Indiana’s Top Chefs, Summer Edition: French Lick Springs Hotel

By Elizabeth Granger

Paul Owens, French Lick Springs Hotel 

FRENCH LICK, Ind. – Paul Owens was 12 when his mother bought a fast-food restaurant. He and his siblings all worked in it. When he started, he was so small he had to stand on a milk crate to make fries.

And for more than four decades now, the food industry has pretty much been in Owens’ life.

Except for short periods of time, like when he told his mother he wouldn’t be back at her restaurant the next day.

“‘You quit?” she said. “But you didn’t give me any notice.”

So she grounded him. Made him spend the next two weeks at the restaurant. Working. Without pay.

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He stayed. Until that short stint in a factory, which he knew to be a mistake right away. And although he started college, he realized it wasn’t for him. When he was 19 and “no longer allowed to stay in school,” he remembers his dad taking him to a travel agency and asking him where he wanted to go. “I thought it was a reward,” he says. He chose Phoenix because he’d heard his parents talk about retiring there someday, so he figured he’d go there and wait for them. “But they never showed up.”

His dad bought him a one-way ticket, saying it was time for him to grow up. He had $225 and the phone number of his mother’s bridge partner’s niece. On the last day of his money, he called that phone number and ended up with a night shift job in a restaurant. He was hired away by a franchisee in California, but after a year and a half there, “they closed the restaurant on my day off,” he says.

He got on a bus and returned to Illinois. Stayed with his parents “about two minutes” and then got a job with a national restaurant chain where he eventually traveled all over as a troubleshooter, solving problems. He moved to Indiana when someone offered him a stay-put job making less money and working more hours. “You can’t really turn that down,” he says and laughs. “You don’t get those opportunities every day, so I jumped on it.”

Owens credits his mother’s interaction with people more than anything else in preparing him for a lifetime in the food industry. She stressed quality, loyalty, appreciation.

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“The whole thing for me was training,” he says. “I love being able to teach people. How to do things easier, how to get them done quicker. That’s the part I like most, the employees.”

Owens is now the banquet/catering chef at French Lick Springs Hotel in French Lick. It’s pretty much his dream job because the Cook family philosophy matches his – to take care of the employees, take care of the buildings, take care of the guests. “It’s about respect, really,” Owens says.

He still trains people, with the huge plus of working with quality foods in a family-like atmosphere where, he says, “they treat me like the expert.”

French Lick Springs Hotel
(812) 936-9300