Thyme Well Spent with Lynn Wells

Lynn Wells learned to cook by spending time in the kitchen with her mother, never realizing that the tips and tricks she picked up there would lead to her career. After years in the nutrition department of a North Carolina hospital system, she’s now a personal chef who combines her interests in healthy, local and international food with the southern classics she grew up on. She will be competing at Pig Island 2021 on pitmaster Matthew Deaton’s all-star team of chefs – get your tickets here to taste some of her southern cooking in New York.

Food Karma: How did you come to be involved with Pig Island?

Lynn Wells: I have to chuckle every now and then on how life happens, I love it. I’m just open to everything, and I feel like once I meet somebody there’s a connection. You never know when you meet somebody and you kind of stay in touch where that could take you in five years. I’m not one for small talk, so I like to ask some fun questions. I’m usually with people in the cooking and hospitality industry anyway, so that’s the instant bond.

I met Matthew Deaton, who is our team leader, years ago at, you cannot make this stuff up,  at a sheep farm in Virginia. A guy named Craig Rogers used to raise lambs for restaurants all over the United States and the world. He would open up his farm, it was invitation only for people in the food or beverage industry, from Saturday to Monday, and chefs would come from all over: we had a butcher from Paris come, guys from California. Everybody’s in the business, and a lot of people camp out. We would take turns fixing stuff, and when it’s ready it’s just this big communal feast.

You get to know people in that environment. So that’s where I met Matthew, and then we’ve kept up. We have a lot of mutual friends, and then we worked together at Charleston Food and Wine Festival in March of 2020 before the world tilted. I really got to know him at a Georgia Boucherie in January of 2020. Between January and March 2020 I was packing all this fun stuff in. He’s the brother I never had. I could say that about anybody there, just kind of an instant bond. So that’s sort of how I got involved in this.

FK: How did you get into cooking in the first place?

LW: I have been cooking all my life. My mom taught me without intentionally knowing she was teaching me. I remember her propping me up on the counter when she was whipping cream, and she’d tell me, “This is a soft peak, This is a stiff peak.” I’d always seen her frying things in the cast iron skillet, and I actually have two of her skillets now that I use every day. I was just watching her cook, like when to turn the chicken and making spaghetti sauce.

As a kid, it didn’t take me long to figure out if I hung out with mom that I could also eat. She’s making all this great food, and I realized not only could I learn but also I could eat. It was a win-win for me, but again, I didn’t know I was learning. I just didn’t have anything else to do so I hung out in the kitchen and sat at the kitchen table and I watched her. She read cookbooks like a novel, so I picked up on that. 

To speed things up, I’ve been in the restaurant business since college, from fine dining to locally owned restaurants. I love the back of the house as well as the front of the house and I’ve done everything from cook to bartend to manage. My big break, if you will, it’s kind of a two sided coin. When I graduated from college, I started work at our local and large health system. I was actually there for 21 years total, and it was all in the nutrition department.

I was there with all the patients’ food and the different diets and I was catering manager and cafeteria manager and just kind of moved around. Then I went back to school and became a registered dietitian. As an RD in the hospital, that’s when I started seeing patients bedside and talking to them about my approach, which was what they can have as opposed to what they can’t have. I think that was really kind of noticed among the team.

I say double sided coin because I think those were my golden years, if you will. If I was going to own a restaurant or something, I think that would have been it, but looking back, the cards played out the way they were supposed to, and I don’t have any regrets. They were very good to me there, but after those 21 years I was kind of burned out on the food scene. I got into non-profit community work and did that until  2014.

Then I found myself out of work, and somebody asked if I had ever considered being a personal chef. That term was new to me. People have always said I should cater, but I was in my head thinking that’s like a van and no life. But personal chef struck a chord. A childhood friend of mine who lives in Atlanta has been a very successful personal and private chef for years, and she sent me all of her information and then one thing led to another.

Because I was so connected in the community, once I got my business cards and my website up it took off. Very fortunately, my business has grown, even last year. I had to change course: instead of going to clients’ homes and cooking, I was cooking in my kitchen, which has been certified, and then delivering because of Covid. I’ve had to pick up some side gigs with Covid and just be real creative with what I’m doing. I teach culinary classes via Zoom and work for a national magazine called Our State and I do recipe development and I’m getting into some food writing. Again, I’m just open to everything and I think because of that people and opportunities come and I continue to learn from them.

FK: How do you feel your cooking has evolved from growing up to being in the nutrition field and then becoming a private chef?

LW: That’s a great question. Growing up, it was gravy at every meal, sweet tea, grits. I don’t know if it was butter and grits or grits and butter. People would tell me I had great skin, and I’d joke and say it’s Duke’s Mayonnaise, good butter and pork belly: who needs filler when you’ve got all that? So that’s what I grew up with, and then when I got to the nutrition scene I was vegetarian for six months. Then I smelled the burger or steak cooking on the grill in the neighborhood and drove to Wendy’s. Wendy’s actually was my very first paying job.

In the last ten years, I’ve gotten really into locally grown and raised proteins and vegetables and stuck with it. I’m not preachy about it, but a lot of my Instagram posts are always letting people know where I got this from, what farm and where they’re located. I just love the whole local farm scene because I started building relationships with the farmers and I wanted to see where the food comes from. I’m incorporating a lot of locally grown ingredients in my product for clients but also myself.

Then I love the whole international influence.I’ll add Indian spices to my southern fried chicken or mediterranean to oven fried chicken to make it healthier. I’m always doing a lot of Latin American flavors so I mix in that. I’m still hanging on to the southern vibes with a healthy twist. I’m always creating. I’ll post something and everybody wants the recipe but I didn’t use one, I just have it in my head. I think that’s why I love recipe development so much. I can taste something and tell what’s in it most of the time. I thought everybody could just make something up on the fly and I’m learning that they can’t.

FK: What are you excited about when you come to New York?

LW:  First of all, being in one of my favorite states and cities in the world. I’ve been several times. One of the first times I went up there was when I was a freshman in college and I tried to fake a New York accent with the taxi drivers and anybody that talked to me. That was a disaster.

I’m looking forward to meeting folks. If I think about it too long I’ll just get really choked up, but being there on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I’m kind of at a loss for words. This whole cause that we’re going to be together for is so meaningful, and I’m so honored to be a part of it.

To be honest with you, I’m looking forward to shoveling coals in the middle of the night with buddies on either side, just getting to cook with our team. I’ve cooked with Matthew but I have not yet met in person Jametta Raspberry who is just so talented. I’m just looking forward to everything – I’m going to be just soaking it all up every second.

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