I spent a significant part of my late teens and early twenties in the French Quarter. Almost all of that time involved great fun in the bars and restaurants for which New Orleans is famous, so when I arrive at The Ritz-Carlton an hour early for my appointment I consider slipping over to The Napoleon House for a drink. I'll probably even have time for a cocktail at the Main Bar at Pat O'Brien's if I don't dawdle too long at the first stop. In my youth, the only further thought I might have given this opportunity would have been to make sure I didn't lose track of the time.
This evening I decide that discretion is the better part of nostalgia, however, and I pick out a quiet corner of the hotel lobby for a bit of tourist watching. It's not as much fun as actually engaging visitors at a bar, yet there's also no hangover later.
Anyway, I want to be clear-headed for my appointment with Matt Murphy, the Executive Chef at The Ritz-Carlton, who has invited me to join him at the Chef's Table this evening. I'm not sure what that honor entails but I present myself to the hostess at Mélange, the hotel's flagship restaurant, eager to find out.
I'm escorted through the restaurant and past the adjoining bar, a well-known watering hole for actors when they're shooting a film in the city. Forest Whitaker and Lil’ Wayne are apparently making a movie called Patriots here, and Universal is shooting Cirque du Freak starring Salma Hayek and John C. Reilly. With all due respect to Whitaker and Reilly, I'd be happiest to run into Ms. Hayek tonight. I have no such luck at the moment, but it's still early.
In the kitchen, the Chef's Table is flanked by two enormous, well-cushioned chairs arranged with a perfect view of the cooking stations just steps away. Unbidden, the champagne arrives as I'm settling in. I soon realize that I won't be ordering anything tonight: the courses will arrive before I realize that I want them. The first treat: cream of cauliflower soup, served in a shot glass. I'm not really a fan of cauliflower and I probably would not have ordered this soup...which would have been a mistake: it's delicious, and the shot-sized serving is just right.
Just then, the first tickets of the evening print out on the line. Norman the sous chef calls out: "Alright ...walking in ... First order is fried oyster, creole crab. Second order is shrimp creole, redfish, cornbread pudding...." The cooks shift into action. As have I, because the sushi chef arrives with an artfully presented plate of tuna with a spicy grilled shrimp. I'm told that I may even eat the carved vegetable garnish. It's almost too pretty to eat. Almost.
And, yes, I even eat the sculpted garnish. The staff have matched a Chardonnay to complement the tuna and shrimp.
Chef Matt Murphy arrives in the kitchen. I'm caught up in watching the kitchen at work and enjoying my food, so I don't think to apologize for arriving early and starting without him. He doesn't seem to mind.
Murphy joined the Ritz-Carlton in 2002 as the Chef de Cuisine; four years later he rose to Executive Sous Chef, and today he is the hotel's Executive Chef with oversight over all culinary operations for Mélange as well as the Garde Manger, Banquet, In-Room Dining and Pastry kitchens.
It's a long way from Dublin where he first starting cooking as a teenager.
And yet, in some ways it's not so far: the chef says New Orleans is "more like Ireland than any place in the States." For one thing, in both places there's a long tradition of "pot cooking"—Irish stew on the Emerald Isle, dishes like jambalaya and gumbo in Louisiana. For another, in both places there are active social scenes with galas and the like, a lingering class-system, and a strong Catholic presence. Another similarity between Murphy's adopted home and his birthplace is the proximity of the countryside and rural areas to metropolitan New Orleans and Dublin. In both cases, you don't have to travel very long or far to escape city-life.
Murphy came to the Ritz-Carlton after a five-year stint in the kitchen of Commander's Palace, the venerable Garden District restaurant. There's scarcely a better place in the city to learn about New Orleans society, yet Murphy says it was at least a year before he had even the slightest grasp of such matters. He was much quicker on the uptake about the local angles of his trade. He calls Jaime Shannon, the Commander's chef he worked under, "one of the most knowledgeable cooks I've seen." When Shannon died—killed by cancer when he was only 40 years old—Murphy saw it as the "end of an era," and he soon thereafter took his knives to the Ritz-Carlton downtown.
I'm served a saffron and mushroom risotto with sautéed Chilean sea bass. It's wonderful stuff.
There is a vast difference between the demands of Commander's kitchen and the Ritz-Carlton's. The hotel has over 500 guest rooms and the kitchen never closes. In addition to restaurant and bar, there's room service and catering for events; the kitchen can go—unexpectedly, the chef tells me—"from nought to 160 in seconds." At a restaurant like Commander's the flow is expected: it may get hectic in the kitchen, but you usually know when the rush is coming and when there will be more breathing space.
We take a break from the table to tour the rest of the kitchen. It's pretty impressive, with more cold lockers and prep areas than I would have expected. We also stop by and meet Simone, the pastry chef. I'm looking forward to what we'll see later from her department.
Back at the table I ask Murphy about the recent New Orleans Wine & Food Experience at which he was named Best-in-Show, and we're soon engaged in what some locals regard as peculiarly New Orleanian practice: sitting down to a grand meal and talking about food eaten, or in this case, prepared, elsewhere. The chef enthusiastically tells me about the dishes he offered up.
