New American Soul Food Restaurant Opens In Jeffersontown
Writer / Jessica Able
Photography Provided by Kriech-Higdon Photography
SOU! owner and Chef James Moran’s earliest memories of the kitchen are standing with his mother peeling garlic, trimming scallions and tasting bulgogi beef — moments that shaped his palate and his future.
“I was the chubbiest little Korean kid,” he says. “We did a lot of cooking, my mom and I, whether it was making dumplings together or egg rolls.”
Moran and his business partner Ashley Sayler, opened SOU! (Pronounced So-You), a restaurant near Plainview focused on New American soul food cuisine, in November. In that short time, they’ve built a robust menu that ranges in both flavors and cultural influence.
“I wanted something that kind of touched into my culture. My mother is from Seoul, Korea. That piqued my culinary interest,” he says.
Moran was heavily influenced by Cajun creole, southern cooking and Asian flavors. The mix is his version of soul food made with fresh ingredients from local farmers.
“When you think of soul food, it’s not just shrimp and grits and chicken and waffles, which we have,” Moran says. “But it touches different cultures’ soul foods as well. We have a pork belly appetizer with kimchi braised greens and Korean barbecue. We didn’t want to just limit ourselves as an Asian restaurant or an Indian restaurant or a clunky soul food place.”
The influence of Moran’s mom, a single mother from Korea, is evident in the nuanced flavors he tries to extract in the open concept kitchen. With his mother’s passing in 2016, he’s tried to honor her memory with his dedication to the food he prepares. He keeps a photo of the two of them next to his ticket printer in the kitchen.
“Those memories of our time in the kitchen I cherish a little bit more,” Moran says. “You tend to not forget because those memories are all I have left. They are so detailed, so realistic. I hold those memories near and dear to my heart.”
He’s translated those vivid recollections of food into a vibrant menu. Guests can choose from a variety of appetizers ranging from crispy Brussel sprouts with black garlic nori vinaigrette, charred herb aioli and togarashi puffed grains ($11) to pan-seared scallops with Jerusalem artichoke, bacon fat leek and apple ($17). Entrees include a Black Hawk Farms KY burger with pimento cheese and bacon onion jam ($17) and 8 oz. hanger steak with umami fries served with beef fat gochujang aioli and a pineapple brown sugar Tamara alongside a citrus herb salad ($31).
The 3,500 square foot restaurant located at 9980 Linn Station Road seats about 85 people. About 18 of those are seated around a bar situated in the middle of the space. Another couple dozen of seats are around two long community tables and a chef’s table where guests can dine while watching the open kitchen in action.
Moran describes the vibe of the space as “comfortable, approachable, not stuffy at all.”
“I like to have nice music playing,” he says. “It’s kind of a chill, relaxed environment with the food and cocktails being a little more elevated. You would be in place in jeans and a t-shirt or feel at home with a suit if you are coming in after work.”
Sayler says they wanted to create a “cool experience for guests,” something different than any other restaurant in town.
The location — in an old Skyline Chili building — in Jeffersontown was intentional. There are not many chef-driven restaurants in the east end, without traveling about 20 minutes to Norton Commons or head over to Frankfort Avenue.
“We looked at Old Henry Road and Middletown but didn’t think the area was ready for what we wanted to offer. We wanted to stay in the east end and tap into a demographic that we think will really enjoy SOU!,” he says.
Moran adds that he has seen a lot of restaurants come and go in the area but he’s hoping that his unique flavors and dedication to quality will lead to a different outcome.
With nearly two decades of restaurant experience under his belt, Moran ventured out on his own several years ago. For five years, he worked as chef de cuisine at Seviche on Bardstown Road. Before that, you could find him at Sake Blue Japanese Bistro. Since leaving Seviche, he has worked as a consulting chef at Sullivan University, 8UP Elevated Drinkery & Kitchen, the Pine Room in Harrods Creek and Longboard’s Taco and Tiki in New Albany.
He and Sayler met at Sullivan University, where he was working as an executive chef and she as a director of sales. The two struck up a friendship when Moran shared his dreams of one day opening his own concept. After leaving Sullivan, Sayler kept in contact with Moran and eventually asked him if was still serious about opening his own place. The rest, he says, is history. Sayler runs the front of the house and takes care of the business aspect of the restaurant.
“She was confident in what I brought to the table and realized I was a different sort of chef,” he says. “Her strong suits are events and public relations, marketing. She manages our social media and I’m the restaurant guy.”
Sayler says she and Moran live by the same motto: “We should be the hardest workers on the floor.”
“We are only as good as our team,” she adds.
Moran began tossing around the idea of SOU! back in 2014. Then, it was just a jumble of thoughts. But, slowly, a name, a vision and even a layout started to take shape.
“I knew that I didn’t want to continue to work as hard as I was working for someone else,” he says. “If I was going to work that hard — 100-hour weeks and no vacation — I realized I better do it myself or I’d be doing that forever.”
Moran prides himself on exceptional attention to detail. A big part of that detail was ensuring the restaurant had an open kitchen, where guests can see everything happening in the kitchen.
“We have our hair pulled back,” he says. “We dress to impress. No one is on their cell phones. There is a certain level of professional pride in what we do. We always keep it clean. Guests can come in and be right on our back, hear every conversation. They can see the care we put into cooking.”
Front and center in Moran’s mind is his four-year-old daughter Sage. Her well-being and future is what drives him to be a better person and chef and as he describes it to “keep my foot on the throttle, to set trends, push the envelope and get better.”
Moran describes himself as a hometown guy that is excited to be part of the growing culinary scene in Louisville.
“If everyone doesn’t know about Louisville and their food, they will soon enough. It’s that special in my opinion,” he says.
With spring on the horizon, Sayler says they have a patio in the works and will likely host some pop-up dinners.
SOU! is located at 9980 Linn Station Road in Jeffersontown. You can visit them online at SOU! or give them a call at 502-614-6499 for more information.