Finger Steaks and Second Chances

Chef Lou Aaron (the Westside Drive In) is an icon. Idahoans have seen his appearances on the Food Network with Guy Fieri and Alton Brown or have caught his cooking demonstrations on KTVB. His story is well known: Lou is a hometown boy who does good.

Chef Lou got his start washing dishes. He apprenticed at several Boise establishments before graduating his apprenticeship program. He moved to San Antonio and was a chef for a well-known hotel chain. He was featured on PBS’ Great Chefs of the West. Word of his talent spread, and soon he was offered a position at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in Aspen.

On the fast track to fame and fortune, he was surrounded by glamorous celebrities, but he wasn’t happy. Everyone who worked there was doing drugs, and Lou realized he wanted out and returned to San Antonio. In 1989, wanting to spend more time with his children, Chef Lou and his family moved to Boise. In 1994, as he was looking for an upscale restaurant to buy, he noticed a “for sale” sign on the Westside Drive In. Lou had grown up nearby, and nostalgia won out.

Since becoming the owner of the Westside, Lou’s greatest story has unfolded. During all the years at other restaurants, Lou kept a journal of things he liked/disliked about how they were run. That journal has become his playbook for running the Westside Drive In. He describes his approach as a three-part formula: excellent communication with employees about the whys of everything they are asked to do, training each staff member to exemplify the mission statement (“We exist for our customers”), and treating employees like they are family. Lou lives what he preaches. He makes a point of hiring employees who have nowhere to go or can’t get another job.

Working at the Westside Drive In is excellent job training. Besides getting to learn the art of cooking from scratch under an incredibly skilled chef, employees learn the particulars of business. Lou wants employees to be able to leave the Westside Drive In and succeed elsewhere. A number of Westside employees have gone on to become chefs at other restaurants. More remarkable is how he treats the employees who don’t succeed.

Chef Lou says about 75% of prison inmates are addicts. Whether it is his ordination as a Catholic deacon or his experience as a sober alcoholic that informs his actions, Lou is a boss of second chances. When one of his employees falls off the bandwagon, he helps them get sober and gives them their job back if they wish it. Lou’s mercy extends to second, third and even fourth chances.

“We try to help people as much as we can.”

As a deacon, Lou is literally a servant of the people. For 35-40 hours per week, he serves the community through baptisms, weddings, funerals and visits to people who are sick, widowed or in prison. Add those hours to the 35 hours per week he spends at the Westside Drive In, and it seems miraculous he has time for anything else.

To top it off, Lou has lymphoma. But, it doesn’t seem to slow down his ministry at all. With so many accomplishments to his credit, it would be easy to be arrogant, but Lou is as unassuming and warm as can be. He truly loves people.

Lou is looking ahead to handing off the Westside Drive In to his son, Josh, who currently runs the ParkCenter location.

Truly, Lou is the chef who makes everything good: food, business, employees and his community.