Born and raised in Louisiana, Chef Ben Hammond has studied in New England, worked in New York City's Gramercy Tavern, and staged in southwest France. Which is to say, he's held his own on some serious culinary territory. Finally back on his home turf as chef de cuisine at Cochon, working with Chef-partners Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski, Hammond's proving just how much of his own he can hold.
A 2003 New Orleans Rising Star, Link is an enviable mentor, with deep-rooted New Orleans connections to match Hammond's well-traveled experience. So it's no surprise that while working under Link and Stryjewski at Cochon, Hammond has put together an aptly pig-centric menu of traditional Southern and Cajun dishes done just right—everything from pickled pork tongue to hog jowl on toast to smoked ribs and (for a change of pace) fried alligator. It's the kind of food to soothe a Louisiana soul, done with the kind of skill to rival any other market.
As Hammond makes his mark on NOLA cuisine, working with Link and Stryjewski has certainly made its mark on Hammond. Cochon earned national recognition—including a 2007 James Beard "Best New Restaurant" nomination—giving Hammond local street cred. And his progression at Cochon has allowed the once-itinerant Hammond to reconnect with his Louisiana roots, building relationships with local farms and fishermen and using traditional cooking techniques. With Hammond now at the helm of this New Orleans favorite, those ties will only grow deeper.
Interview with Chef de Cuisine Ben Hammond of Cochon – New Orleans, LA
Nicholas Rummell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Ben Hammond: Even in college, I worked at a number of bars and restaurants. I just decided to go to culinary school, and fell in love with it almost immediately.
NR: You've staged or worked in a number of different areas. Which has had the most influence on your cooking?
BH: Being in New Orleans has definitely had the biggest influence. I'm from the South, but not from New Orleans. It's unique and a force unto itself. There's a lot of culture here. The food has ties to all the different cultures. It's always been that way. There's a lot of French influence, Spanish, Italian; there's a large Vietnamese population here. That influence shows up in the food. I'd also say that there are a lot of traditions in New Orleans that have had an influence. Food is a big deal here. Everybody has their own story about how they like to cook certain things certain ways, from crawfish to gumbo to even family dinners. It definitely leaves an impression on you.
NR: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
BH: I want to keep everything as simple as possible and let things speak for themselves. No matter what you try to do, there's no way to cover up or hide poor technique. The way you cook is an expression of you. As far as how we approach things at the restaurant, we've applied the same philosophy: cooking really good food that people can approach. And it's worked out really well for us so far. The food we cook at the restaurant is very unpretentious.
There's a flip side to that, too. So many people here have gone to the same restaurants for years, the same day each week, the same time, week after week. So the flip side to that is that people want to get away from that sameness a little bit. We provide that in some ways, but we're still cooking food that remains grounded in the old New Orleans traditions. We do a great interpretation of New Orleans-style food.
NR: The pig is one major focus (not surprisingly, given the name) at Cochon. Tell us about why that is.
BH: I think that it gives us a unique focus and keeps us somewhat different from other restaurants in the area. Of course, everything's been done before, but we feel that we've been able to get out on the forefront on something, by staying pork-centric. Pork is a delicious product. There are so many uses for it. It keeps it fun, keeps it interesting, by looking at a whole pig and doing different things with it. I also think it's important to try to stay sustainable, and see what else you can do with the animal. When we get a pig in, we just look at it and see all the different things you can possibly do. Using the whole pig in one shot provides us with a lot of alternatives.
NR: How do you approach sustainability?
BH: We're going that route as much as possible. I don't want to say we do more than others, but we do a lot. We don't advertise it much, but we have a forager and try to stay local as much as possible. We also recycle and have a compost area. It helps us sleep better. It keeps you fresh and keeps you on your own toes
NR: Do you think culinary school is important for young cooks?
BH: Yes and no. It's different for each person. It's an awfully large financial investment, and the financial payout is not great once you start working. But it's also a great way to meet people and get somewhere. The main thing I got out of it was an internship that turned into a job. I wasn't from New Orleans, so it would have been very difficult for me to just plop down here, ask for a line cook job and get it. If I was living in NYC, I may not have [gone to culinary school] because there are so many good restaurants there that you don't necessarily need it.
NR: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
BH: WhenI left New Orleans for a few months after [Hurricane] Katrina. It was such a sketchy time, questions about whether there would be jobs, that sort of thing. On the one hand, I wish I had stayed in New Orleans. Obviously it's worked out fine. I guess on the other side I would have liked to have worked in New York City a bit longer to gain more experience. Not to stay, but to get the experience.
NR: Where do you see yourself in five years? Would you like to be in a mentor-like role like Donald Link?
That would be ideal. It's something that anybody would like. Hopefully that's the next step. I want to help young cooks move up from within to improve as cooks, to allow their talents to expand and show their true colors. It doesn't happen that way very often. Sometimes they have to move on to other things, but then they come back (stronger in some cases). But at a certain age you get tired of moving and you just want to move forward with your career. If we get them to stay [at Cochon
] for longer than a year, that's pretty good for a restaurant. To have that happen is a reflection on the opportunity we offer.