When he was still a student in the Delgado Culinary Arts program, Chef Thomas Wolfe applied for a job in the kitchen of Mr. B's Bistro in New Orleans' French Quarter. And he did so with what he now admits was an inflated résumé. He got the job and, impressed with his background, Mr. B's put him on the front sauté station. That's not a leap from the frying pan into the fire: it's more like, "Young man, here's the fire—you and your frying can hop right into it."
Wolfe didn't realize how busy Mr. B's could get, and he says they "wore the green off me pretty quickly." He frequently found himself doing "the one foot chicken dance"—standing on one leg and going around in circles looking for what he had just cooked. He learned a lot...and learned it fast. And he praises his Mr. B's boss, Chef Gerard Maras, who is "fantastic with his knowledge of cooking."
Wolfe is now Executive Chef and Proprietor of the restaurants Wolfe's in the Warehouse and the famous Peristyle, where he and I meet a few hours before the dinner crowd arrives. Wolfe bought Peristyle from award-winning chef Anne Kearney in May 2004; a year later he opened Wolfe's in the Warehouse in the New Orleans Marriott at the Convention Center.
The anecdote about his early experience at Mr. B's reveals one of the chef's very agreeable traits: while he evinces no lack of confidence in his talent, he is always quick to credit those from whom he has learned—and borrowed.
Wolfe cooked at Mr. B's from 1989 until he left for a job at Emeril's in 1992. It was "an amazing experience working at Emeril's...you learned every day in the kitchen." He stayed at Emeril's for eight years and worked every single station, including pastry (because the pastry chef worked Monday through Friday only and the other cooks had to cover for him). He says he doesn't consider himself a pastry chef and thinks it's one of his weaker areas. That admission surprises me: Peristyle is well-known for the White Chocolate Butter Bars, a dessert that Wolfe developed using his mother's recipe.
At Emeril's "the competition in the kitchen was genuine and the friendships were genuine." He worked with a number of line cooks who would go on to become nationally-recognized chefs. The roster includes: Michael Jordan, now one of the hottest chefs in Las Vegas; John Neal, who went on to open Peristyle; Anne Kearney, who took over Peristyle when Neal died; and Joel Dondis, who eventually became sous chef at Emeril's and now runs his own fine dining catering and event-planning firm in New Orleans.
When I ask Wolfe about his favorite station, he doesn't hesitate: "Sauté," he says, "because it allows for more finesse and 'a la minute' cooking, and more opportunity to work with pan sauces." His preference for sauté is reflected in his menu, and he tells me that all chefs tend to write their menus to emphasize a favored station. He likes to offer dishes that call for more intricate technique at sauté. And he says the sauté chefs at Peristyle know they "have to put their seatbelts on...they have to be ready"—they need to know "a lot about the temperature of the pans, control of the heat, what kind of oil they're using, and things like how hot you can heat extra virgin olive oil."
Perhaps it is modesty, but Wolfe quickly adds that these challenges at sauté don't mean that other stations are any easier. For example, although pantry chefs don't deal with heat as much, they have to prepare both salads and desserts. Therefore their hands are always "dirty" with oil and vinegar, and yet it's a station that calls for clean hands and a clean work area.
I mention that the Peristyle menu struck me for its many interesting combinations of ingredients. Wolfe laughs a little and admits that while he used to have a tendency to put too many components together in one dish, he has long since "learned [his] lesson and calmed down a bit." He explains that it is more challenging to find a unified flavor from many ingredients than from just a couple—the more you add on, the more you have to know to bring them together—and then, rapid-fire, offers an example of his point:
"We know that mushrooms and celery go together...and that scallops and mushrooms and celery go together. We know that if we add veal stock to the scallops, mushrooms and celery, then all of that will go well together. You can finish that up with a little butter to tone down the veal stock...and if you add a little truffle oil, you bridge the gap between the sauce and the mushrooms." It sounds so simple when he puts it like that, yet it is a revelation to me.
What doesn't sound simple at all is his famous Slow Roasted Cane Syrup Duck (pictured, right), and I ask for the story behind it. The idea for the dish came from Emeril's where they served a similar version which "was good, like all the food over there," Wolfe says, "but I always disagreed with how they did it." So he took the idea and developed it when he had his own restaurant. He explains that his duck preparation is akin to the Peking method "adapted to a Louisiana contemporary creole style." It takes four days to prepare.
On the first day a kind of pastrami cure is applied to the duck: the bird is treated with seasonings including black pepper, juniper berries, and cayenne, and the cavity is packed with herbs like tarragon. Then it's packed in a salt and sugar mixture. On day two, all those seasonings are brushed off and the duck gets a brief bath in white vinegar—just until the goose pimples come out on the skin. After a turn in the hot poaching liquid, the duck is put in a cold Steen cane syrup brine where it sits for 24 hours. The bird is pulled out of the brine on the third day and the herbs are removed from the cavity. The duck is patted dry and put in the walk-in cooler where it is exposed to the air and dried for 24 hours. On the fourth day the duck gets roasted.
Wolfe says it is difficult to time and track the process and make sure the ducks are ready every week, but that his crew knows better than to run out of such a popular menu item. "Major trouble," he laughs. I remark on the time and energy that goes into this one dish. "Great food takes time," says the chef with a little shrug.
Of all the people you have worked with, I ask, who is your favorite chef? Wolfe pauses thoughtfully, so I throw in—"Or you can tell me your least favorite chef...that might well make for an even more interesting story." He doesn't take the bait. Instead he tells me that Chef Bernard Carmouche, the first chef de cuisine he worked under at Emeril's, is probably his favorite. Carmouche's story is the stuff of legend: he was washing dishes when Emeril was still cooking at Commander's Palace, and he told the chef he wanted to learn the trade. Emeril took him under his wing, and eventually moved him from station to station. Over the years he rose through the ranks to the top of the hierarchy in Emeril's organization.
Wolfe says of Carmouche: "I knew where he came from and how hard he worked. I learned a good bit from him and his knowledge was very good. And he treated people with respect. He had a special way: he'd lead the whole team into the fire...and you'd follow him. It's a gift. He's a phenomenal gentleman, and I have a very high respect for him."
At one point in our conversation Wolfe also points out that the sautéed southern greens he serves with the four day duck is something he learned from Carmouche. "He taught me how to cook down the mustard and collard greens when I worked in his kitchen and I told him I was going to steal the recipe," he laughs, adding, "and I always give him credit."
Wolfe has come a long way and achieved quite a bit in the relatively short time since leaving Emeril's. Actually, it's a long way only figuratively: Wolfe's in the Warehouse is only about three blocks from Emeril's, and the chef tells me that he drops in on his famous neighbor every now and then.
© Marshal Zeringue