(This article appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
An award-winning pastry chef who spent eight years running the pastry program of the Mina Group, Lincoln Carson has gradually reset his career trajectory over the years, becoming a chef, restaurateur and inspirational leader. His newest venture, Mes Amis, is a brasserie style restaurant set to open this fall in Los Angeles.
Neither a Young Turk nor an éminence grise, pastry chef Lincoln Carson combines the energy of the former with the wisdom of the latter in one formidable package. A more than 30-year career heading pastry programs for Michael Mina, working in NYC’s starry places including Le Bernardin and La Côte Basque and opening Bon Temps (sadly a casualty of the pandemic), a stylish all-day café in LA’s downtown, Carson is modest: “It’s astonishing that after all of these years there is a realization about how much you don’t know. Even when you feel you’re doing everything right, sometimes it’s not enough. Nobody likes to fail particularly in a first solo operation. But the lesson here is: Do not be afraid of not knowing something.” Leading a team, he conveys the importance of leaning on people who do know something. “Team building is about encouraging everyone to contribute. I have embraced that philosophy in each of the enterprises that I have led or been a part of.” Not one to shy away from having a number of balls in the air at once, Carson is also involved as a partner in two other newly opened ventures, Coast Range & Vaquero Bar in Solvang (CA) and Mérite Bakeshop, a to-go only pastry concept in Boise (ID). He is also a guest educator and consulting pastry chef with Valrhona Chocolate, offering classes at their Brooklyn (NY) facility in his “spare time.”
With the arrival of the pandemic, Carson has begun to ask himself why it is so challenging to attract committed staff. “The staff shortage is a very real issue. There is an incredible lack of labor despite decent wages to start. Putting the call out for Mes Amis, my new restaurant, has not brought a lot of response. Why is this so? People working in the field have had a year-plus off, away from their jobs. They are considering their lives. There is a true need to rebalance a broken system –in terms of compensation along with expectations of what people are willing to do. It comes down to analyzing what drives young and not-so-young people.”
From his long-range perspective as a veteran in the field, he remains sanguine but realistic when he says, “You don’t get immediate gratification out of this, in terms of a career. If they are looking for a job that blossoms into a career within a couple of years, this isn’t the business for you. Instead, it is a field for people who have desire to push, to become better, and enjoy the prospect of lifelong learning.”
When asked what will drive the aesthetic, the feel, and the menu at Mes Amis, Carson confidently replies, “We want to open the doors for everyone; we’re not pulling out our tweezers or overly dramatizing the food here.” It will be foundationally a French brasserie with a California sensibility, continuing his commitment to using locally grown ingredients as the inspiration for the menu. “We fully embrace the idea of hospitality. It will be a place you want to frequent. Whether dining at the bar or at one of the 160 seats in the space, our customers hopefully will appreciate the care, the love and effort that went into what appears on their plates. We know that customer expectations are getting higher, which is a driver to do more and do better. If you are doing it correctly, then the ever more discerning public reacts positively and that is appreciated by the staff.”
With the R&D done and leading the staff to where they are comfortable working in the new space, Carson he is ready to hand over the reins of the day-to-day operations to a seasoned highly competent staff, five of whom stem from the Bon Temps days. They are excited to be part of the team again, looking to excel and perhaps move on to the next opportunity, which is always a pleasure for a chef who has seen them grow. The key to these team members’ success, according to Carson: “The work ethic has to be there. If I’m the hardest working person in the building, that can be a detriment, but I don’t ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t do. I like to think that I lead by example.”
Dishes, both on the savory and the sweet sides, will benefit from the chef’s pastry prowess. In keeping with the brasserie vibe, there will be some pâté en croute as well as a good old fashioned pastry cart with three or four items on it, plus a few sweet dishes that will emerge from the kitchen plated â la minute, too.
The chef asserts modestly: “I’ve been given a lot of opportunity allowing me to open Mes Amis, and I am not afraid to go out on a limb and make it right.” Somehow there is no reason to doubt him when the proof of the pudding will certainly be in the eating.