By Raymond Monasterski
The Red Hen, one of Lexington’s premier farm-to-table restaurants, had an unusually successful summer, co-owner Stephanie Wilkinson says.
Summer is considered the slow season because of the town’s two universities are not in regular sessions, but this summer was the best in the restaurant’s six-year history, Wilkinson said. She declined to be specific about the restaurant’s financial picture, except to say that the Red Hen is profitable.
Located at 11 E. Washington St., the restaurant has received multiple accolades since its opening in 2008, including a current No. 1 ranking on TripAdvisor’s best restaurants in Lexington.
Executive chef Matt Adams follows a list of accomplished chefs to lead the restaurant. Former chef Collin Donnelly received Cooking Light Magazine’s Trailblazer Award for best small town chef in 2012.
“The real talent is in finding chefs with potential,” Wilkinson said, “and giving them a platform to do what they do best.”
The farm-to-table philosophy encourages chefs to work directly with producers to source fresh, local ingredients.
“We allow the chefs to put their vision on the plate,” she said.
Donnelly, who served as executive chef from October 2010 to July 2013, said the network of local farmers is critical to sourcing ingredients.
He returned to Lexington in June to start Restaurant 1850 at the Maple Hall Inn, 3111 N. Lee Highway, where his relationships with local purveyors have allowed him to continue using local products.
“[Farm-to-table] is all about relationships,” he said.
Adams, who grew up two hours south of Lexington in Franklin County, visited The Red Hen on the recommendation of a friend from Roanoke. He got to know Wilkinson and co-owner John Blackburn, who also owns Lexington burger and donut eatery Pure Eats.
A month later, Adams got an offer to serve as chef.
“We really fell in love with the owners’ concept of the restaurant,” he said. “They wanted to find a place that could do locally sourced food, quality food.”
While the menu changes daily, Adams said he has been pleasantly surprised at the availability of local resources.
“There are just tons and tons and tons of local purveyors in the area,” he said.
As the seasons change and the weather starts to cool, he expects to add heartier entrees to the menu, such as braised meats, while keeping menu staples like New York strip steak.
Adams uses primarily New York strip cuts of beef and orders whole hog and other meats from local purveyors Buffalo Creek Beef and Donald’s Meats.
“Matt is very creative with what he does,” said Rosalea Potter of Buffalo Creek Beef.
But sourcing local ingredients has its challenges, said Adams.
A hard winter meant the use of a lot of squashes, he said, because of their versatility and long shelf life.
The restaurant’s success has come in spite of several hurdles.
In February 2009, just a few months after it opened, a bookkeeper working with six local businesses embezzled a total of $600,000, said Wilkinson. The Red Hen was among the woman’s clients.
And last fall, the restaurant closed for a few weeks after parting ways with a chef who fell short of the owners’ expectations. It reopened in November after Adams arrived.
The Red Hen also continues to fight a perception that it is more exclusive and expensive than other area restaurants. And with several newer, upscale restaurants entering the Lexington dining scene this fall, Wilkinson acknowledges the possibility of an oversupply of high-end dining.
But Wilkinson, who also serves as executive director of Main Street Lexington, an organization that promotes Lexington’s downtown, said with continued growth she hopes Lexington will become a culinary destination. And she welcomes the new competitors.
The Red Hen’s niche, she said, is its intimate setting and “romantic” ambience. Its menu’s five to six entrees range from $20 to $30. The restaurant employs two full-time chefs, two sous chefs and four to seven waiters for 26 seats in the dining room. It is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Reservations are recommended.
In the end, said Adams, The Red Hen’s purpose is to serve its community.
“It’s not about the farmers but about the town,” he said, “and this town has a lot of farmers…. We want to be part of this town and see it grow in the right direction.”