Lafayette native Will Baxter’s grandmother shared an idea last spring as they munched crawfish, one that had already crossed his mind: Her University Avenue house, which doubled as French antique shop, could one day become a restaurant.
What had been a fleeting thought suddenly turned into a serious idea for Baxter, who had recently returned to Lafayette after cooking in Michelin-starred restaurants in San Francisco. Baxter’s grandmother, Jane Fleniken, then died in August at the age of 93, just a few months after helping Baxter clarify his next career step.
With the help of a contractor, Baxter determined that the home at 618 E. University Ave. can accommodate a commercial kitchen. The next step for Baxter and his mother, Cynthia Baxter, who now owns the property and is also working on the project, is to obtain a conditional-use permit to operate as a restaurant.
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The idea is for a small, contemporary French bistro, with six to eight tables inside and a courtyard for drinks. The Zoning Commission will consider the permit application on Monday, and the City-Parish Council will have final say.
Francophilia runs in Baxter’s family, starting with his grandmother, who regularly traveled to France with her children and grandchildren. She is the reason he pursued a cooking career, starting with the French Culinary Institute in New York City, now called the International Culinary Center, Baxter said.
“She influenced all of us with love for French culture,” Baxter said. “Being born into that family, I was kind of exposed to that appreciation at a young age.”
Following his training in New York City, Baxter worked as a French-specialty cook in upscale restaurants in Miami and New Orleans before venturing to San Francisco for four years. Baxter’s last gig was at Coi, which received its third Michelin star while he was there.
Baxter’s long-term plan was always to return to Lafayette, even if he didn’t know exactly when that might happen. The right time revealed itself in late 2017 when his San Francisco roommates moved out.
“Rather than get back on the market for new roommates, I just decided to close things up and come back,” Baxter said.
The timing proved serendipitous. One year later, Baxter and his mother are poised to continue Fleniken’s legacy as one of the first antique dealers in the southern United States to sell French country furniture, according to Fleniken’s online biography. The biography is posted on the still-active website for Fleniken’s shop, Antiques and Interiors, which operated in the University Avenue house for about five decades, said Cynthia Baxter, her daughter and Will Baxter’s mother.
The Antiques and Interiors collection expanded each time Fleniken traveled to France, at least once per year. Cynthia Baxter recalls cruising through the French countryside in a convertible with her parents and three siblings, picking up furniture along the way.
Fleniken’s trips to France continued past her 90th birthday, Cynthia Baxter said, and she continued adding to her inventory even as sales declined.
“The interest in antiques has really plummeted over the last 10 years, but that didn’t stop her from buying,” Cynthia Baxter said, adding that plans for the restaurant include keeping some of the furniture collection in the dining room.
Fleniken loved “living with my business,” as she is quoted in the biography on the Antiques and Interiors website, antiquesninterioriors.com.
“So much of my business is built around me, and it just gets better with age,” she added.