily from South Africa, as well as India and The Philippines and other countries, here to learn under the tutelage of Felix Mosso, the renowned former executive chef at the famed Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

“I’m so excited to learn more,” said Lianti Blignaut, who hails from Durban, one of South Africa’s largest cities. “I’ve already gained a lot of knowledge. It’s so much fun learning new skills and stuff from other chefs from other countries. And then I’ll be able to take it back home to teach new chefs who are starting their careers, so we can acknowledge every chef around the world and not just in your country.”

It’s a common theme among her group.

“Usually the students are so motivated — extra-motivated,” said Mosso, who has been teaching future chefs and hospitality specialists through the U.S. State Department’s J-1 visa exchange visitor program for more than 20 years. “They’re the pick of the crop.”

Garnett Black, BBCo’s vice-president of Hospitality, Tourism and Community Outreach, went overseas to conduct interviews with more than 100 potential students from culinary and hospitality schools in their home countries. She was struck by the passion and enthusiasm for their craft that the students display.

“This is their passion — to serve people,” she said. “They have a servant’s heart and an inborn kindness.”

The students will spend a year in Bardstown working under Mosso, giving them hands-on experience preparing a number of Southern specialties, such as fried chicken, beef brisket and others, while also learning how to incorporate bourbon flavors into their dishes.

“They come with their own palates,” Mosso said, but they are “willing to try all of our flavor compositions and how they play together.”

Chandre Arends comes from Johannesburg, another of South Africa’s largest cities, with an urban area with nearly 10 million people. She was thrilled to be selected for the program, and has found the experience at Bardstown Bourbon Company a welcoming one, where the students are treated like a family other than just a stable of workers. She’s looking for ways to meld Kentucky cooking with that of her homeland.

In South Africa, “the food, it’s very traditional, (and) it’s got different types of flavors,” Arends said. “Here it’s going to be more of a different feel, a different culture, American culture. And I want to be a part of it.”

Abaleng “Abi” Moragoshele says that there are some big differences in the foodways between Kentucky- and Southern-style cooking as opposed to her homeland of Botswana. While butter, cheese and lard in heavy doses are common in meal preparation in Kentucky, it’s not something she sees at home, where the meals tend to be healthier.

“We don’t like greasy foods,” she said. “We like greens, we like fresh foods from the fields.”

Lehlohonolo “Iggy” Matlala, who grew up in a small town in South Africa, but later moved to the city, said there are many differences in the cooking styles, but that he’s interested in figuring out how he can fuse the two together and perhaps expose his country to a taste of Kentucky.

“It’s almost completely different from what we do,” he said, but he has a wry smile when revealing that he’s already come up with some new recipes. “I’m going to keep that a secret, though. Something’s been cooked up already.”

A big part of the program is the students’ immersion in another culture, and the accompanying cultural exchange. The J-1 program tends to funnel participants toward hotels and restaurants in large metro areas across the United States.

“When it comes time for them to return to their native countries, they will be ambassadors for bourbon, Bardstown, and the state of Kentucky,” Black said.

Coming to small-town Bardstown has been a culture shock for some, but not for Moragoshele, who comes from Gabrone, the capital city of Botswana, which sits just north of South Africa. Gabrone has a population about the size of Lexington.

“Kentucky looks more like my home village where I’m from,” she said. “It’s quiet. I like the fact that it’s quiet. There’s not too many people. … And the people are nice.”

Blignaut, whose hometown of Durban has a metro area of more than 3 million people, has joined along with her new friends to take in the sights and scenes around Bardstown.

“I’m enjoying it so far — Bardstown’s very lovely,” she said. “And it’s a small town. I’m not used to this small.”

So far, the restaurant has been booked steady, and reservations are highly recommended. Kim Huston, president of the Nelson County Economic Development Agency, welcomed Bottle & Bond as a “game-changer.”

“We have an opportunity to have another amazing culinary experience that this time is associated with our growing industry of bourbon here,” Huston said. “This is going to bring us national recognition in the culinary world out there.”