At 46, Nathan Lindley has had a prolific career as a restaurateur — with three successful restaurants currently under his ownership: Public House at Warehouse Row and two locations of Il Primo (in Riverview and Ooltewah). He began his culinary career at the tender age of 14 at a full-service restaurant at Rock City. Later, he waited tables at The Gardens restaurant, once a popular eatery at the Chattanooga Choo Choo.
But it wasn't until he moved to Birmingham and began working under legendary chef Frank Stitt at his award-winning restaurant, Bottega, that his culinary career began in earnest.
"The fraternity I was in during college had a pipeline to his restaurants, where you would pass your job down when you left," Lindley recalls. "I started there as a barback [a bartender's assistant]. Over the course of three years, I worked every job possible in the restaurant."
In 2000, Lindley opened St. John's Restaurant in downtown Chattanooga, then opened a small lunch cafe, Cafe Bella, across Market Street. With his brother, he opened The Meeting Place, a sister restaurant to St. John's, before moving to Nashville to open Watermark. In 2009, he moved back to Chattanooga and opened Public House. In May 2014 he opened Il Primo in Riverview, followed by the second Ooltewah location in late 2017.
"The years I worked for Frank (Stitt) were the most formative, though. I was not someone who was in his inner circle by any means, but he was so far ahead of most restaurants nationally in his attention to local products and seasonality."
It's this appreciation of using local foods in season that Lindley brings to the tables in his restaurants.
Q: What is your earliest cooking memory?
A: I grew up as the eldest of five boys, so keeping everyone fed on a tight budget was a constant concern. Potatoes were a major part of our diet, so I think my first memory of food preparation is peeling potatoes. I will say that mashed potatoes and gravy is still my favorite thing to eat.
Q: Did you cook much with your brother Daniel (owner/chef at Alleia and Nashville restaurants 5th & Taylor and The Back Corner) while you were both still at home?
A: Daniel and I were both always involved in preparing meals at home and very self-sufficient in the kitchen at an early age. We would both contend that we made the best grilled cheese sandwiches.
Q: Has the coronavirus epidemic prepared you to do things a little differently in the future?
A: This has been such a whirlwind that I haven't been able to really process it yet. I'm afraid there is still a fair amount of pain and learning for restaurants that do survive.
Q: Have you learned anything from this unfortunate situation?
A: It has reinforced lessons I learned during the recession, which sadly feels like a hiccup now. Hold onto cash. Never take anything for granted.
Q: The menu at Public House has a good deal of Southern influence. How would you best describe it?
A: It's always been a product-driven menu. It started with the Southern "meat-and-three" as inspiration with the idea that I could prepare each item using the techniques and resources I learned working primarily in fine-dining restaurants. About three years after it opened, the "locavore" and "foodie" movements really took hold, and the menu fit in with the popular response to that. Shortly after that, Southern cuisine in general started to become more of a national trend. One of my struggles has been differentiating what we do from the many restaurants that look so similar to Public House. When we opened, people would comment that serving pimento cheese as an appetizer was odd. Can you imagine that now?
Q: What was the impetus behind opening an Italian restaurant?
A: I wanted a restaurant that the neighborhood could love — like it had been there for a long time, generations even. So I took my guidance from the old-school American Italian restaurants in the Northeast and St. Louis.
Q: How would you describe the Il Primo menu?
A: American-Italian, which is decidedly much more American than Italian.
Q: Who taught you to cook Italian?
A: Some of my inspiration came from working at Bottega, which applies a fair amount of Southern influence to Italian cooking. I also worked with my friend, Bruce Weiss, who used to do New York Italian dinners at River Street Deli. He helped keep me grounded.
Q: Where do you come up with ideas for new recipes?
A: I'm a constant food magazine and cookbook reader. McKay's Books is such a great resource to buy cookbooks inexpensively.
Q: What's your favorite cookbook?
A: Without question, "La Technique," by Jacques Pepin.
Q: Who would make up the foursome at your dream dinner?
A: My grandfather, Herbert Sussman, who was someone who loved food and, as a World War II prisoner of war survivor, loved sharing it. Danny Meyer, who is my restaurant and life hero. Johnny Cash, because he is awesome. And my wife, Jerri, because she has been my greatest supporter through good and bad. With apologies to my parents and brothers.
Q: What is the trick to running three successful restaurants in one town?
A: There is no secret to it: great managers who really care and bring a skill set different and better than my own.
Q: Why did you decide to open Il Primo in Ooltewah? Do you feel that it's a growing restaurant destination?
A: Cambridge Square presented a unique opportunity to create a longstanding neighborhood institution. The neighborhood has been a little slow to develop, but we already see the restaurant as a part of the lives of many regular guests, which is the greatest reward.
Q: What's the most important tool in your kitchen?
A: A Misono chef knife.
Q: What food is your guilty pleasure?
A: A perfectly cooked New York strip steak basted with butter, garlic and thyme and finished with good salt.
Q: What's one of your favorite recipes for the summer months?
A: This is simple and basic, but I remember my first partner at St. John's cooking this at my house one day, and I still do it all the time.
Grilled Vegetable Salad
1 yellow squash
1 red onion
1 head of broccoli
1 head of cauliflower
1/2 cup good-quality red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 cup olive oil
1 cup canola oil
Cut the vegetables into a size convenient for your grill. Brush or toss them in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, and grill them individually until they are cooked but definitely still firm. When they are cool enough to handle, cut them into uniform bite-size pieces. While still warm, dress them in the vinaigrette a little at a time. Don't overdress it immediately or it will get soggy. Serve room temperature.
To make vinaigrette: In a large bowl, mix red wine vinegar and Dijon mustard. Using a whisk, stir steadily. Slowly add olive oil. Continuing to whisk steadily, slowly add canola oil. Season with salt and pepper.
Email Anne Braly at email@example.com.