Elise Landry wins “Chopped Next Gen”

As a contestant and winner on the first season of the Food Network’s show “Chopped Next Gen,” Elise Landry became the chef on everyone’s mind in Olympia almost overnight. Her new restaurant, Chicory, which she co-owns and runs with her husband Adam Wagner, went from just getting open to having to close down online orders to focus on in-restaurant diners in a time when most restaurants were struggling to make it during the COVID-19 health restrictions. 

“It’s been amazing. We’ve had such support from the community,” noted Landry when I caught up with her on a warm summer Monday watering the plants in the restaurant. “In a small, tight-knit town like Olympia, not only does everyone feel connected, but there is already a deep appreciation for sustainable and locally sourced food. We felt like we fit in.”

Growing up in Kansas City, Landry loved her upbringing and region, but wanted to be closer to nature. After a quick scouting trip to the PNW, the couple retrofitted a motorhome, drove West, and spent two summers working in restaurants on Orcas Island. The dream was to open a restaurant of their own and everything came into alignment just when the pandemic hit. 

The process of opening Chicory started long before the pandemic and included navigating new building owners, leases, small business loans, and lots of renovations. Landry shared that, for a while, every day began by watching YouTube demonstrations and learning by doing. From hanging drywall to replacing a water heater, they had to figure it out. “There was no turning back.”

Veterans of many restaurants and kitchens, Landry and Wagner see Chicory as a platform to talk about sustainability and food systems, but also to rewrite the rules and create a truly healthy work environment for staff. “We want to create a place where our staff feels respected and valued.” 

They are walking the talk. In addition to showing care by baking a staff member’s favorite cookie on their birthday, bigger changes have been made at Chicory. Instead of customers leaving tips for their individual server, a 20% service fee is added to the bill which is shared by all employees. This new norm shifts some of the financial inequities experienced by all staff in the restaurant industry and has become common practice in restaurants in major metropolitan centers like Seattle and San Francisco, but has yet to be more widely adopted. In addition, they will be offering a special class with a personal trainer to learn stretching exercises to help alleviate some of the physical stress created by restaurant work. “It’s important to encourage both physical and mental health for our staff,” noted Landry. 

As she finished up watering the plants, Landry paused. “We have amazing light in the restaurant in the mornings when we are closed. I can just imagine a floor of yoga mats and potentially offering wellness classes to others in the restaurant industry,” she said. It might be a dream right now, but this next-generation chef is about more than an amazing menu or time in the spotlight. With Chicory, she is here to change restaurants one small step at a time. Hilary Ryan

Team — CHICORY (chicoryrestaurant.com)