The smoke is rolling today at Red Barn Kitchen, where executive chef Reed Johnson is beginning a monthly series of whole hog barbecues tonight, Jan. 26!

Eat burgers, drink bourbon, help chef Wilburn: Last month, Varanese sous chef Tom Wilburn suffered an aneurism and has not been able to work since. Without income, his medical bills are mounting and he needs help. So his boss, owner John Varanese, has put together a fundraiser to help a guy who’s served on that restaurant’s staff since it opened nearly 10 years ago.

Varanese sous chef Tom Wilburn with former Varanese bartender, Felicia Corbett in 2014.
Varanese sous chef Tom Wilburn with former Varanese bartender, Felicia Corbett, in 2014.

On Sunday, Jan. 29 and Monday, Jan. 30, Varanese will donate $20 from every Chef John’s signature V Burger ($25) sold to a fund for Wilburn. Even Maker’s Mark is getting involved, selling a special $10 bourbon cocktail in a keepsake glass, and donating all proceeds from those sales to Wilbur’s fund. It’s expected there’ll be a crowd on hand, so reservations are recommended. Call 502-899-9904 or email to get a seat.

Going whole hog every month at Red Barn Kitchen: Before Reed Johnson became executive chef at Red Barn Kitchen, he was a hardcore, whole-hog barbecuer. In December, he smoked a whole hog at RBK, and the meal was so popular, he’s now doing it monthly. That’s special because 1. whole hog cooking is hard to do well, 2. a blessing to eat, and 3. it gives diners a chance to taste the animal cooked whole rather than fabricated into parts. Trust me, it tastes better for many reasons, especially when you mix all the pieces-parts on one plate. (My advice, ask for jowl meat and middlin’s.) This year’s first event is tonight, Jan. 26, and it’ll recur every subsequent last Thursday of the month. For a mere $15, you get all you can eat, slow-cooked for 15+ hours piggy goodness. Show up and dig in!

Diet now, save room for APRON Dine Around: Eat Drink Talk loves supporting APRON, the Louisville non-profit group that raises funds to support restaurant employees—like Tom Wilburn—who find themselves burdened by overwhelming medical issues. Annually, APRON conducts a dine around in which some 40 local independent restaurants donate a portion of their proceeds to APRON. This year, it’s Wednesday, Feb. 8, so here’s another reason for sticking to your diet resolution through Feb. 7, cutting loose the day of the dine around, then hopping back on the wagon Feb. 9. Click here for the list of participating restaurants, and tune in to the podcast next Tuesday when Rick Redding interviews an APRON representative for details.

Bring it on, people! Gospel Bird chef-owner Eric Morris has guts. Or maybe he’s crazy. He’s just started a once-a-month dinner dubbed The People vs. Eric Morris, where he does all the cooking by himself. According to his Facebook page, the grub won’t be from Gospel Bird’s menu, rather the lineup will be different with each dinner, sold a la carte and affordably. The most recent one was Jan. 23, so look for the next one to be Feb. 20. He’s daring you, people, so go put him in the weeds!

$1 oysters are a hit at Levee: Must have been four people show up in my Facebook feed recently going ga-ga over the $1 oyster bargain every Wednesday at Levee at the River House. It must be a bumper crop this year for those delicious bivalves because some other spots around town, such as Rye on Market, have offered similarly priced bargains.

Kentucky Bourbon Trail surpasses 1 million visitors: Whodathunk it? People coming from everywhere to see bourbon made and aged and drink it on those hallowed distillery grounds—in record numbers in 2016. According to the Kentucky Distillers Association, 888,733 fans visited the state’s nine large distilleries last year, while another 177,228 visited our 11 craft distilleries. The grand total was 1,065,961, which represents 300 percent growth in 10 years. I’ll drink to that!

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Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 25-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass, Whisky Magazine, and The Bourbon Review. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.