There was seared tuna with wasabi cream, a tropical fruit salad with papaya, pineapple, and watermelon—and a creative flourish that I don't really understand...but I don't want to stop eating to ask the chef to repeat himself. And that was just the first day. The next day he served a foie gras tourchon with toasted brioche. Again, there are some complicated aspects to the dish that I don't completely understand...but I can't ask for clarification with my mouth full, now can I? Obviously, it was a great success: there was a line out of the door.
I ask if cooking for the foodies who attend events like NOWFE is very different from cooking for the restaurant patrons. Sure, Murphy says, it's like dining at the Chef's Table—but here it's "even better than first class: you're up with pilot." And we're not eating dishes tonight exactly as they appear on the Mélange menu: some of the items are inspired by what was fresh at the produce market this morning; others follow from ideas the kitchen wants to try out. It's working very well for me, but I am curious about the menu.
Much of the regular menu features dishes offered by other prominent local restaurants. Among the appetizers: “Jacques Imo's” Alligator Sausage and Shrimp Cheesecake, “Upperline” Fried Green Tomatoes with shrimp remoulade, and “Brigtsen’s” Shrimp Thermidor (fresh Gulf shrimp in a thermidor sauce). Entrées include “Arnaud's” Shrimp Creole (Gulf shrimp simmered in a spicy tomato sauce with Creole vegetables and rice pilaf) and “Palace Café” Pepper Crusted Duck (duck confit, frizze, and foie gras). I know that mélange is the French word for "mixture," and I ask for the story behind this particular assembly of other restaurants' dishes.
The chef explains that after Katrina—it took The Ritz-Carlton nearly a year to re-open—the hotel decided that it was incumbent on them to not only let potential tourists know that the luxury hotel had returned and would like their business, but that it should help spread the word about other restaurants in the city. After all, the chef explains, we know our guests may dine with us one night but that they're also interested in sampling more of the city's culinary offerings. The menu is a great way to encourage the trade.
I want to ask more about that menu but I'm distracted by the roasted pear and blood orange plate that appears before me. The contrast is striking: match a subtle, warm pear with the explosive flavor of the blood orange. That blood orange does something to the taste buds that flashes a "Do it again!" signal to my brain. I realize that this is how addictions take hold.
I tell Murphy that I spent a weekend with a vegetarian in this hotel a few years ago. She was a good sport about it, but I was surprised to learn how difficult it was to get a good vegetarian meal at the restaurants we visited. I ask, what does the Ritz-Carlton kitchen do to accommodate vegetarians? I know from the chef's smile that this is not merely a hypothetical situation. The kitchen can be rocking along, he says, pointing to the tickets on the line, and a vegetarian order comes in and it just throws a wrench into the whole thing. (I have mental picture of one of those debit card commercials where the customers and staff spin around a store like they're in a Busby Berkeley musical...until someone tries to pay with cash.) Murphy says his team usually tries to offer something that's expected, like pasta primavera, but he challenges his team to come up with a fresh twist to the old standard.
I doubt that vegetarians figured very large in the picture when the chef was starting out. At 14, he was prepping kitchens and ladling soup for 400 at hotel functions. One summer his brother took a couple of weeks off from his kitchen job and the owner allowed the younger Murphy to sub for him. He stayed on when his brother returned, then worked weekends in kitchens when the school term started. This work evolved into a position as a commis chef, and from there Murphy won a European Community scholarship to the prestigious culinary school, Cathal Brugha College. Then came the Celtic Tiger, the period of rapid economic growth in the 1990s that vaulted Ireland from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one with a rapidly rising standard of living. More wealth meant more demand for quality cuisine which meant greater demand for people dedicated to the food arts.
After a day at cooking school, Murphy would run over to La Stampa, then the restaurant in Dublin, which was run by Paul Flynn. Murphy was put in charge of proteins—the meat and fish—and says that while he was not well paid, "to work there, under those pressures and with those chefs, was a privilege...what I learned there was amazing." Flynn was friends with star chefs in London like Gordon Ramsey and Marco Pierre White, and Murphy would go over to work in their kitchens. He'd show up and announce, "I'm here to trail." Someone would point to ten boxes of zucchini and say "peel 'em." Looking back, he smiles and shrugs...and says he learned quality and high standards.
He tells his staff to never stop learning, and it's clear that he's followed his own advice. When he was at Commander's he would still visit New York and trail in the kitchens of Chef Boulud's celebrated restaurant Daniel and the like.
Devin Burns of the hotel's food and beverage management team stops by our table to say hello, and soon there's some speculative talk of a post-prandial drink. I don't encourage this plan, what with a glass of champagne as well as two (or is it three?) glasses of wine behind me and a strong suspicion that there's more to come. Stereotypes can be unfair, but I think one is fairly warned when a Dubliner named Murphy and his pal Devin start talking about "a drink" later in the evening. The only surer guarantee of a hangover the next day is if they have a buddy named Declan who shows up and passes you the Bushmills.
Anyway, we have more food—and dessert—to deal with.
© Marshal Zeringue