by Joey Amato | photo courtesy of Whitney Lee Thompson Forrester
Whitney Lee Thompson Forrester is the Cycle 10 Winner of America’s Next Top Model, the owner of the Copper Vault restaurant, spokesperson for the National Eating Disorders Association, creator of the Chief David Thompson (CDT) Youth Initiative, and a youth activist. She is also a devoted ally to the LGBT+ community in Middle Tennessee.
She’s had three billboards in Times Square, graced the cover of Seventeen Magazine and Italian Vogue, had a slew of Covergirl commercials as well as ads, and worked for every major company under the sun, including, Forever 21, Saks 5th Avenue, and Target.
Whitney has even been voted one of the Most Influential Women in the world by MSN. Today, you would be hard-pressed to catch her walking the runway in any fashion capital, but you may see her strutting towards your table to welcome you to her restaurant in Springfield, Tennessee.
Are you from Tennessee?
I am not from Tennessee. That’s actually quite a long story. My husband was born in Boston. He went to culinary school in Florida and then studied painting and print-making at the Boston School of the Museum of Fine Arts. I was born and raised in north Florida, but I moved to New York when I was 18. I lived there for 5 years, Los Angeles for 2 years, London for 3 years (Ian and I became engaged there), and settled in Springfield, TN., where my family had relocated. Our intent was never to stay in Tennessee, but we fell in love with this small town.
Have you owned a restaurant before?
I had never worked in the restaurant industry, but obviously, my husband had. Actually, I was a waitress once when I was 16 and I was the absolute worst. However, I LOVED to cook and bake, so I thought, how hard could it be? The answer was, really freaking hard. If you love to cook and/or bake, you should NEVER open a restaurant. Taste is subjective. Your great grandmother’s recipe for pot roast that has been passed down for generations, that you’ve made at countless dinner parties and everyone raves about will taste like crap to someone and they will not only tell you, they will also leave you a crappy one-star review for it. Poor Gam-Gam, being torn to shreds on Yelp…it is incredibly difficult and absolutely impossible to please everyone.
When did you open The Copper Vault?
My husband and I opened Copper Vault in September of 2016. It was actually an expansion of our first restaurant, Whitney Lee’s, which was farm-to-table fine dining. After opening, we realized that Springfield needed so much more than just fine dining. The only coffee shop was Dunkin’ Donuts in a gas station. The only ice cream shop was Dairy Queen. We wanted to expand, but we didn’t want the stuffy feel of the first restaurant, even though we do still source locally as much as we can. I always said that Whitney Lee’s was a place for like-minded people to gather and feel safe. I like to think that Copper Vault is the same. We attract free-thinking people and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
What was the inspiration behind the menu?
My husband, Chef Forrester, is the executive chef and his specialty is actually Asian fusion. One of the first chef’s he worked under was Roy Yamaguchi (of the very successful Roy’s franchise) but he’s also worked under many Michelin star chefs and when we came to Springfield from London, England, we were…shall I say, ambitious? We honestly did not know the market, nor did we understand it. Everything at Whitney Lee’s was made from scratch and we had people storm out, saying, “Y’all don’t got ranch?! This is an OUTRAGE!!!” We were in knots, trying to figure out how to make people happy without compromising our integrity. It was beyond frustrating. Just because “that’s the way it’s always been done” does not mean that’s the way it should be done. We refused to compromise our integrity and thankfully, it began attracting a whole new demographic. We started getting people from all over Tennessee, Kentucky, and even Alabama! Springfield began to grow and change with us. It was undoubtedly the most difficult thing that I’ve done, but I’m glad that we did it.
What are some of the chef’s favorite menu items?
Oh, gosh. He’s a weirdo. Hahaha, I can say that because I’m married to him. He loves the grilled Brussels Sprouts with Bulgogi seasoning, our Kimchi sweet potato fries, vegan brownies by the boatload, local Bratwursts with Gochujang & Kimchi… basically anything Asian or chocolate-based. Mind you, most of our menu is totally not Asian. Also, we rarely get to eat our favorite dishes because we are so busy. We pretty much sustain ourselves on Impossible burgers (I’m vegan) and cold French fries and tater tots. I’m a garbage vegan. Am I being too honest?
