After seeing this tasty essay by Dave Query, founder and "Main Instigator" of the Big Red F Restaurant Group, in the fall edition of The Feed, Big Red F's newsletter, we asked if we could share it on Thanksgiving.
We in the restaurant business, for the most part, didn’t just fall into this craziness. It was in our bones and movements from an early age. Here is another “movement” from mine.
Last summer, in a moment of early morning clarity, I called my friend chef Susan Spicer in New Orleans and asked for a favor. Susan is a pretty big deal in NoLa and was an early instigator of both the New and Regional American Cuisine movements. In the mid ’80s, she opened Bistro at the Hotel Maison de Ville and, eight years later, Bayona — which garnered her a James Beard award, among many other accolades. She was the basis for the character Janette Desautel on the HBO show Treme, partnered with Donald Link to open Herbsaint, sued oil giant BP for the Gulf spill and the effect it had on the restaurant and seafood industry in Louisiana, and has since opened Mondo and Rosedale Restaurant in NoLa as well.
With cookbooks and Louisiana Culinary Hall of Fame awards on her then-unknown horizon, Susan was a young, upstart, badass female chef in the male-dominated New Orleans restaurant world, and has become one of its best examples of a culinary career well-lived and still jammin’. I couldn’t have picked a bigger NoLa food personality for my ask, which was this: “I wanna come down and cook.”
Not as a guest chef or dinner gig, but to work. I lived and cooked in New Orleans in the late ’80s, and those were some of the best kitchen memories of my life. New Orleans has a style of cooking and food that is unique to all of the U.S., and I wanted to get some of that soul-juice on me again. She lined me up in some of the very best and most happening kitchens in New Orleans right now, the first being her newest spot, Rosedale.
A few weeks ago in late October, I showed up at Rosedale. As luck would have it, one of her cooks didn’t show up that day and another needed to piss in a cup or something right before service, so here I was, first day in NoLa, cooking lunch with one of the culinary icons of my era, and punching myself in the face in disbelief. At 68 years old, Spicer moves around the kitchen like a cat: tireless, bright-eyed, beautiful and amazing. For the next week, she had set me up to work in the very best kitchens in New Orleans, for the very best and most talented chefs, at Peche, Meril, Cochon, Marjie’s Grill, Toups South — the dishes coming out of these kitchens are the very things that cause addictions and chronic sleeplessness — and every one of those chefs said, “When Susan asks you a favor, there is no answer but 'Yes, ma’am.'”
Only in a few places in the U.S. do you have so much culinary history and such regional specifics as in New Orleans: New Mexico, parts of Texas, Boston, the Northwest and California, the meat culture of Kansas City and Memphis and the Carolinas. New Orleans takes this to a completely different planet. It is the most soulful place where you can eat in America.
For a guy who, at 55, has been doing this cooking/restaurant thing for his whole life, who owns restaurants and employs close to 800 people, a step back into the kitchen like this raised some eyebrows. Every one of the chefs I worked for during this NoLa stretch — three of whom have received James Beard awards — said to me in a moment of quiet, “So, what are you doing here? You own a bunch of restaurants and you’ve come down here to...just cook?” Then all of them followed that question with, “Man, I need to do that myself. I’ve lost myself in the running of restaurants and would love to just cook.” And that is exactly why I was there, to just cook.
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It is a privilege to be able to take time off when you own your own or lead a business. As a business gets bigger, that opportunity sometimes becomes easier; it certainly has for me. But going out to eat in different cities and doing chef dinners in different kitchens is not the same thing. It’s easy. You roll in, everything is there for you, you do your course, you don’t really set up or clean up like you would after a shift, or stress much about anything. It’s not a shift, it’s an appearance. And there are lots of people to do for you, whatever you need. But getting in and pulling a shift, building a station and grinding out a service, is a completely different level of hustle. It reminds you of what originally got you hooked, what it was about an industry that made you decide to spend your entire life in it, what consumed you and your thoughts and became your career. That is what I was looking to do: get out of my zone, be in the mix of different and busy kitchen environments that are all cooking this soulful Southern loveliness that doesn’t exist anywhere else in America. It was fuktastic.
I ain’t a preacher, and I ain’t preachin’ here — but here is what I will say: No matter what path your career has taken and what you are doing, I highly recommend that you take some time and go back to work, really go back to work in the way you originally started working. Take the time to grind it back down to your beginnings — and do it for seven or ten days straight. I promise, you will come out re-inspired, refocused and a good bit clearer. I’ve taken time off before to “find myself” within my career. Sometimes as a business gets bigger, it takes a founder out of the pace and rhythm that got his or her attention and passion in the first place. For me, it took diving back into the very thing I was trying to understand, in a way that as time had gone on, I didn’t find myself doing. It lit a fire — and I am looking forward to doing more of what I truly like to do in this coming year.
And if you haven’t been lately, get down to N'awlins. There is so much good food and good drink and good mojo going on down there, it is hard to believe. All rooted and soulful and original, just like Susan Spicer.
In February 2019, Jax Fish House will host four of these amazing NoLa chefs, including Susan Spicer, for four distinct dinners. Stay tuned for details.