By AMANDA BEAM
LOUISVILLE — For the average restaurant patron, the words ‘fine dining’ most likely remind them of crisp white tablecloths, individually prepared dishes and an exotic menu that’s probably out of their price range.
Chef Gabe Sowder wants to change this common perception of high-end eateries, and he’s using his cooking expertise coupled with one of America’s favorite foods, the taco, to accomplish it.
“I was always really disappointed that in fine dining you make this really awesome great food, but only a certain class really gets to eat it,” Sowder said. “So my idea was let’s take a lot of these principles of fine dining but apply them to fast food.”
A year ago, Sowder transformed his idea into reality when he opened Taco Punk on East Market Street, now known as Louisville’s NuLu district.
The 1993 Jeffersonville High School graduate combines fast service, local high-quality ingredients, classic cooking techniques and environmental awareness around a common taco theme.
But the product itself is anything but ordinary.
“We’re changing the game, so to speak, in that for a long time fast food has been associated with a very low-quality product. What we’re trying to do is take the situation of having a very casual, fast-service style, but on the food end keeping the food quality just as high as you would find at a fine-dining restaurant,” he said.
Sowder didn’t always aspire to be a chef. At Wabash College, he majored in English with hopes of becoming a writer. When the writing market didn’t quite cooperate, he realized working in restaurants could allow him to travel the nation while keeping cash in his wallet.
“During college, I had started working at restaurants and figured out it was a pretty good way to earn money for one person. With a decent set of skills, you could end up in any city in the United States,” Sowder said. “When I realized the more skills you acquire the better you are — the better pay you get — it just naturally progressed that I had enough skills to be a chef.”
Deciding not to attend culinary school and rather to learn by first-hand experience, the college graduate traveled around the U.S. including Michigan, Oregon and Arizona. At the latter two, he studied techniques from other chefs that he employs in his restaurant today.
After returning to Louisville and marrying local metal sculpture artist Dana Androit, Sowder spent eight years at renowned chef Edward Lee’s 610 Magnolia, where he served as chef de cuisine. In January, 2012, he opened his first venture, the name which his 5-year-old son Ezra helped originate by calling his dad a “Taco Punk” during a wrestling match.
Don’t think Taco Punk is your average fast food joint. Sowder purchases most of his meats and vegetables from local vendors and makes everything from scratch daily using cooking techniques normally seen in fine-dining establishments. Orders are specially prepared while patrons wait ensuring individual tastes are considered. Throw in an allergy- and vegetarian-conscious menu with no additives or preservatives and people really can see how the restaurant differs from other traditionally speedy eateries.
“What you end up getting is a really balanced flavor and a very high-quality product that’s ultimately very customizable to people’s taste,” Sowder said. “We’re giving the consumer a lot of power in choosing what they want.”
And then there’s the green aspect of Sowder’s business that sets it apart. Each month, Taco Punk composts more than 3,000 pounds of waste. All the service ware — napkins, plates and cups — are biodegradable. In addition, employees recycle almost everything else used in food preparation, an act that saves close to a thousand pounds of trash from being added to landfills every month.
“We have a very aggressive waste program,” he said. “Consumers are really responsive to that. It’s a very attractive thing now for people to have really, really good food, but food that makes you feel good too.”
Likewise, Sowder also participates in programs that help the community grow. Charitable organizations are invited to benefit nights in which 25 percent of food sales are donated to them. He’s also heavily involved in helping local refugees by hiring employees from that population as well as purchasing produce from their community garden spaces. On average, Sowder said he pays all his workers 20 percent more than the industry average.
“I’ve had guys come in from construction, a lot of musicians and artists people like that who are good with their hands and work well,” Sowder said. “I train them and turn them in to good cooks.”
So will Taco Punk expand to other areas anytime soon? Sowder said, when creating his business, he designed it to be a multilocation enterprise. With the rise of health-conscious fast food growing on both coasts, the Louisville area should see an increased expansion of this variety of restaurant regardless.
“It’s definitely on the table for Taco Punk to expand to other Midwestern and Southern cities,” he said. “It’s a definite possibility.”