Sunday Q&A: Chef Landon Thompson

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Prodigal Son / Acclaimed Chef Landon Thompson returned home to open a new restaurant and with a new concept — Animal Farm. His latest venture is a hip spot for sharing plates and enjoying in-house butchered meats on 12th Srreet downtown in former Bare Roots space.

Why invest your time, talent and money in opening a restaurant in Columbus right now? 

“I grew up here, so that means I grew up eating here. 

Going out to eat wasn’t the best experience I had with food. The best experiences were eating at home. My mother and father are both excellent cooks. My grandmother is a terrible cook —  which is funny, because most people assume I have this awesome, old-school Southern grandmother who has all these incredible Southern recipes. She makes a congealed salad with shrimp and carrots and sour cream. I guess that’s why my mom can cook so well — because she had to.

My mom was in charge of vegetables, casseroles, and bread. My dad was outside working the grill or the smoker. I would bounce between them and ask questions. It was great bonding for all of us.

I would notice when we would go out to eat that the food wasn’t as good.  I’d say to my dad, ‘Why do these ribs suck?’ or ‘Why is this meat garbage?’ 

Growing up, I was always cooking, but I never thought of it as a possible career — and then out of nowhere, the idea came from my dad and my uncle to drop what I was doing at school and to pursue cooking.  I wanted to do something with my hands. I was meant to work. 

All of this was happening around the same time Mark Jones was starting to open things around here. I figured, ‘I’ll go to Atlanta, find a chef to work for and eventually convince them to come down here.’ In your hometown, you’re an idiot. Go 50 miles away, and you’re a genius. 

I dropped everything I was doing and moved to Atlanta and took a job as a dishwasher when I was 19.  As I started to come into my own, I changed course and said, ‘Fuck that!! I want to be the chef. I don’t want to be in someone else’s shadow.’ 

What was supposed to be a couple of years in Atlanta ended up being 17 years. I’d come back every couple of years to test the water here. I found people didn’t want to spend money on consumables. They didn’t see the value. There was plenty of money here, but they were buying real estate. In my family, your life is good because you eat well and you drink well — not because of the pile of real estate you have when you die. 

Everything changed for me two years ago when I went to Taste of the Town. I was shocked with the quality and variety of forward-thinking restaurants; cooking from scratch, cooking locally. All these people were coming up to me and asking when I was coming back and opening up a place.  That’s when my wife said to me, ‘We can do this.’”

Did you have any COVID-related challenges to opening?  

“The biggest challenge was the renovation. 

I’ve overseen lots of openings working as a consultant and this was my 12th one. But it was never quite this intense getting contractors and subcontractors.  In Atlanta — where it is GO, GO, GO, and where everything is competitive and cut-throat — I found myself asking contractors not to leave. I’d ask them to start right away if they could. Here, they’d say they could start in about 3 months.

I knew we couldn’t wait to open this place 3 years from now, so we put on the hats and did a lot of the work ourselves. Anything that did not have to be completed by a licensed professional, we did. We had to.

The lumber costs were nuts! Knowing walnut would be cheaper than plywood, we found the floor of a church in Lanett, Alabama in a throw-away pile.  We bought all of it.

With hiring, we were terrified the whole time. We kept hearing about staffing issues with COVID. We waited until late in the game to hire, but we ended up getting an onslaught of resumes, and a lot of great applications. The front of the house filled up first where there is a waiting list now. 

For the back of the house, initially we had three or four days of radio silence. I got really nervous. Finding people to show up and do the work at first was a challenge, but we found the right people and we’re building on that.”

Animal Farm buzzes with energy during lunch service.

What did the restaurant scene in Atlanta and then Savannah teach you? 

“As far as Atlanta, everything I know.

When I moved to Atlanta, I hadn’t worked a day in my life in a restaurant before, but I wanted to learn from all the best chefs I could.  Some of the best advice I ever got was when  I was asking some sort of stupid question to Richard Blais and he said, ‘You want some advice?’ Shut the fuck up. Look down. And keep working.’ I took his advice to heart.

