It was never going to be easy opening a new upscale restaurant in a town already saturated with them. Yet Vintage 2298 owner and chef Randall Baldwin has defied the odds all the same.
Vintage 2298, the newest addition to the Auburn food scene, is an ode to Baldwin’s mom, Nancy McGhee Baldwin.
The restaurant, which first opened on Oct. 22, has played host to some of Auburn's most notable current residents, including Bruce Pearl, Butch Thompson and Greg Williams, who all attended the grand opening.
“This is for my mom, not me. I’ve been cooking for 25 years, I’ve had my time, and she has always believed [in] and supported my passion,” Baldwin said.
His mother was a born and raised "country girl" who always loved cooking for her siblings and ultimately passed down the home-cooking gene to Baldwin.
“Biscuits were the first thing I helped her cook. I was around 7 cutting the biscuit dough with a tea glass,” Baldwin said.
In his teenage years, he worked at a pizza shop. Baldwin decided that college was not for him and was struggling to figure out what to do.
“I need to be on my feet and stimulated,” Baldwin said.
At the age of 21, he decided to join the Marine Corps, but his love of cooking put the idea in his mind that he could make a living as a chef once out of the military.
After his time in the service, he began cooking for fun. One day he was in the kitchen cutting vegetables by the sink and a lightbulb went off. He immediately went to the newspaper and looked in classified ads for job listings, and the rest is history.
He began working at the Adams Mark Hotel cutting vegetables, where he was taught the basics of being a chef. After his time there, he decided to go to the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
His mom bought him a Honda Accord to make the drive and pursue his dream. Right in the middle of his schooling, his mom passed from breast cancer.
“She told me to go back and finish school, you’ve got a real gift. From that point I declared to myself that everything I do is for her,” Baldwin said.
After staying in New York for five years, he moved to Birmingham to work with Frank Stitt. Baldwin started working in Stitt’s restaurant, Bottega, then at Chezz Fon Fon before becoming the kitchen manager at Highlands Bar and Grill.
Prior to Vintage 2298, Baldwin took a job at Dyron’s Low Country, where he worked for 11 years developing menus and cooking styles. It was at Dyron's that he truly realized his dream of becoming a chef.
Vintage 2298’s menu is coastal cuisine. The ‘Sunrise’ caught red snapper is a staple on the menu. When he would take it off the menu at other restaurants he worked at prior to opening Vintage 2298, it was immediately requested by customers to be put back on.
The love of food and honoring his mother is seen in the restaurant and the menu. Baldwin loves the lifestyle and instant gratification of seeing people enjoy his creations.
According to Baldwin, that gratification and seafood-focused fares born from it are inspired by his upbringing.
"I’m a South Alabama boy," he said.
The restaurant is geared toward anybody who enjoys good food. Growing up, his parents began taking him to nice restaurants, and there he learned proper food etiquette.
That early love for food has manifested itself in Vintage 2298, with Baldwin planning on adding a kid’s menu to provide a similar experience he had.
As a child, one of his favorite things to eat was escargot, and his advanced pallet was also passed on to his three children.
“Our kids enjoy good food, our 5-year-old loves raw oysters,” Baldwin said.
Family is at the heart of this establishment. His wife, Laura, whose favorite dessert is the Pot de crème, encouraged his dream and is an integral part of the establishment.
Arches seen throughout the restaurant are near replicas of the arches in Baldwin's childhood kitchen. Upstairs hangs a painting of his childhood kitchen. Paintings of coastal scenes, done by local artist Sarah Goodling, are scattered across the downstairs walls.
However, the restaurant's artistic focal point can be seen over the arch above the kitchen. It is a mural of Nancy, recreated from a photo taken by her then-soon-to-be husband after they decided to go to Destin for the day.
Now, 164 miles away, Auburn has been nothing but welcoming to the Baldwin family. And for that, he is appreciative.
“Auburn has helped us in the hard process of building something from the ground up, doing something like this anywhere else would have been extremely difficult," Baldwin said. "Auburn has been fantastic to us. Auburn is a great market and needed a new, different restaurant that is approachable to everyone.”
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Bri Johnson, sophomore in journalism, is a news writer at The Plainsman.