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Red Lobster’s Director of Culinary Wants You to Give It Another Try

Written By Scott Joseph On February 24, 2015

Dustin Hilinski Headshot copyDustin Hilinski has a big job on his hands. He is the director of culinary for a new seafood restaurant company, albeit a company started out as the largest chain of seafood restaurants in the world, with more than 700 locations. That’s a lot of people to feed, but that isn’t his biggest challenge. It’s getting the dining public to reconsider its opinion of Red Lobster and to give it a second chance.

For Hilinski, that means putting more fish and lobster on the menu. You’d think that would be obvious, what with the name of the restaurant and all. But Hilinski thinks that Red Lobster sort of lost its way in its final years under the Darden Restaurant banner. It tried, he says, to be too many things to too many people, and in so doing lost its focus.

Darden, of course, sold the seafood restaurant chain in May for $2.1 billion to private equity firm Golden Gate Capital. It was all kind of a messy situation and ultimately contributed to the reasons that led Clarence Otis to resign as Darden’s CEO and chairman. As it shed the brand like a crustacean during molting season, Darden said the company would be better off without it, citing that Red Lobster had not been profitable since 2011.

What happened to it? After all, this was the brand that launched what would become the largest restaurant company in the country when Bill Darden opened his first Red Lobster in Lakeland in 1968. He chose Lakeland because it was not on a coast, and he wanted to see if a seafood restaurant could succeed without a saltwater view. The middle of Florida, however, is hardly the middle of America. And getting average Americans to eat fish has always been one of the chain’s biggest challenges. That’s why, in its later years under Darden, Red Lobster was adding more non-seafood items to its menu.

So in creating his new menu for Red Lobster, Hilinski is not only adding more seafood, including more of the shellfish from which it gets its name, he’s also striking some of the items that were meant to appease the meat and potatoes devotees.

I met with Hilinski at the Red Lobster on International Drive for a tasting of several of the new items that are featured on the new menu and in the current Lobsterfest promotion.

Hilinski has culinary cred. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and was previously senior corporate chef at H.J. Heinz. The new menu is a large, multi-paged booklet that despite its size is smaller than the one it replaced, he says. Just about every menu item has an accompanying photo of the dish. This, he says, is to make seafood a little less intimidating to diners who are unfamiliar with it.

That notion might seem odd to omnivores, which would almost certainly include those who read articles on restaurant-centric websites. But there are millions of Americans who won’t even consider ordering something in a restaurant that didn’t once walk on land. Not just people who have tried seafood and didn’t find it to their liking but also people who just refuse to give it a first try. It’s arguable whether those with such diehard diets can be ever be converted, even with pretty pictures.

But it’s not just people finicky about fish, it’s also the people who found Red Lobster’s quality lagging in latter days at Darden. How do you get them to come back and give it another try?

Well, you start by focusing on the quality of the dishes. And from what I tasted, Hilinski and his team are headed in the right direction. Admittedly, I hadn’t stepped foot in a Red Lobster in over a decade (yet, I recall being served some rather dismally prepared shrimp). And the items I tasted were prepared for the interview and not ordered anonymously from the menu. But I found the dishes I tasted to be good, especially when you take into consideration the price point.

Red Lobster salmon

Wood-grilled lobster with salmon and shrimp is one of the new offerings that Hilinski is especially pleased with. Besides including the largest shrimp that Red Lobster has ever served — 16-20, for those of you who know your shrimp sizes — it also has heirloom baby gold potatoes, and the half lemon served with it is grilled. That’s a little detail that might go overlooked by even a discerning diner, but Hilinski says that grilling the lemon softens the tartness and adds a bit of sweetness from the caramelization. Oh, and those potatoes, which are dressed with a beurre noisette (wisely listed on the menu as brown butter, so as not to frighten), are specially produced by a farmer contracted solely by Red Lobster.

red lobster tacos

Wood-grilled tacos are another new item, which Hilinski says will appeal to fish-phobics because the seafood is “less upfront.”

red lobster dueling

Dueling lobster tails has one stuffed with crab and another topped with garlic shrimp. “The roasted Maine lobster bake,” says Hilinski, “is like having lobster with a side of lobster.” He adds, “It’s our namesake, so we’re kind of focused on that.”

Red Lobster linguine

To that point, in the lobster scampi linguini, another new item, Hilinski says there is as much lobster as there is pasta in the dish.

Over the next couple of weeks, Red Lobster will be moving into its new corporate headquarters in downtown Orlando’s CNL building. It’s a homecoming of sorts — Red Lobster’s first corporate offices were just up the block in the building that holds the Citrus Club.

There will be a state-of-the-art kitchen at the new headquarters as well as a training wing for managers and support staff. There will be a tasting room designed to look like a typical Red Lobster restaurant so that training and research can be done in a more “natural environment.” But there will be no Red Lobster restaurant open to the public.

At least not right away. “We’ve got to keep a few surprises for later,” says Hilinski.

What do you think? Will you give the “new” Red Lobster a try?

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