Mark Jensen has been around restaurants for as long as he can remember. Still, for a while he thought he should try to make a living doing something a bit more “serious.” So he worked on a Ph.D. in botany for several years and eventually ended up teaching at Morehead State University.
It’s what brought him to Kentucky 18 years ago, and though he did switch careers, he never left the Bluegrass State.
For the last 18 months, he’s been the owner and executive chef at middle fork kitchen bar cq at 1224 Manchester Street in downtown Lexington. Patrons of the food truck scene may recall Fork In The Road, Mark’s food truck that he operated for three years. Prior to that, he worked in the catering business.
“Cooking the food, loading it into the truck, setting up on site, service, breaking it all down, then driving back to a commercial kitchen and unloading it at the end of every day got old,” Mark explained. Over the course of 36 months, he developed a strong following of customers and the confidence that he could be successful running his own bricks-and-mortar restaurant.
He knew he wanted to be downtown and chose space on the Pepper campus in the historic bourbon distillery district. Two years ago, he parked the truck and began the six-month process of designing the interior and buying equipment. With help from architect Rebecca Burnworth, he served up the first meal at Middle Fork 18 months ago.
“At first, a lot of our business was people who were in Lexington on business or for other reasons,” Mark said. “The hotels were very good about recommending us to their guests.”
Those out-of-towners, especially ones from larger cities, seemed to have a greater appreciation for Middle Fork’s cuisine. As word spread about the new restaurant’s innovative kitchen, more and more local diners began showing up—and coming back— to tip the scales in the opposite direction.
Mark takes pride in local farmers and supports them by buying meat and vegetables from them. He and his team change the menu weekly and quarterly to keep things interesting and to take advantage of the day-to-day and seasonal harvest.
All meat—lamb, duck, sausage, beef, chicken-- is cooked over an open flame fed by wood stacked on the patio. Seafood is flown in overnight from Florida and Alaska. “We prepare everything with fresh, quality ingredients,” Mark said.
“Even though we change our menu with the seasons, there are a few dishes we simply can not change,” he continued. “ Our fire roasted chicken and mirin-lime braised pork belly are on the menu year around-- both really delicious and representing different sides of our cooking style. The chicken is farmhouse-rustic while the pork belly is a little more urbane and complex. I'm very thankful for the great response people have to them.”
People who have trouble deciding which dessert to order love Middle Fork. The only decision is whether to order a smaller plate or a larger board that contains a little of everything.
Middle Fork will offer “Seasonal Sunday Suppers” after the holidays. Mark just discontinued “Comfortably Late Breakfast” at 11 a.m. Sunday; it will return in the fall.
When the weather is nice, diners can catch a glimpse of the Town Branch, otherwise named the Middle Fork of the Elkhorn River, from the patio. Lexington was founded there in 1775.
Middle Fork is open from 5-10 pm daily except Wednesday.