Best Chef Linda Rooney is one independent lady. Since 1998, she’s run almost every edge of Linda’s Bistro in Aiken, SC. She’s the only cook in her kitchen, always.
On a busy night, like one of her monthly wine dinners, she’ll have two servers max working the floor. Usually, it’s one, and that’s it. No host or hostess. No server assistants. No bartenders.
“I have control of everything,” says Rooney. “I can see what is going on. Because I’ve been doing this for so long, I can work every station in the kitchen by myself, and that enables me to stay in business. I know everything coming out of this kitchen is first grade. I’m not ever relaxed anyway, but I’d be even less relaxed if I had to depend on everyone else to run my kitchen for me.”
Aiken, SC is a very small city, which means there is a dearth of dining options and not a lot of fine dining dollars to go around. Word of mouth has kept customers filling the seats of Linda’s Bistro, located inside a 150-year-old blue house with large white porches, formerly an attorney’s office that Rooney converted into a restaurant.
There’s a little window in the kitchen she looks out to say hi to the people who walk inside. Because it’s a very small city, she knows her customers. She says that’s the most wonderful part of doing business.
Linda’s Bistro is one of the only full-service, white table cloth restaurants in this country with only one person working the kitchen. The fare is Italian American with French influences, inspired by Rooney's French Canadian background. The atmosphere falls somewhere between fine and casual dining. The house holds 12 tables - 45 to 55 seats.
Some people find the ambiance elegant. She likes to think of it as charming. She's in the country, so it makes sense to keep things comfortable.
Rooney’s career in the food industry began with an invention of necessity. She needed a way to support herself after leaving a horse riding career that became too physically taxing. She made shortbread cookies for her friends during Christmas holidays that went over well, so she began to sell them to gourmet groceries. The cookies got picked up by Dean & Deluca, back when they had only one location in New York City. At one point, she produced 60 percent of D&D’s pastries.
Successfully producing a product and selling it in such a high magnitude in a city like New York gave her the confidence to move to Aiken and start her own venture. She never worked in a kitchen before starting Linda’s Bistro. If she ever thought she’d be running her own place, she would have gotten experience when she lived in the big city.
“There are light years between being a chef and a pastry chef,” she says. “Cooking has more urgency. To have a good product at the restaurant, everything has to be made and cooked to the right degree at the last minute. You have to know what it takes to complete a dish at the right time at the very end. Baking can be done the night before or in the morning.”
She crafts her menu based on experiences she has dining out or recipes in food magazines. She makes the dishes her own. There are items on the menu at Linda’s Bistro, like the sea bass, strip steak and Risotto a la Linda that have been on there since she opened.
What’s sustained Rooney is her unwillingness to bend to anything other than what she believes is the best. She doesn’t think of herself as a great chef in comparison with all the other great chefs in the world.
Her biggest strength is knowing what good ingredients are vs. mediocre. She uses as much organic produce as possible. Even in lean times, she’s refused to cut corners, for she knows it slowly but surely will show up on a Yelp review. It will eat away at her credibility. She never serves anything she thinks tastes less than great. And because she’s always in her kitchen, she gets to enforce this every day.