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Taco Punk to cook for Harvest Showcase

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By Christopher Brooke

 The chef and owner of Taco Punk — a Kentucky Proud Louisville quick service restaurant that features locally and responsibly raised farm products — found guidance in his beliefs on healthy food from acclaimed Henry County author and activist Wendell Berry.

So, it’s fitting that Chef Gabe Sowder will serve up samples of his cooking to the public at the 15th annual Henry County’s Harvest Showcase July 26 at the fairgrounds, where all the food comes from local fields and farms and all the arts and crafts from local artisans and crafters.

The Taco Punk booth will cook Henry County farm products — probably beef or pork with vegetables — at the showcase to demonstrate what dishes the East Market Street restaurant in the NuLu neighborhood can create with wholesome foods.

Sowder comes from a fine dining background, including working alongside Chef Edward Lee in the kitchen of 610 Magnolia for about six years, when the radical change in the economy got him thinking about trying something different on his own.

At about the same time, it became more common for chefs to get into other kinds of restaurants like sandwich shops or pizzerias, he said. And a breakthrough happened in the local food movement where greater markets for sustainably raised livestock and produce opened up in Kentucky, making it possible to source necessary ingredients close to home.

“One of the principles of fine dining is to find the highest quality source,” Sowder explained.

His quick service restaurant Taco Punk arose in that environment, designed to provide the best tasting food by offering gourmet, made-by-hand tacos, sauces and salsa in a timely way and at an affordable price for customers.

His at the time four-year-old son provided the name for the restaurant, by the way. Sowder chose it because the name was fun and sounded good.

From May to October, Sowder buys the produce for sides and taco garnishes from a Catholic Charities program where African refugees grow items like squash, potatoes and kale in gardens around the city.

The menu also features locally raised, chemical-free beef and pork, the chef said. He had to source his chicken from Pennsylvania, where he found Amish-raised cage-free, all-natural chicken, meaning the poultry is grown without antibiotics or steroids.

“Pretty much anything we can use locally, we’ll buy it from the farm. Part of that influence was from reading Wendell Berry in college,” Sowder said. “That’s been a guiding principle in what I do.”

So, the chef runs his business in harmony with his personal belief that more people need to start eating and disposing of waste more responsibly.

Besides buying sustainable food and serviceware, Taco Punk composts 1.5 tons of food and recycles 750 pounds a month, he said. The restaurant supports a diet based on more consumption of vegetables and produce with a third of the menu dedicated to plant-based offerings, and it schedules “meatless Mondays.”

Sowder sees it as his responsibility to educate the public about the benefits of good quality healthy food, but he keeps it subtle. 

He lets the restaurant’s menu items open up the possibility of more in-depth conversations on that topic.

For too long, people have seen healthy food as meaning bland food, and the chef wants to change that, too.

“It’s our ongoing job to educate the public on what the value and what the true price of food really is. Our best advertisement is our food,” he said. “Let people taste it and talk about how you can change things one little thing at a time.”

When Taco Punk first opened more than two years ago, Sowder created a flyer proclaiming the food had no artificial fillers or other additives, but he soon decided that seemed like a negative approach. 

“I really don’t think it’s right I have to stick all these adjectives in front of my food.”

He feels that the fast food chains ought to have to admit that their items are chock full of unhealthy things, instead.

“When you sit down at Taco Punk, you get literally a handmade meal that you won’t get at any fast food restaurant,” Sowder said. “That’s what our customers like — it has a quality that the others simply lack.”

Everybody has the right to good, wholesome food, he added.

“The idea was to take this premium elite product, break it out to the public and say, ‘This is everyday food… you don’t have to be a foodie to like it.’”

Sowder looks forward to participating in the Harvest Showcase in Henry County, where one of the authors that influenced him lives.

Berry has been a leader in the sustainable movement for years and many of his works seem even more relevant today, Sowder said. It’s inspiring to Sowder that Berry is still out there providing leadership.

“He’s definitely one of the people in Kentucky who have been a voice of progress,” the chef added. “So, when I was invited on behalf of The Berry Center down to the Henry County Showcase, I was glad to do it.”

Admission to the Harvest Showcase is free.

Activities begin as early as 7 a.m. with a live broadcast by WHAS Meteorologist Reed Yadon and the Henry County Chamber of Commerce Breakfast of old ham and fresh eggs at 7:30 a.m. 

Featured events include the Funky Chicken Contest, a petting barn and livestock exhibit, kids’ games and hayrides, an antique tractor show, a horseshoeing demonstration, the Henry County High School Band, celebrity milking competition, a Mark Twain Chautauqua Performance, a parade of tractors and an antique tractor pull.