Along with partners Hans Limburg and Greg Reggio, Gary Darling is co-founder of Taste Buds Inc. (www.thetastebuds.com), a New Orleans-based restaurant development and consulting firm that launched the Semolina restaurant concept in 1991 and the Zea Rotisserie & Grill chain in 1997. A Los Angeles native and chef, Darling moved to Louisiana in the 1970s and by 1983 was working with legendary New Orleans chef and food developer Warren LeRuth to help build Copeland's of New Orleans into a national restaurant chain. Earlier this year, Taste Buds won the National Restaurant Association's Restaurant Neighbor Award for community service.
From your start as a chef, how did your career lead you to restaurant management and development?
Darling: My path evolved from working those 16- or 18-hour days in the kitchen at restaurants and hotels and then transitioned into the teaching end of it, and that's what introduced me to the research and development part of being a chef. From there, it was back into the creative role of developing restaurants. I think that background allowed me, along with my partners, to come up with recipes and restaurant models that have creativity and consistency.
What's a key component for a restaurant model to successfully expand?
D: The foundation is to develop a palate of flavors with your seasonings and sauces that are unique to your place, that people can only get there and that shows through in your food. So at Zea, when someone gets the Thai ribs, they know it will be the same at any location. That depends on having someone who consistently can produce your flavors for you.
Last year, you and your partners created Three Chefs One Mission to cook for communities recovering from natural disasters. Is that about more than just providing meals?
D: When we do those events, we approach it like a mini Jazz Fest. We set up a stage, we have music, there's a lot going on, and when people come to eat, we're not serving relief food. We have Louisiana seafood, Louisiana dishes. So we look at it as providing relief in two ways. Yes, there's food and sustenance, but you're also taking your mind off whatever you're dealing with. Those problems will still be there, but you're giving people a little emotional, psychological and physical relief. — IAN MCNULTY