Lexington, KY – Your first question might be what on earth am I doing cooking and washing dishes in Stella’s Deli,” said Dr. Paul Evans Holbrook, part owner and “chief cook and bottle washer” at Stella’s Kentucky Deli.
A Ph.D. and ordained Episcopal minister with limited professional culinary experience, Holbrook admits that he is a bit of an unlikely candidate to be in charge of one of downtown Lexington’s most popular kitchens. But the quality of Stella’s fare speaks for itself, and taking a closer look at Holbrook’s life and passions, one might find that his involvement with the deli – with its focus on sustainable local agriculture and its location in a preserved historic building – actually makes quite a bit of sense.
“I have no sense of vocation,” laughed Dr. Holbrook, who celebrated his 60th birthday this year. “My life has been a series of avocations.”
To date, those “avocations” have included strong ties to local historic preservation, with the Bluegrass Trust and Community Preservation committee; academic master’s degrees in theology and philosophy; and roles that have included deacon to various churches, teaching at the University of Kentucky, president of the Warwick Foundation Board of Directors, director of the UK’s King Library Press and honorary fellow of UK’s Gaines Center.
Holbrook stumbled into his partnership with Stella’s after fellow restaurateurs Griffin Van Meter, Les Miller and Aumaine Mott approached him in 2006 to see if he wanted to open an ice cream shop in the vacant space that was once Stella’s Deli. The restaurant evolved from there. Initially, Holbrook said, he kept the menu pretty much the same as the original Stella’s, slowly transforming it so that it was more aligned with the philosophy of supporting local agriculture. Today, Stella’s menu boasts a unique variety of sandwiches, soups, quiches, salads and burgers that utilize Kentucky products, from the meats, cheeses and produce, to the beer and the bread.
Holbrook learned to cook at a very young age, having grown up around a mother and two grandmothers who were great cooks, but his road to the kitchen really began while he was studying theology at Harvard University. As a cost-cutting method, university administration had enacted a new policy wherein students (as opposed to professional chefs) were hired to become the personal cooks for the various deans. Holbrook applied, got the job and spent the next six years finishing his degrees and also cooking for the dean of the school of divinity, a job that he said turned out to be much less “part-time” than advertised.
“I managed it all by cooking my way through Julia Child and Simone Beck’s ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking.’ That and Fannie Farmer’s cookbook got me through it,” Holbrook said. “Of course, Julia lived around the corner and was available for assistance. She was always interested in helping people to learn proper cooking.”
Though he may not have known it at the time, the “proper cooking” job at Harvard helped prep Holbrook for more culinary experience to come. He moved back to Kentucky in 1974 and fell into the avocation of printing with UK’s King Library Press, which was founded in 1956, where he was eventually appointed director. Later in the ’70s, the Bluegrass Trust was looking to raise money to renovate the kitchen in the historic Hunt Morgan House. As part of the fundraising efforts, they proposed a series of after-theater dinners, coinciding with plays at the opera house. Holbrook took the reins in the kitchen, cooking monthly meals with culinary themes that somehow corresponded with the current theater production. The dinners were a smash, and the kitchen was successfully renovated (though Holbrook points out he never got the chance to use it himself). Eventually, he landed a three-year stint making pies for a la lucie, during which time the famed Mary Porter Pie first became popular. The pie, which features chocolate-truffle crust, sliced almonds, toffee, cream cheese, whipped cream and drizzled chocolate, remains a huge hit at Stella’s to this day.
Holbrook’s life with Stella’s has allowed him the opportunity for “endless kitchen experiments,” and also the chance to continue his life of avocations – he has remained an adjunct professor of philosophy at UK for 25 years, continues to perform communion services at many nursing homes, and is still very much involved with the Gaines Center, the King Library Press and Warwick Foundation.
“I guess you could call this my retirement plan,” he said, adding with a laugh, “which means I’ll never retire.”