Brian Landry may just be the boldest chef in America. I don't mean bold in the sense that he challenges his diners to eat unconventional dishes like butterscotch-coated bacon or passion fruit sponge between swirls of dehydrated prosciutto. Those foods have actually been served at American restaurants, but they won't be found on the menu at Galatoire's, the famous New Orleans establishment that first opened its doors on Bourbon Street over 100 years ago.
In 2006, the not yet thirty-year-old Landry took up the reins as Executive Chef at this venerable institution with its established menu and many long-time patrons whose expectations were set long before Landry even began cooking. That's a pretty bold career move. There is no sign that the young chef feels any pressure, however, as I pepper him with questions from my perch in one of the better people-watching seats in Galatoire's main dining room. He clearly knows his stuff and has confidence in the support he gets from his colleagues and staff. I ask him if this is a job he always aspired to.
Not at all, he tells me. After graduating from Jesuit High School in New Orleans, he accepted a full scholarship to the University of Alabama where he earned degrees in biology and philosophy. The biology courses were part of his pre-med curriculum, and he got interested in deductive logic and then in more advanced subfields like the philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, and neurophilosophy. I remember enough of my own education in logic to embarrass myself if given an opening, and it's clear that the chef still has a passion for the subject. Mercifully, my starter arrives before I demonstrate just how much I've forgotten about deductive reasoning.
The appetizer is the Galatoire Gouté—samples of three popular cold dishes: Shrimp Remoulade, Crabmeat Maison, and Crawfish Maison. I ordinarily prefer one appetizer to such a sampler and, left on my own, I probably would have dedicated my attention to the restaurant's famous Shrimp Remoulade. But the crabmeat and crawfish dishes are at least as good as the shrimp, and I'm glad the chef introduced me to them.
Landry trained with highly-regarded chefs in New Orleans, including René Bajeaux, Gerard Maras, and Kevin Vizard, and he worked under Bob Waggoner at the famous Charleston Grill. He also earned an associates degree in culinary arts from Johnson & Wales University. I ask him what he learned in school that he wasn't learning on the job. He says he had picked up great cooking techniques from very talented chefs, but that the great value in culinary school was learning why things happened to food when it was subjected to different processes.
Galatoire's was temporarily shuttered after Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. The owners soon opened Galatoire's Bistro in Baton Rouge, and Landry, who had been working at other New Orleans restaurants before the storm, went to work at the new restaurant upriver. The flagship restaurant reopened at New Years and within six months Landry was appointed Executive Chef for both restaurants. He spends 3-4 days each week at both restaurants, usually covering lunch at one and dinner at the other. On Fridays he can usually be found in New Orleans where the lunch service is very busy, sometimes even rolling seamlessly into the dinner service.
When Landry took the helm at Galatoire's he already knew most of the staff. In fact, when he started at Galatoire's Bistro he had enjoyed having many of the same professionals along for the ride. It was a new restaurant but with some very experienced employees: many had come from the New Orleans restaurant. (And, like Landry, many of them were dealing with the same post-Katrina hassles of relocating and rebuilding.) Galatoire's Bistro had even adopted all of the original restaurants signature dishes. Perhaps because change was in the air, the new menu also added a number of innovations as well.
It's my turn to try out a Landry dish that debuted in Baton Rouge: the Duck Crepe, a savory crepe of roasted duck and homemade boursin cheese with a port-cherry reduction and pistachios. It's a delicious dish, especially coming behind the cold Gouté. I need a question that requires a lengthy answer so the chef can talk while I concentrate on polishing off the last of the sauce with the last bite of crepe, so I ask Landry about one challenge of leading the kitchen of such a venerable restaurant: how does he get to exercise his creative impulses?
The chef says he has ample opportunity to innovate. For one thing, he gets to try out new dishes, like my duck crepe, in Baton Rouge. Also, while Galatoire's serves escargot in garlic and butter, the new restaurant introduced escargot in a garlic-herbsaint cream with herbs, served in a puff pastry shell. Other dishes that first appeared on the Galatoire's Bistro menu—like the Roasted Duck and the Foie Gras appetizer—proved so popular that they were added to the repertoire in New Orleans. Yet even the innovations have to fit in with Galatoire's customary themes. And some foods that the chef likes to cook—or eat, as is the case with one of his favorite dishes, duck confit—will probably not make it on to the Galatoire's menu because they depart too much from the restaurant's traditions.
Landry can also innovate and cook food that diverges from the restaurant menu because his team participates in so many special events. On many of these occasions, he writes a menu built around slow-cooking techniques because he knows how many people he's cooking for and when the food will be served. Two or three days before an event, he'll start cooking pork ribs or veal cheeks and other dishes that take a lot of time. Interestingly, he says that the difference in styles—Galatoire's a la minute menu vs. slow-cooking recipes on the event menus—wasn't something he consciously pursued: he realized that he had been emphasizing slow-cooking only after looking back at what he had been serving.
The chef's experience with Galatoire's a la minute cooking served him well at the recent Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off. Landry and sous chef Heather Young took the first place prize for their Sautéed Cobia with Louisiana Crab Butter. Contestants had to use Louisiana seafood, and they had only one hour to do all preparations.
Landry is fan of cobia, which is frequently a fresh fish featured at both of his restaurants, so that element was easy. The sauce is the inspired part. It starts with using a mallet to crush several Louisiana whole gumbo crabs—good food isn't all subtle techniques: sometimes brute force is necessary, too. That's the last step in the recipe that the lay-cook will have no trouble with: after that, it's all talent, technique, and timing.
As reigning King of Louisiana Seafood, Landry will represent the state at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off (GASCO) in August. He tells me he might again cook the dish that won the Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off. (Why mess with success?)
While we're on the subject of seafood, Landry tells a story on himself about learning to order it for Galatoire's. He had been ordering the seafood for the Baton Rouge restaurant for months, so it was only a matter of finding out the quantities required at the Bourbon Street restaurant. He got together with his sous chef on the first day and asked him about the typical order of crabmeat. His colleague told him that 90 pounds ought to do it. Landry asked: How long will that last? The reply: Oh, that'll get us through the first day and into lunch. The chef is now laughing as he tells me that he had no idea that the one restaurant could serve that much crabmeat. He asked about the shrimp order. Again, after the reply, he asked how long that would last. One day, the sous chef told him. More laughter: he's still amazed at these quantities.
And that's when I get my own lesson in Galatoire's seafood: I'm served the biggest soft-shell crab I've ever eaten ... and I've eaten quite a few of them. It's fried and served in a meunière amandine sauce. The crab is not only the biggest one I've eaten but also the best. (When I play back the interview, there's a long stretch at this point with only my silverware clicking against the plate. I hope that this silence is when the chef momentarily turned away to chat with one of his fish purveyors who happened to be dining in the restaurant, but I worry that I might have just stopped asking questions to concentrate on my crab.) Amazingly, the normal serving size for this dish is two crabs.
I'm so thoroughly satisfied with my meal that I decline dessert. Both waiter and chef shoot me a brief look of incredulity for passing on something sweet to cap off this excellent meal. I flash back to Landry's earlier comment about how he's rarely hungry while he's working and tasting soups and sauces, but that he can be ravenous moments after walking out into the fresh air. Maybe talking so much about food while eating has the same effect.
Chef Landry is due at the Baton Rouge restaurant soon, so I say my thanks, wish him well in the GASCO competition, and bid my good-byes. I step out on to Bourbon Street wondering how soon I'll regret having passed on that dessert.
© Marshal Zeringue