The coronavirus pandemic has shown that for restaurants, community comes first – including staff, guests, and professional peers. Operators are quick to stand in solidarity and share struggles and successes. As part of OpenTable’s partnership with Top Chef’s Restaurant Wars, we tapped into that spirit of generosity, asking chefs to tell us about the ups and downs of their careers: lessons learned, mistakes made, and their personal evolution along the way. Hear their stories, get inspired, and find resources to help in uncertain times here.
Lindsay Autry grew up on her family’s orchard in rural North Carolina, preserving peaches and tomatoes and competing in cooking competitions with the local 4-H. Before long, she knew food was more than a hobby and enrolled in culinary school.
For more than a decade, she cut her teeth working with award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein in Florida and Mexico before earning the public’s attention as a finalist on Season 9 of Top Chef. In 2016, she opened her first restaurant, THE REGIONAL Kitchen & Public House in West Palm Beach, which marries Mediterranean flavors with her Southern roots. Here, Autry shares her early influences and why failure is the best teacher.
What’s the best advice you received early on?
My grandfather was a professional public speaker, and he would tell me to stand in my own shoes. At the time, I interpreted that as standing up for myself, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized what he really meant was just to be yourself and be authentic. If you’re true to who you are as a person, things will come to you a bit easier.
What’s the best advice you’d give to another chef or restaurateur who’s opening their first restaurant?
To stay strong and know that it’s a lot harder than it appears on television. If you put your head down and work really hard, eventually it will pay off. This is a very mundane business, with a lot of action and repetition. You have to find a way to break it up.
Your team and your staff are the most important aspect of your career. As a young chef, I would feel like I was on an island. Now, I realize about 60% of my staff has been with me for 10 years, and I don’t know what I would do without them. To anyone starting out – develop your team, and know that this isn’t a business you can do alone.
I would think that as you’re taking on more projects like Top Chef, having that trust in your team becomes all the more important.
One of the hardest lessons to learn is delegating, to let go and trust other people to execute your vision and work. [My teammates] carry the weight of the restaurant when I have a day off. I just had a baby! It’s good to know that you have people you can lean on.
What has been the most exciting moment of your career?
Top Chef, for me, was terrifying, but it also has done so much for my career – accelerated it, and gave me exposure to be able to advance myself. Last year, I got to cook with Martha Stewart, which was definitely a bucket list for me. Usually I’m not someone who’s freaked out in front of celebrities, but I literally was speechless when I met her and made a fool of myself.
You mentioned that opportunities came your way after Top Chef. What were some of those?
It allowed me to get exposure not only nationally, but within my own community. A lot of people didn’t know I was a chef here. [After], people knew I was a serious chef that had experience.
What’s one of the biggest mistakes you’ve made in your career?
I always joke that I’ve had my heart broken by more restaurants than relationships. It’s a really risky business – there are a lot of things you can control, but there are things that are kind of out of your control, too.
I waited a long time [to open my own place] because I knew what the failure rate was. Nine out of 10 restaurants close within their first year because the financial structure is really hard to sustain. Along the way, having restaurants close helped educate me to be able to open my own place with a little bit more confidence. It’s still a risk, but I’ve got 15 years under my belt of knowing what to try to avoid.
You opened The Regional in 2016. Now that you’re a chef-owner, how has that changed your approach to your work?
I have to do every aspect of the operation. In the past, when I was executive chef in a restaurant, I would really focus on the back of the house. Here, I worked with my other partner and some designers to design the actual space. I do all of the hiring for front-of-house management. I worry about maintenance contracts and bills. So now I worry about everything instead of just 60% of it!
As a younger chef, a lot of times you’re more focused on the creative aspect and you can be stubborn in your food. A lot of that is just immaturity and growth. Opening The Regional, I had a certain concept, but that has evolved over the past three-and-a-half years. The people that support my restaurant or the guests that come in – I’ve evolved to what they have been receptive to. They created what my business is now.
Can you tell us more about your Southern upbringing and how that influenced your culinary style?
I grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, which has a lot of military bases, but my family also had a peach orchard. I grew up in 4-H, so it was very Charlotte’s Web – pigs, goats, lamb. I started cooking competitions through 4-H.
My mom’s mother made incredible desserts, and my dad’s mother is actually from Greece, so I grew up with this weird mix of Southern and Greek food. In the ‘80s, grocery stores didn’t have feta or romaine lettuce, so my grandmother would make Greek food using what she had – spanakopita with cottage cheese because there was no feta. I’ve gone back to my roots here at the restaurant: We do a blend of Southern Mediterranean cuisine.
Since we are talking Top Chef, we’d love to hear more about these early 4-H cooking competitions.
They were all outdoor grilling, so you had to show that you could build a fire, and it was always based on a protein. I started when I was nine, and they didn’t separate you by age, so I would do cooking competitions with people from age nine to 19. I ended up winning the state level against 19-year-olds.
Sounds like good Top Chef training. When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
I wasn’t from a place that had fine-dining restaurants or even chefs in restaurants. When I was in high school, I came across a book for Johnson & Wales, and that was the first time that I ever thought, I could go to school to be a chef. Everybody was pushing me to go to Duke or UNC-Chapel Hill and be a pharmacist or a lawyer.
What were some of the most important things you learned working for Michelle Bernstein?
I was with Michelle for about 12 or 13 years. I credit so much of my career to being able to shadow her and see her level of professionalism and her drive. She was able to lead and be a strong woman and stay feminine. She was never apologetic for being a woman in a kitchen. She showed me that at the end of the day, we’re not female chefs, we’re just chefs.
Working with her, I was able to learn a lot not only about cooking, but also the business side and the public side – how to portray yourself in public and how to be on TV. We still talk all the time.
Photos courtesy of South Moon Photography