This is posted on Thursday, December 1, 2016 by Rodney Ho on his AJC Radio & TV Talk
When I saw the cast of "Top Chef" season 14, I didn't see any Atlanta-based chefs. But yesterday, my colleague Yvonne Zusel noted that Jamie Lynch of Charlotte recently opened a restaurant at Colony Square 5Church in the old Shout space.
So I talked to him today about the restaurant and the show, which is set in Charleston, the smallest city by far the show has ever located. It debuts tonight at 10 p.m.
A native New Yorker, Lynch worked at some high-class restaurants in Manhattan including Le Cirque 2000 Restaurant. After the stresses of 9/11 and feeding rescue workers for three months, he decided to move to Charlotte and start his own restaurant 5Church. He now oversees 5Church restaurants in Charlotte, Charleston and Atlanta.
"We always knew we wanted to expand into the Southeast," Lynch said, noting his partnership group are all New Yorkers. "We wanted a big city vibe in the South. Atlanta was a natural choice."
Once he scoped Atlanta out, he liked the size, the culture and the Southern hospitality. He chose the Colony Square spot because it's a "marquee location and the space was in good shape. Plus, development is happening in Midtown with an even greater concentration of people."
Then I tried to gingerly ask about the reception to the restaurant so far. He said traffic has been good, customer feedback has been great. (He has a 3.5 star average on Yelp.) Then he got to brass tacks. "We had a review that wasn't glowing," he said, referencing the AJC's September one-star review.
But it doesn't keep him up at night. "Everyone is entitled to their opinion. The reality is it's not the first non-glowing review I've gotten. It hasn't affected my business anywhere else."
He acknowledges how tough it is to manage three restaurants in three different cities. Flights between Atlanta and Charlotte are pricey. And the traffic in Atlanta galls him (as it does everybody.)
What he has learned about Atlanta diners is they are more adventurous than those in Charlotte. (His Charlotte restaurant is across from Bank of America headquarters so he knows what bankers like.)
"There's a diversity of people in Atlanta willing to take some risks," he said. "We play a lot more with modern cooking techniques there. We play with gelification and stuff like that which we don't do a lot in Charlotte. It can weird people out."
He also addressed the recent departure of R.J. Cooper as executive chef in Atlanta, though he didn't explain why Cooper had left: "He did a great job for us to get the restaurant started, being the soldier on the ground to get the thing ready to open. I was actually filming 'Top Chef' when we were preparing to open so he was instrumental in getting the thing ready and training the staff."
Lynch said "Top Chef" approached him. While he was familiar with the show, he had not thought about going on it. But given that the season was going to be shot in Charleston intrigued him.
He didn't enter the show with a particular strategy beyond "put your head down and not go home."
"For me," he said, "I was concerned about representing Charleston and Charlotte and frankly Atlanta, too. We were in the process of building out in Atlanta. There was a lot of PR behind that. I didn't want to let people down and be a laughing stock."
Lynch said he has had his share of stress in his career and handles them well, but "Top Chef" topped them all though the stress was different. "I think I smoked a lot of cigarettes," he mused. "More than I would ever think is humanly possible."
Seeing judge Tom Colicchio brought back memories for him two decades earlier sampling Colicchio's fare at his New York City restaurant: "It was intimidating knowing that 20 years later the guy is going to lay into me. He's at the top of the food chain. If he's critiquing a dish a dish, he knows what he's talking about."
Another intimidating factor: he will be competing with seven new chefs and eight "Top Chef" veterans. "Again, I put my head down. I use stuff like that to cook harder, faster."
He found doing the "confessionals" uncomfortable. He isn't big on sowing drama or being catty. "I wanted to cook great food. I wanted people to notice that. I didn't want to be too aggressive, too opinionated and slam people."
When prepping to open his Charleston restaurant, he studied Charleston history. That knowledge gave him comfort going into the show. "They have hundreds of years of culinary tradition. It was such a key part of American history from an agricultural standpoint. Rice and cotton were huge in the day. Other things, too, like legumes. The growing season is amazing because of the climate. There was also the impact of all the slaves that came through Charleston from West Africa. It affected the culinary tradition. You just have this amazing abundance of tradition to draw off of. That's why low country cuisine is so important."
While doing research for his Atlanta restaurant, he met up with "Top Chef' vet Kevin Gillespie, who has two restaurants in town "Gunshow" and "Revival." "We ate at his places," he said. "He's a super nice guy, very welcoming."
Here is related coverage:
Meet the “Top Chef” contestants with Atlanta ties
5Church chef Jamie Lynch is on “Top Chef” Season 14
RJ Cooper out as exec chef at 5Church
Review: 5Church does not distinguish itself among Midtown restaurants
"Top Chef," season 14 debut, 10 p.m. Wednesday, December 1, Bravo