When I looked back up again, it had been 5 or 6 years, and I had gone from prep cook to an executive chef level. Sometimes just working really hard and not thinking that you’re owed anything and by not thinking it is going to be fun, things start to change around you without you really noticing. Then all of a sudden, you’re in a position of knowledge and power and it’s your turn.

Chef Landon Thompson stands before a commissioned artwork by local artist Katie Jacobson.

Savannah taught me that not every city is going to be Atlanta. In Atlanta, I had really found my niche. I got some great accolades, but I wasn’t happy where I was. I don’t want to live in a city with 8 million people. I don’t want to live in a city with 1 million people.

I learned that every place is different. Your clientele changes drastically. In Savannah I learned, ‘I cook for them, not for me.’ I learned to use all of my talent and skill and cook for your guests. Don’t force your opinion on them. I don’t need people to agree with me — if everybody agrees with me, I change my opinion. 

In Savannah, I learned a great lesson: Not everyone is going to be so impressed with you that they’re just going to eat the beef heart you put on a skewer. Savannah drove that home because we would have found no success had I just been the ‘Atlanta Cook.’ “  

What did your experience as a James Beard Awards nominee (Rising Stars, 2015) give you as far as networking and skills? 

“To be honest, it came too fast. It came so quickly and we were still finding our place. It put a lot of pressure on me. We went from 250 a night to 400. 

To realize everyone thinks you’re at this high level is terrifying. It brought a ton of attention to a new team, only 3 months in, and it caused us to immediately put on a coat of armor and be the consummate professionals. 

I wouldn’t say I learned any new skills. I learned to concrete my knowledge. I learned the way we were doing things was right.”

Given the concept of in-house butchered meats and communal dining, what will guests experience when they come to dine here?

“One of the main reasons I like it is that it puts you in charge of your own experience. With the classic form of dining you have one shared appetizer and everybody orders one entree.  I have watched thousands upon thousands of people dine; you see people having fun and they’re boisterous, clicking glasses and just having a good time.  It makes me sad when all of a sudden the conversations are over. From a restauranteur perspective, I want them to keep ordering drinks and to keep spending money. From a human perspective, I want them to have a great time.

I don’t care what you eat or how good your service is or how good your drinks were, you’re going to remember a restaurant where you had an experience. Where you had great conversation, where you had a great time. This kind of dining is much more convivial. It leads to a better conversation in the group and even across to other tables”. 

What is your definition of success as a restaurant owner? How will you know when you have achieved it here at Animal Farm? 

“To realize you’ve achieved success —no matter your metrics — is always tricky because as humans we always want more. 

Obviously, we have to be financially viable. While we can’t change the world, we can start to put a different view on the kind of people in this industry and the lifestyles they lead. I had my fun time in my 20s. Now being married and in my 30s with a restaurant of 20 employees — I want to give them health insurance and time off around the holidays. This is a good opportunity for our employees, and it is really important for us to shift the paradigm on that. 

It’s a job for some, but we want this to be a career, too. We want to form and grow a hospitality group and we want our employees to know and believe we will take them with us. 

I’m a capitalist through and through, but that doesn’t mean I have to be a cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch.” 

BONUS CONTENT: Stream full-Length Interview by Electric City Editor Frank Etheridge with Chef Landon Thompson recorded at Animal Farm 10.2.21.

Age: 36
Education: Brookstone School, Art Institute of Atlanta Culinary School
Family: Windsor (wife) Kay and Landy (mom and dad), Ellie (sister)
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Chef Landon Thompson 10.2.2021

About the author

Frank Etheridge

Native son and veteran journalist Frank Etheridge is Editor of Electric City, a digital media outlet dedicated to documenting the news and culture of Columbus, Georgia.

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