Two years ago, chef Joseph Hewett opened Indigo Duck, a down-home French-style bistro just off the courthouse square in Franklin. The Charleston, South Carolina, transplant who honed his skills in Indianapolis at Oakleys Bistro chatted with us about his grandmother’s cooking, small-town life, and the addictive qualities of pimiento cheese.
Julia Spalding: Are these dishes that you grew up eating?
Joseph Hewett: My grandmother was from North Carolina. I grew up eating a lot of really great southern food, but she was a remarkable cook.
JS: Are there any techniques that you learned from her?
JH: I tell you, I have the best fried chicken around. She imparted a lot in me—probably more finesse than anything else. Ingredients can be the same across the board, but the finesse and the finishing are where things really come together.
JS: There is a lot of creativity in your dishes—a lot of imagination in the presentation and the combinations of foods.
JH: I’ve had the good fortune to work for some fantastic chefs who really held my nose to the grindstone as far as being the best.
JS: You have something on your menu called Pate of the South.
JH: It’s pimiento cheese.
JS: Does that dish have special meaning to you?
JH: Pate of the South actually came from one of my mentors, Louis Osteen. He was classically French trained. In the south, we have chicken liver mousse and stuff like that, which is a little fancy but at the same time rustic. This was his play on something more serious, like a liver spread. You take grated cheddar and Parmesan with diced pimientos. There’s a little bit of sour cream, some cumin, and a little bit of cayenne. It gets whipped in a mixer, and the end product is a nice spreadable cheese.
JS: You see versions of that at different restaurants, but I don’t think anyone else is gutsy enough to just call it pimiento cheese.
JH: On my next menu, I’m going to downsize it a little bit, so that it’s a snack portion for people sitting at the bar. It’s, you know, cheese and crackers. If you’re getting ready for a meal and you don’t want something too heavy.
JS: It’s a good snack.
JH: There you go.
JS: Who is your clientele?
JH: We have a decent following from Franklin. We have a huge clientele from Columbus. And Indianapolis. We’ve really been embraced by all points. It’s kind of a destination restaurant.
JS: Was it a leap of faith to open a restaurant like this in a small town?
JH: It was. I cooked at a restaurant here in town called Richard’s Kitchen, and I had a decent group of people who were pretty loyal to me. I had a vision of this place when my wife and I moved here, but I didn’t exactly have all my ducks in a row, so to speak. It took me 13 months from when I took possession of the space to when we opened. But I had a pretty good feeling that we would be successful.
JS: How often do you switch out your menu?
JH: It’s seasonal, so within each season I change it at least twice. In the summertime, I probably change it four or five times.
JS: What dishes are on the menu year round?
JH: The she crab soup will be here forever. The avocado pancakes. Shrimp and grits. And I have a hot bacon salad that I think would cause an uprising if I took it away. It’s a big bowl of fresh spinach with grilled apples, bleu cheese, onions, and boiled eggs. The dressing is basically brown sugar and mustard. It’s kind of sweet-and-sour bacony goodness.
JS: When you come to Indianapolis, where do you eat?
JH: R Bistro and Oakleys Bistro. I worked for Steve [Oakley] when I first moved to town. If I’m out for a drink, I go to Libertine. Bluebeard is a pretty cool place, too.