Andrea Reusing — the James Beard Award-winning, TEDx-Talk-giving chef of Chapel Hill, NC's Lantern — isn't resting on her laurels. As Reusing's restaurant enters its 11th year of service, the chef/cookbook author just finished construction on the building next door, expanding the Lantern concept into a neighboring community kitchen and 50-seat party/event space that will be for "hosting friends and doing special dinners," Reusing says. And most tantalizingly for residents of the North Carolina Triangle, Reusing confirms that after 10 years of laser-focus on Lantern, she's working on a completely new project slated for downtown Durham.
Eater had the chance to catch up with Reusing when she was in town for the New York City Wine & Food Festival. The chef will also be back in New York again shortly for Eater Eve. Here's what she had to say about the changes in the Chapel Hill area culinary scene, her role as a mentor, and the completely new Durham concept.
Lantern is now about 11 years old. How has your role changed from when you first opened to today?
When I opened the restaurant it was with my brother and my close friend. It was really just the three of us and we were working, never not working, I don't even know how many hours a week. We were going home three of four hours a day kind of thing, so that was different. Now, you know, I'm still feel like I'm working 24 hours a day. [Laughs] That was before email took over your life. And so now I still feel like I'm working a lot, but instead of doing everything myself I'm now in the role of teaching and encouraging and kind of trying to help people become leaders themselves. But I'm still the only person that really puts food on the menu there, and that's something I hope I can start to change soon. There's pluses and minuses to being a control freak, and I think as I've grown... having kids has helped me be less of a control freak. I feel like my next step is to try to bring more people into the process creatively in the restaurant.
What changes have you seen in the Chapel Hill area culinary scene over the past 11 years?
First of all I like that you call it the Chapel Hill area. Raleigh people call it the Raleigh area, Durham people call it the Durham area, rarely do you hear the Chapel Hill area. A lot has changed. I've been there since the mid-'90s, and there are many more restaurants than there used to be. There are a lot of great restaurants. And the farming scene when I moved there was highly developed, and it's even more so now, which is really incredible. There's probably 300 small farms within an hour of me.
What has Lantern's role been in those changes?
It's hard to answer that. I feel proud of relationships we've helped form with chefs who have moved to the area, introducing them to people. We've been lucky enough to have people come through who've gone on to open their own places, and that's been really fun to be able to stay involved in what people you worked with are doing and see them grow in their own places and their own food. I think that the only way for small restaurant communities to improve the products they're doing locally is for people to share sourcing, promote great growers to each other, and look at all of the cooking that happens in an area as cooperative in some ways. And so we've been lucky to be a part of that.
Your restaurant has truly become a destination restaurant. How do you balance meeting customer expectations with keeping the menu fresh and interesting to you?
There's some things that have stayed on the menu the whole time we've been open just because they're really hard to take off. I don't feel really sentimental about food. In some ways after year 10 I thought about, but I didn't really share this with anybody at the time, just closing the restaurant and opening something completely new in that space. I had no idea exactly what it would be, but that was a very appealing idea to me: just kind of do it all over again and have those challenges all over again, but with a new, totally different kind of food.
So as a business, people want to see a lot of the same things, but some people want to see new things. So the balance is a tough one. We've taken off some of our most popular dishes because we were just sick of cooking them. And that's kind of how we balance it, I guess. If we start to hate something because we're so over it, that's when we'll kill it. And maybe we'll bring back at some point. But it's all about us, and how to make our jobs more satisfying. So as long as we're still into something, we'll keep doing it. So there might be something that's been on the menu forever and we're still doing it. Also, we're still improving it. That's a really important part of our philosophy ? There's something kind of satisfying in killing a dish that's really popular. Not because it's sadistic, but because I got that to be as good as I'm interested in its being, and keeping things on the menu that are giving you a hard time or that are more problematic or that you aren't completely happy with gives you another chance to make it better everyday. But once you have it to a place that you really, really love it, cooking it becomes pretty boring.
Would you ever consider expanding, either with another location of Lantern or a different concept? Why or why not?
We did actually just expand a little bit. We bought the building next door and now we have a community kitchen and party space. It's just one room and the kitchen is in the dining room, so rather than an open kitchen it's more the feel of a big kitchen table. It can seat about 50 people. We just finished construction. We're going to be hosting friends and doing special dinners that aren't Lantern food. We're going to have more freewheeling conversational dinners where we bring in, you know, a shrimper and a writer to talk about shrimp and eat shrimp and think about what we can do about the shrimp problem. Hosting real conversations and parties that are about more than the food on the plate, but the story of the food on the plate. That's been challenging. It was almost like opening another restaurant. I didn't anticipate how much time it was going to take away from everyone, including me.
I am working on a project that's going to be in downtown Durham. It'll probably open in about a year. But for 10 years, I just didn't really have the desire to open another place. And I don't think I would repeat Lantern anywhere. It's more fun to do completely new things. Lantern works in the space that it's in, and I would never move it to open a bigger restaurant with more seats. I'm not sentimental about the food, but I am sentimental about the space, in terms of the space's idiosyncrasies and the way we've adapted to them, and the sweat that we've put in to make the space a reality. I think it would be weird to walk away from that.
In a past Eater interview, Ashley Christensen spoke about what an important mentor you've been for her. What is the importance of mentorship in the kitchen, and how do see your role as a mentor?
I think that that's really my main job. Because nothing can taste good, nothing can be right, and no one can really have hospitality in a restaurant without an incredible team. The more I've gotten older and understand what makes the experience of going to a restaurant magical, it's connection with people. Even when you're not connecting with the chef that cooked your food, you're connecting with them in the idea that they know that there's someone on the other side of the door eating that food. And I think that's something that happens a lot in restaurants that we forget about in the kitchen. It's amazing how easy it is to forget that there's somebody who's been wanting to come to your place for a long time, or who just had a miserable day and is looking forward to this meal all day, that really you're connecting with them through the love you put on the plate. And that's my role in the kitchen, to have people always remember the expectations of the person eating the food.