It's a busy Wednesday night in the kitchen at Lantern restaurant in Chapel Hill. Chef and owner Andrea Reusing oversees the scene: tasting the night's first pork dumplings, dressing a chickpea salad with mint chutney and teaching the salad cook to make a fussier-than-usual appetizer involving a soft-boiled egg nestled in fried noodles atop sautéed hen of the woods mushrooms.
Reusing, wearing jeans, a short-sleeve white chef's jacket and green Converse tennis shoes, spots a ticket from table 24: The six or so diners have all ordered green salads as their first course. She asks the waiter: "How do you feel about these people? Are they fun? Cranky?"
The waiter responds that they are all gray-haired.
"How about we send them salt-and-pepper shrimp?" suggests Reusing. A few moments later, she is tableside, saying, "These are from the kitchen for you." After explaining that the deep-fried shrimp shells are edible, she retreats, a chorus of "thank you" following her.
Reusing's restaurant motto is this: Nobody leaves unhappy. To that end, little escapes her notice. She not only pushes herself toward perfection but also trains her staff to aim as high. That approach is generating impressive results.
This summer, Reusing, 43, was named best chef in the Southeast by the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit organization that hands out awards considered the Oscars of the food world. She also published her first cookbook, "Cooking in the Moment," seasonal recipes she cooks at home for family and friends. The book is receiving good press, including a mention in The New York Times and appearances on NBC's "Today" and CBS's "The Early Show."
Reusing juggles restaurant, family life and writing and promoting the cookbook with the help of a handful of longtime Lantern employees. "She has core people who can run the place and they run it her way," explains Billy Cotter, her former sous chef who now owns Toast in Durham. Reusing is at Lantern every day, tweaking the menu, creating specials, checking on deliveries, overseeing the kitchen several nights - and teaching, always teaching. Her brother, Brendan Reusing, who helped open Lantern, says: "She will not stop until you do it the way she wants you to. ... She's really pretty relentless."
Teaching in the kitchen
At the start of dinner service, Reusing coaches a cook on that fussy appetizer: how to sauté the mushrooms, when to add water and onions, when to add butter to create a sauce, how to nestle the egg in the noodles.
Later, when he fails to time his movements and the sauce breaks while other cooks are finishing dishes for a table, she chastises him. "They're not ready," she says. Miguel Torres, the sous chef, takes over and guides the young cook through it, speaking in Spanish.
A few moments later, when the cook starts again, she stops him: "Wait for me!"
Together, they turn out a perfect appetizer. "Now that's an egg!" she declares.
Film, then food
Cooking wasn't Reusing's first career choice. The oldest of five children, she grew up in Glen Rock, N.J., 40 minutes from Manhattan. She majored in cinema studies at New York University but dropped out two classes shy of graduation, a decision she can't really explain and says is still painful for her parents. After college, she worked for a public policy consultant.
That's what she was doing when she met her future husband, Mac McCaughan, singer and guitarist for the band Superchunk and co-founder of Durham-based Merge Records. They have two children, Oona, 8, and Arthur, 3.
In 1995, Reusing moved to North Carolina to be with McCaughan and opened a catering business. (In college, she had worked as a cook at a handful of East Village restaurants.) In 1999, a friend in her book club, Laurie Peel, told Reusing that she, her husband and Raleigh architect Louis Cherry were looking for a chef to open their restaurant, Enoteca Vin.
Even though Reusing had never been an executive chef or opened a restaurant, she got the job, which doesn't surprise those who know her. They say she has intuitive cooking skills, studies food and has a finely tuned palate that allows her to taste a dish once and re-create it.
About a year and half after opening Vin, Reusing made another career leap - opening her own restaurant. In January 2002, she and Brendan made a strategic decision to open an Asian restaurant on Chapel Hill's Franklin Street, which was filled with Southern and New American restaurants. There was nothing else like Lantern.
Neither leap surprises friends or co-workers. "She's incredibly bright," says Sheila Neal of Neal's Deli in Carrboro, who worked as a line cook at both Vin and Lantern. "She just has a gift around food."
The accolades have followed her. N&O restaurant critic Greg Cox gave Lantern four out of four stars. The now-defunct Gourmet magazine named it one of the country's 50 best restaurants in 2006. Reusing and her restaurant have been featured in Food & Wine, Garden & Gun, The Wall Street Journal and several other national publications.
While Reusing says she is "incredibly honored" to have won the James Beard award, the true honor, she says, was being nominated with an amazing group of chefs.
The book was more gratifying for this perfectionist. Between the writing and recipe development, the photo shoots and the creative control, she says having the finished product to hold was "the achievement."
Reusing intended the book to be a manual that inspires home cooks to make dinner for their families. When she hears from folks at book signings and farmers markets that they are using her cookbook in that way, she's pleased, as only a teacher could be.
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