Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of interviews with local chefs.
Griffin Paulin recently finished second on the Food Network show “Chopped,” an intense-competition program for chefs around the United States. When the show aired on Jan. 16, Paulin enjoyed a watch party with dozens of friends at Left Field Lounge, one of his preferred hangouts.
On the show, the Mirin owner/chef competed gamely, making the most of his opportunities, including a torched lollipop neonata relish, only falling to a smug chef named Glen thanks in part to some uncooperative raspberries.
But he says he’d do the show again in a heartbeat, and the support he received from friends is a big part of that.
“I don’t think anybody owes you kindness,” he says. “At the same time, I think it’s nice to have that here. I love Louisville so much.”
A few years ago, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to be a chef, let alone be on a cooking show. In a way, he was still looking for himself.
“The first six or seven years I was cooking, I didn’t think I loved it,” he says, sipping a Guinness Irish Stout at the Irish Rover. “It wasn’t something I immediately had a passion for. It was more like I liked the vibe of it — fire and sharp knives.”
But after coming up through the ranks at a variety of restaurants, he became friends with Dustin Staggers and joined the team that in 2014 opened Roux in the Highlands. Early success led to the group then opening Rumplings, a ramen eatery just down Bardstown Road, which became Paulin’s pet project.
But it was short-lived — it closed after less than a year and the space was reimagined as an ill-fated sandwich concept.
Paulin went from cloud nine to looking for another job. He worked at Over the 9 for a while, then ended up working the line at Corbett’s, a mouthful of crow for his dinner after being an owner. He blames ego, and said while the parting of ways with his partner post-Rumplings was awkward, he and Staggers are again friends.
Paulin learned some lessons.
“I really enjoyed being a restaurant owner, but I didn’t really give a shit about owning a restaurant,” he says, noting that he was spending too much time partying behind the scenes. “There was a real lack of focus at Rumplings on my part, and there probably was some arrogance. That didn’t pan out the way that I’d hoped. It’s for the best, though, because who knows where I’d be?”
Burnout might have played a role, as well. At one point, Paulin was working two full-time sous chef jobs, totaling roughly 100 hours a week. Getting back to basics at Corbett’s was the reboot he needed.
“Then the question became, ‘What am I going to do?’” he says. “The Rumplings thing kind of haunted me. I knew what I had, and I knew how well it could have been done if I had just focused. I really wanted to redeem that concept. So I found the space, had a little money saved up from doing 10 Tables, which was really lucrative. I got some help from my family. By time I got it open, I had $11 and a cooler full of product left. And I had one dude who was all aboard.”
The restaurant concept was Mirin, another ramen-focused eatery, and that “dude” was Michael MacInnes, who at times Paulin couldn’t even afford to pay. But MacInnes was all in on the concept; he is now chef de cuisine.
“You don’t find a dude like that,” Paulin says. “To have that sort of loyalty from somebody means more than I can put into words. He’s so talented. Without him, we wouldn’t have made it.”
Paulin even had a painting commissioned of MacInnes, which now hangs in the restaurant on Frankfort Avenue. It is a tribute to MacInnes’ fast and furious education on ramen, and a work that must be seen to be appreciated.
Talking with Paulin means talking restaurants, but it also means talking about everything from beer politics and social issues. Paulin has serious, dark eyes, and while he has a laugh ever-ready, he’s not one to keep his opinions quiet, as you know if you follow him on social media.
One topic he has strong opinions about is that of people who slam local businesses on Yelp and other review sites.
“I fucking hate it, man,” he says, faux-collapsing on the bar for a moment in mock exasperation. “I fucking hate it so much. But that comes with (restaurant ownership) at the end of the day.”
Speaking of restaurant criticism, Paulin attracted a lot of attention to himself in 2016 when he posted on his blog, Kitchen Banter, a harsh review of Joella’s Hot Chicken. It drew ire and threats of legal action from owner Tony Palombino, and had the dining scene polarized.
The review was posted under a name other than his own, and many accused him of writing it and covering it up, a claim he still denies.
Still, he looks back on that time and sees a different Griffin Paulin than he sees today.
“It’s probably just time to apologize for that,” he says. “I love my city so much and … I want to do something positive. I don’t think that was positive. Does that mean I think (Palombino) handled that correctly? Absolutely not. But looking back, maybe that should never have been a thing in the first place. What was the point in that? There was no good end game in that. There’s enough people out there shit-talking other people. Why would I be party to that?”
(The original post has since been deleted, and Paulin hasn’t posted since late 2016.)
With Mirin finally making a profit and good reviews coming, he’s now focusing more on running the business than ever before.
He’s being a restaurant owner as well as owning a restaurant. Perhaps more importantly, he’s also still being himself, something he might not have balanced so well just five years ago.
Becoming a parent for the second time has no doubt played a role, and he enjoys talking about 8-year-old son Braden and 2-year-old daughter Annabelle, who is as willing to be herself as her father (Paulin said she recently tried to put him in time out.)
At 29, he believes he’s grown up, and being his own man, in his own way.
“I try not to take myself too fucking seriously,” he says. “Life’s supposed to be fun. I think life finally is fun for me, for the first time in a while.”