What have been some of your biggest challenges?
Springfield is a great town, full of genuine people, but it is a little behind the times. A little is an understatement. When we opened our first restaurant, the Department of Justice came, and the NAACP were speaking on the courthouse steps in front of our restaurant. Apparently, they had never desegregated the school system and people were protesting the desegregation (It is now desegregated). We were in absolute shock and were questioning why we even moved to a place like this.
However, a town like this has a lot of room for growth and we decided to “be the change” so to speak. We started the CDT Youth Initiative to help at-risk youth in the community. There is no Boys & Girls Club. There is no free center for low-income kids. We have about 15 gangs, but no free basketball courts. We wanted to change the city. It’s a work in progress, but it feels good to implement a program like this and immediately see results. We already have kids going to college instead of jail for the first time in their families!
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of creating the CDT Youth Initiative, and particularly our education and awareness of homosexuality. In the projects, gay is thought of as such a “bad” word. These kids aren’t allowed to be gay, to talk about it, to express themselves, and if they are caught, they’re thrown out of their homes.
It is heart-breaking. My adopted brother, James, went through this when he was “coming out” to his biological family. Now, he’s a Broadway star and a beacon of hope for so many coming from similar backgrounds.
We try to teach the kids that being gay is not a bad thing. In fact, it makes you even more unique! Obviously, there are limits to what we are allowed to say because these are kids and we don’t want them to be beaten or made homeless because of our actions. We just gently teach all of the kids that being gay is more than okay and we do not allow anyone to call anyone negative words or ever use homosexual terms in a negative way.
I teach a kid who’s on the football team and he’s a great dancer. He loves to dance! He was asking me how I walked in my high heels because he had tried but could never get it right. Most people would have stopped and said, “Wait. When are you wearing high heels, young man?” I didn’t bat an eye. I told him it was easy. We just needed to get heels in his size. It’s sad but honestly, it’s just treating kids like kids. I listen to them and make sure that they feel heard, even if it’s the only place in their life where they get to feel that way.
I once had a little girl tell me that she didn’t like gays and I gasped. I said, “Girl, I don’t know how you ever expect to be fabulous without some gays in your life! Uh-uh. Every girl needs a gay.” Maybe it isn’t the politically correct thing to say, but I’m trying to teach the kids that there are other ways to think about homosexuality that are not negative. It changed her mind. At the end of the day, that’s all I can hope for.
Have you participated in any LGBTQ events?
Do drag shows count? Honestly, I would love to do more in Tennessee, but I’m not really well- connected yet. I lived in Hell’s Kitchen in New York, AKA the “Gayborhood,” did “Broadway Bares, Equity Fights Aids” and I received the key to West Hollywood, so I was at pretty much every LGBT+ event, but I’d love to be more in the know about events in Tennessee.
What are your plans for the rest of 2019?
We just got back from China and Vietnam, so we’ll be doing some fun dishes inspired by our travels. We also have a summer program for the CDT Youth Initiative that is really intense. It is imperative that we keep these kids busy while school is out, so we do swim lessons, yoga, cooking classes, art, etc. with them Monday-Friday. We usually plan another international trip around Thanksgiving, but I am focusing all of my energy on the summer program for the kids right now.
If there is one thing you would like our readers to know about the restaurant, what would it be?
We are currently donating $1 from every slice of Rainbow Cake to homeless LGBT+ Youth and I’d love for you to stop in and have some. Also, I am here pretty much all the time and I love to meet people. Please come see me, take pictures, and hang out. I’d love to have you here!
Whitney still does modeling jobs on the side, but her focus has shifted to martinis instead of Manolo’s. She also writes a blog at www.WhitneysWanders.com, which talks about her travels, recipes, fashion, and more!
You can catch up with her on social media by following @WhitneyANTM or pop into her restaurant to meet her in person.