Elton and Randee Hyndman, owners of Nino's restaurant, have so far weathered the coronavirus storm.
But it hasn't been easy.
Although business has been good, Elton Hyndman says the state's rules for half capacity and physical distancing are burdens that weigh heavily on the restaurant.
Hyndman, also the chef, has pretty much spent his life in the restaurant world. He was born and raised in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, Canada, and began washing dishes at a restaurant when he was 11. (He told them he was 12.)
"Labor laws in Canada were much different back then," says the chef, now in his 40s.
After finishing culinary school in Madison, Wisconsin, Hyndman traveled, working in kitchens from New Mexico to Seattle. Taking a break from the grueling industry, Hyndman went to work for General Motors, checking car parts warranties in shops.
The company offered him a job in Baton Rouge, which he took because it is close to New Orleans.
In 2009, Hyndman jumped back into the kitchen when he and his wife took over Nino's, the Bluebonnet Boulevard fine dining Italian restaurant, from Nino Giacalone.
As in every business, there have been ups and downs, but this year has brought the biggest challenges by far.
We talked to the chef-owner about the pandemic, what it takes to run a restaurant and lots of other things (he's hoping to get his pilot's license). The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did the coronavirus lockdown and continuing regulations affect your business?
We had to shut down completely twice over the last few months, and that has had a devastating impact. Revenue loss and product loss was very difficult to weather. The new restrictions to stay at 50% and make sure customers are properly distanced has dropped revenue significantly.
We’re still alive, but this business model is not sustainable under these necessary restrictions. We have streamlined some operations, reduced our number of employees, shortened the menu and focused more on versions of my food that will travel better.
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Does being the owner and chef make the job more difficult or does it allow you more creativity?
Being chef-owner does allow me to push the envelope a little more with no one to answer to, but it does come with a grander set of responsibilities for sure. Being a small-restaurant owner has given me a crash course in many other professions. I’m an OK plumber and can fix and install most equipment on my own. Every penny counts in this business, especially in the beginning.
What food do you most enjoy working with and why?
I really enjoy working with the basics in the kitchen. Too much focus is put on the center of the plate, because that’s where the money is. Too often, it’s the less celebrated aspects of a kitchen that end up getting neglected or even worse, outsourced. It’s not too difficult to season and cook a piece of meat, every restaurant should be able to accomplish that, but it’s the complementary items that keep 'em coming back. Soup, salad dressings and fresh bread can really set a place apart.
What's your description of the perfect meal?
The perfect meal: A tall cold one and Oscar’s Pizza and wings! I miss that joint! Or a glass of Saldo, a baseball cut sirloin and a green chile baked potato in the backyard!
What is one of your favorite destinations and why?
Our favorite destination for soul resetting is New Mexico. The food is the best I’ve ever come across. From fine dining to Blake's Lotaburger to gas station pozole (a pork and hominy stew) to breakfast burritos, there’s never enough time to visit them all.
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If you could be a Hollywood consultant, what advice would you give on a portrayal of a chef or restaurant? And what's your favorite movie (about any subject)?
I would love to see a more real, gritty portrayal of the life: The 16-hour shifts that inevitably end up at some dive bar, the late-night grub or the orchestrated chaos of the line on a busy Friday night. There is no shortage of inherent drama in a restaurant that undoubtedly comes to head, creating real conflict but ends in everyone coming together to get the job done, partying a little too hard sometimes and showing up again tomorrow as friends just to do it all over again. As for favorite movies, Jim Jarmusch’s "Dead Man" has long been a favorite, but I never get tired of the Dude.
Tell us about your biggest disaster in the kitchen.
I used to work a second job making soup at a cafe on my days off. I would go in twice a week and make two large batches of soup. One Sunday afternoon, I was wrapping up things and storing the soups in plastic buckets to be transported to the downstairs walk-in to be transferred to cooling pans. While rolling them on a cart to the stairs, one of the soups melted a hole in the side and gushed out all over the place. I was so close to being out the door. Had to clean up and start over totally deflated.
We know that you love being in the kitchen, but what would your second choice of dream job be?
I’ve always wanted to be a pilot, even completed over 20 hours of lessons in the sky before all the nonsense. But, obviously, that has been put on hold. Maybe one day I’ll get back in the cockpit.