I hesitate when Herbsaint's Owner-Chef Donald Link suggests I order the gumbo, and it's not because I don't care for gumbo: gumbo is to my people what their namesake's chicken dish is to General Tso's descendants. But in the week since Link agreed to meet with me, my taste-memory has had me salivating about the tomato and shrimp bisque I enjoyed so much on my last visit to the restaurant.
Link is a James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef and owner of not one but two of the hottest restaurants in America. He opened Herbsaint in 2000 with Susan Spicer, a star chef-restauranteur in her own right; then, after a Katrina-powered delay of six months, Link and chef Stephen Stryjewski debuted Cochon. Cochon would go on to earn a James Beard Foundation Award nomination for best new restaurant in 2007, the year Link won his "Best Chef: South" Award. Do I dare defy the suggestion of a chef with this kind of credibility and ask for the bisque anyway?
No, I don't. Yet what seals the deal for the gumbo are not these accolades but that Link tells me gumbo is the first thing he ever cooked, twenty-plus years ago. And today the gumbo is made with duck and andouille—favorite foods of my youth. (Sometimes they serve seafood gumbo here, too.) Bring it on, I say.
Link and I also decide to share an antipasto plate and the flatbread topped with spinach and shrimp.
We are sitting at a sidewalk table out front at Herbsaint one afternoon in mid-May. Link says he holds his afternoon staff meetings at these tables. The only drawback is that conversation stops when the occasional streetcar rolls by ... which seems to happen with much greater frequency than on all those occasions in my past when I was actually waiting for one to come along. I don't mind the pauses: it gives me a chance to tuck into my gumbo, which is every bit as delicious as Link led me to believe.
I'm lucky to steal an hour from the chef for our interview. He's just back from an overnight scouting expedition for a possible new restaurant location; Herbsaint and Cochon are thriving; and he is busy overseeing the renovation of the building, which he recently bought, that houses Cochon. Cochon's new butcher shop on the first floor will offer premium raw meats, their own sausages and andouille, as well as prepared meals for neighborhood residents. A dining room will be on the second floor and an office on the third.
Link has also just finished a cookbook, due out in Spring 2009. The book is a compilation of family recipes rather than a restaurant cookbook. The chef developed these recipes at home: no cheating with restaurant cookware, super-hot stoves, and other accessories that amateur cooks usually lack. The only drawback to the process, Link says, is not having someone to wash the dishes. (He hates washing dishes. And waiting tables. He's done enough of both jobs in the climb to his current status.) Although the publisher is marketing the book as "real Cajun and rustic home cooking," the chef resists the "real" tag: he says he's uncomfortable defining "Cajun" for everyone.
Link says he made an extra effort to make the recipes user friendly. Instead of merely stating how long a dish should cook and at what temperature, he calls, for example, for "cooking for ten minutes until the top bubbles" or "until the sides brown."
With the gumbo now a lingering memory and the flatbread quickly snapped up between us, I sample the antipasto plate. (I know "antipasto" means "before the meal," but when you dine with the chef you get to make your own rules.) Everything on the plate is made in-house: the chorizo, salami, and cured pork loin ... even the pickled turnips and green tomato chutney. It's a very agreeable combination of sweet and sour—or as the chef puts it, agro e dolce.
The use of the Italian phrase doesn't really register with me at the moment, but it later hits me that Italian cuisine is no small influence on Link's cooking. He tells me about a relatively recent trip to Italy with his young family and raves about the food and wine he enjoyed there. He ate a garganelli al quattro formaggio which inspired him to offer his own version of the pasta at Herbsaint. The simplicity of the Italian food impressed him as much as anything, and he regales me with a report of the thin-sliced veal roast he was served with nothing but the pan juices.Likewise, his own cooking does not go in for elaborate sauces: "I don't do demi-glace," he says.
Because we are talking about Europe—and maybe because I'm thinking about Herbsaint's legendary Housemade Spaghetti with Pancetta and Fried-Poached Farm Egg—I ask Link about a memorable statement I recently came across in Bill Buford's foodie memoir Heat. The famous British chef Marco Pierre White told Buford that "an egg is very important. Give a chef an egg, and you'll know what kind of cook he is. It takes a lot to cook an egg. You have to understand the egg in order to cook an egg, especially if it's one you want to eat." Thinking that White may have been overstating the point, I ask Chef Link if there's anything to the Briton's statement. Absolutely, he says without hesitation: "most people can't cook an egg."
This mention of White's test prompts Link to tell me about an audition he has used for cooks who aspire to work in his restaurants: the shallot challenge. He asks them to dice a shallot, then monitors if they have something to put it in when they're finished; he observes what the cutting board looks like before they start and what they do with the scraps; and he checks if they have a sharp knife. I realize that not only can I not cook an egg but also cannot dice a shallot.
Link applies similar scrutiny to professional standards all the way down the line in the kitchen, dishwasher included, as well as for the front of the house. I'll not give away details of his audition for waiters, but know this: wait staff who want to work at Link’s restaurants should not come with their own “style.” Herbsaint and Cochon have their own approach—professional, but not stuffy—and it's important that everyone works in tune with it.
These things matter. "When I walk into a restaurant," Link says, "I can tell you what the food is going to taste like. I can usually tell that from outside the restaurant."
Now, he says, he has a “dream staff.” But it wasn’t always that way. When Herbsaint was getting started he had "awful cooks" and he didn’t keep them around. Instead, he and his sous-chef did all of the cooking …and did the production, worked the line, and expedited the dishes. He had a hand in every part of the meal, and he worked like that for years. Currently there are three sous-chefs at Herbsaint, but Link still makes the pasta and gnocchi and works on new menu items—and he’s usually at Herbsaint during service.
Cochon didn’t experience the same birth pangs. Chef Stryjewski had been a Herbsaint sous-chef, and Link himself spent a lot of time at the new restaurant for the first six months, almost full-time for the first two months. Another Herbsaint sous-chef, the assistant dining room manager, and other staff also joined Cochon, so the new restaurant hit the ground running with well-trained staff who knew how to execute Link’s philosophy about cooking and service.
I've stretched my alloted time with the chef. The sous-chef comes out to the sidewalk with a cutlet in hand and they talk portion size for awhile. They still haven't settled the evening's menu and there are obviously other duties requiring the chef's attention. I say my good-byes as I'm already plotting a visit to Cochon ... as well as my return to Herbsaint for the tomato and shrimp bisque.
I'm glad I'm parked down the street. There's no streetcar in sight.
© Marshal Zeringue