Get in the Game!
Lexington Diner Chef Ranada Riley hits Food Network
Lexington Diner, at the corner of Upper and Short, is due to celebrate its one-year-anniversary in February of 2015, but Chef and proprietor Ranada West-Riley will be a household name (and face) long before that. She will compete on the Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games in November, hosted by Chef Guy Fieri.
She is throwing down for the “Thanksgiving Grocery Trot” episode, appropriately enough, as she explains, “My favorite Kentucky food memory of all time would be when I was a kid and helped my mom and grandmother cook Thanksgiving dinner….and by this, I mean they had me washing dishes and watching them.”
Her favorite behind-the-scenes moment with Guy Fieri that viewers won’t see on air, came when “we were all playing around rehearsing where to stand and what to do and Guy was kidding around …. I told him not to hate because I had better hair than him. He had to touch it.”
Win or lose, this likely won’t be her last appearance on food television. Her favorites? “It’s a toss-up between Iron Chef America and Chopped. I challenge myself in hopes of one day doing Chopped. I steal techniques from the Iron Chefs.”
Undaunted when she lost her job just before Christmas last year, Chef Ranada West-Riley bumped up her timeline on opening her own restaurant, and took to Kickstarter to help fund the Lexington Diner, which opened in February this year.
Ten months in, she characterizes the response, including rave reviews on yelp and urban spoon, as both “overwhelming and so appreciated.” Of the many glowing comments, she admits, “I would have to say the nicest thing has been when a customer said my hot brown was better than his mother’s, and she was sitting at the table…. He was in trouble after that one I’m sure.”
With two decades of professional cooking under her belt, she admits she first felt like a chef when “I had my name and title embroidered with the logo of our restaurant. That was an amazing day. I have had numerous coats with my name and Executive Chef title, but this…”
For chefpreneur inspiration, she cites locals like Ouita Michel, who helms a bluegrass culinary empire that includes Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station, Windy Corner, and Smithtown Seafood. “She’s a powerhouse when it comes to innovative local food, a James Beard award winner, has successfully built an empire of restaurants in 13 years, has contributed over $1M in the local food industry and has still maintained a humble and helpful spirit. This woman is the real deal and has given me so much valuable advice.”
She’s heartened by Lexington’s progress in some of the areas Chef Ouita Michel helped to pioneer. “More and more restaurants are using local foods and products. I feel we are starting to really build momentum in this area….I think Lexington has been challenged with eating at chain restaurants. This has drastically changed as Lexington becomes more and more invested in local restaurants and Farmers Markets. We have a broader palate than we are given credit for.”
Broad palates are a defining characteristic among her culinary heroes, who include, “First and foremost, Julia Child. She set the bar and helped women to start being more creative and leaders in the kitchen. She also let people know you’re never too old to start living your dream. Second, Ina Garten. She’s self-taught with no formal training, and rocks out great food with poise and class. She is not classically trained and was actually a policy analyst for the White House as her first career. She emphasizes the whole experience, food, ambiance and being a great host. We adopt those same standards at our diner. Thirdly, Anne Burrell. She got into food while watching and working with her mom. She was then a culinary instructor at a top culinary school. I love learning and teachers are fabulous. She’s also out as a lesbian and proud, helping pave the way for the rest of us out here.”
A mainstay behind the Lexington Women Chef series, West-Riley has shown off some of the same resilience that characterizes her role models, recalling the time “I broke my ankle, a month and a half into our opening. I MC’d the event and couldn’t fit in the kitchen with my cast and wheelchair. I had to trust it would happen and everyone got a kick out of me giving up control.”
If she could sit down with any five Lexingtonians over Sunday brunch at Lexington Diner? She says she would invite: “Mayor Jim Gray – to discuss the vision and direction of Lexington’s growth. Michael Johnathon – he has made such an impact in the music scene in Lexington, instrumental (no pun intended) in bringing artists that are cool and in intimate settings. Sheila Bayes – She has been a wonderful patron of the diner, I live vicariously through her pictures on facebook. My mother, Fern Riley – she is the reason I started cooking and had me in the kitchen at a young age. She was innovative in the early 80s when it wasn’t a big deal and there was no Food Network. Her ideas were her own and she never gave up on me. Miguel Rivas – Azur and Brasabana restaurants… He taught me so much the two years I worked for him at Georgetown College. He trusted me with large caterings and taught me a lot about plating and time management.”
For now, she can’t divulge anything about her fate on Guy’s Grocery Games, she would only admit to one possible shift in strategy if she had it to do over, “I would have to say my key strategy would be not to be so panicked. Thirty minutes is a lot longer with a cool head instead of freaking out. Also, don’t change your idea once you start.”
Chef Ranada West-Riley will appear on the November 9 episode of Guy’s Grocery Games on Sunday, November 9. Check local listings! The next Lexington Women Chefs series will be the Winter Harvest Dinner at Wild Thyme on Chinoe on November 20.
Lightning Round with the Chef
Favorite Lexington Restaurant Meal:
Shrimp Ceviche, followed by the Carnitas with extra pickled red onion then slide into home with the Tres Leches, all with Mojitoes at Brasabana.
Five Things in the Fridge right now:
This is laughable….
Various Kentucky wines; yogurt; Kennys Farmhouse tomato basil cheese; applewood thick cut bacon; unsalted butter; and Ward’s bourbon chocolate sauce.
Keep it simple and don’t overseason.
Guilty Pleasure Food:
Bacon…sometimes I’m left alone in the kitchen and have to cherish those quiet moments with a piece or four.