Known for its booming bourbon scene and horse races, you may not think of Lexington, Kentucky, as a sought-out destination for south-of-the-border fare. But step into James Beard Foundation Award-nominated chef Jonathan Lundy’s fresh and feisty restaurant, Corto Lima, and he may just change your mind.
Opened in 2017, Corto Lima is a local favorite for innovative Latin-inspired food like red chile-rubbed rock salt chicken, tamales made from house-ground masa, and rich refried beans kept warm in miniature cast-iron skillets. With playful patterns and eye-catching light fixtures, the airy atmosphere is inviting, and thanks to Jonathan’s attention to detail, the menu’s fusion of flavor offers a taste of something different.
A born and bred Kentuckian, Jonathan grew up with grandmothers and great-aunts who would cook up crispy fried chicken, buttery skillet cornbread, green beans, and biscuits on a regular basis. “We’d have Sunday [supper] at my grandmother’s house,” Jonathan says. “It was a lot of country cooking, and we’d all sit together around the table for the meal.”
But this creative chef wasn’t always a fan of food. “I didn’t really take much interest in cooking when I was young because I was a pretty finicky eater,” Jonathan recalls. But thanks to the help of a family friend, he dove headfirst into the restaurant scene at the youthful age of 19—a decision that would help him find his passion. Jonathan moved to New Orleans and began working under legendary celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse just one year after the opening of his famed restaurant Emeril’s.
“I had no experience, but he allowed me to go in there and just do basic things,” Jonathan explains. “He was a very strong, serious chef who cooked in front of the guests almost every night. I spent about eight months down there learning everything that I could.”
With Emeril’s help, Jonathan soon enrolled in Johnson & Wales University’s prestigious culinary school, where he learned the ins and outs of cooking. After graduation, he returned to his Kentucky roots, a move this nonconformist never saw himself making.
“I didn’t embrace Southern cooking,” he says. “I wanted out. I wanted to do something different. But when I came back, I really finally got it. I started to embrace where I came from.”
With an eye for opportunity, Jonathan opened his first restaurant inside the former Gratz Park Inn. Jonathan at Gratz Park was an upscale Lexington eatery where the chef could experiment with and elevate down-home country cooking into reimagined fine-dining classics, a concept that was new at the time. Jonathan’s spontaneity brought excitement to the menu and melded unexpected flavors into incredible dishes.
I KNOW HOW TO COOK, I KNOW WHAT TASTES GOOD, AND I KNOW MY AUDIENCE, WHICH I THINK IS REALLY IMPORTANT – Jonathan Lundy
“I just went into the kitchen and took the ingredients and ideas of Southern cooking and made it my own,” he says. “I would often start with an idea for a dish, be it a random ingredient or a finished plate. Then, I would work to get there.”
With menu standouts like pot stickers regionalized with country ham and bourbon soy sauce, or the classic Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich re-created into a dish with sea scallops, Jonathan’s blending of international and Southern flavors resulted in success. But, a restless chef at heart, Jonathan closed the restaurant in 2014 to pursue a different kind of cuisine that would soon be at the heart of the most talked-about eateries in the city—Corto Lima.
“The first food that ever really got me going was Tex-Mex,” he says. “I love corn, I love masa, I love tamales.” And it’s his love for the cuisine that keeps the restaurant’s ever-changing menu consistently delicious.
Importing corn from Mexico, Jonathan spends hours each week grinding the partially cooked corn into fresh masa that he turns into richly spiced tamales filled with barrel-smoked pork carnitas or tacos topped with spicy shrimp and jalapeño aïoli.
“There’s not a lot of rules in my head, so I just make it up as I go along,” Jonathan says. “I know how to cook, I know what tastes good, and I know my audience, which I think is really important.”
And whether he’s searing savory spiced hanger steaks or keeping creamy queso blanco and refried beans piping hot on restaurant tables, Jonathan turns to cast iron.
“The heat retention is incredible,” he says. “The hardest part about using cast iron in a restaurant is making sure people treat it right, but many of these cast-iron pans are the same ones I used at Jonathan. They’re the only pieces that I brought with me.”
At Corto Lima, Jonathan plays by a different set of rules—or really, by no rules at all. By constantly borrowing flavors and ingredients from varying parts of the world and combining them into brand-new meals, he has found his playful niche in the kitchen, and it’s this creativity that diners have come to expect and crave with each and every bite.
- 1 (2-pound) hanger steak
- 3 tablespoons Cacao-Chili Rub (recipe follows)
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- Tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, and pickled onions, to serve
- Place steak on a plate, and season all over with Cacao-Chili Rub. Cover and refrigerate for 1 to 4 hours.
- Preheat oven to 350°.
- Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil. Sear steak on both sides until a meat thermometer inserted in thickest portion registers 135°. (Steak will be medium rare.) If steak is not up to temperature before
outsideis browned, place in ovenfor 10 minutes or until it reaches 135°. Remove from skillet; let steak rest for 10 minutes before slicing. Serve with tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, and pickled onions.
- 1 cup cacao nibs
- ¼ cup ground fresh coffee
- ¼ cup ground ancho chile pepper
- 2 tablespoons firmly packed light brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1½ teaspoons ground coriander
- 1½ teaspoons fine sea salt
- 1½ teaspoons ground black pepper
- 1½ teaspoons granulated garlic
- 1½ teaspoons ground fennel
- ¼ teaspoon ground allspice
- In the work bowl of a food processor, place cacao nibs; pulse about 10 times. Purée until nibs form a paste on
bottom. Transfer to a large bowl; using your hands, break apart any clumps. Add all remaining ingredients, and rub spice mixture with your hands to thoroughly incorporate.
- Return spice mixture to
foodprocessor, and purée just until a smooth, well-blended texture is achieved,about 2 minutes. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 months.