Look at the menu of Root in New Orleans. You won't see "appetizers," "entrees," and "desserts," but rather "beginnings," "middles," and "endings." That's because—as the restaurant's owner and executive chef Phillip Lopez says—Root is serious about food. But as restaurant's go, it's not overly serious about itself. And that's just the way Lopez likes it.
Unlike many chefs looking to expand their horizons, Lopez didn't have to travel the world after graduating high school. He'd already done it. An army brat, Lopez spent most of his childhood living in Germany, France, Spain, Austria, Holland, and Puerto Rico. So when he got into the industry, training with New Orleans' culinary patron saint John Besh, the young chef had an eclectic palate and an open mind—just the right combination to soak up training without losing the sense of wonder that keeps cuisine exciting.
Lopez further opened his mind with a stint in Washington, DC, working under legendary Michel Richard before returning to the Crescent City and rejoining Besh at Restaurant August. After impressing its owners with one of his tasting menus, Lopez was tapped to take on executive chef duties at Rambla. With a significant leadership role under his belt, Lopez eventually left Rambla to open Root, his first solo venture. At Root, Lopez maintains a balance of technique and wonder, creating honest, soulful food with molecular touches. In November 2011, Lopez was named a Louisiana Cookin' "Chef to Watch," and he received a rare four-bean review from the Times-Picayune. With irresistible quality and a charmingly sideways approach, Lopez is cementing a playful-with-purpose style in what is sure to be the beginning of a great career.
Interview with Chef Phillip Lopez of Root – New Orleans, LA
NIck Rummell: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
Phillip Lopez: Making people happy and having the food taste good. It's pretty simple, for me at least. It's about using the freshest, the best-tasting ingredients. Our restaurant, which has been open since early January, is focused on modern American food. But I've done lots of traveling with my parents, and I've had a culmination of experience from my past to draw upon. There is a lot of influence in New Orleans cuisine beyond Creole. There are also big Vietnamese and Cuban influences. There are techniques from Spain and France. Root is about inception, birth, beginning. This is where it all begins. It's my first restaurant, and I wanted it to be progressive, playful, and fun. I even took ideas from Doctor Seuss as a child. I think in weird, quirky ways.
NR: What's the toughest thing you've had to do in your job?
PL: Probably having to get rid of my social life. I'm here about 20 hours a day. I recently got married, so having to counterbalance work with my home life is almost like needing a lobotomy. It was pretty hectic. But I have a very supportive wife.
NR: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
PL: I traveled a lot and started off at a very young age (13 years old). My parents always had other intentions for me, to become some computer genius, but I left college to focus on cheffing. Had I gone to culinary school, it would have been easier for me. Of course, my experience has superseded all that, and I don't regret anything I've done, but it might have been good for me.
NR: So you'd recommend culinary school for all budding cooks?
PL: I think so, yes. It gives you knowledge of fundamentals, which is helpful. In terms of hands on learning, the best experience is working in the kitchen, but culinary school is a good beginning.
NR: Is there a culinary technique (or techniques) that you use in a different way that sets you apart from other chefs?
PL: I tend to use every technique possible. It's very important to broaden your horizons, though it's hard because there are so many techniques out there. It's such a fast-paced environment. But we're very adamant about using new techniques in conjunction with old techniques.
NR: Which chef would you most like to cook for, and why?
PL: Every chef's dream is to work with or for Ferran [Adrià]. Now that it's closed and he's got his foundation, I suppose I'd like to work for Joan Roca in Spain. He's on the same playing field as Ferran, he's phenomenal in his technique and execution.
NR: What's your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
PL: Opening Root. It's been a lifelong dream to have my own restaurant. At a younger age you are trying to learn more and not sure what you want to do. Over the years you become comfortable in your own skin and your own technique, so when the thought of this restaurant came to my mind it was an epiphany.
NR: Where do you see yourself in five years?
PL: I definitely want to build up Root. I do see us opening more restaurants, maybe even outside of the New Orleans market. Temptation does call, even from Las Vegas. I wouldn't mind collaborating with another chef from another market. It's such a close-knit market. There are a few chefs in Mexico City I've met and gotten close with, and also in Spain. In the states, there's Brian and Michael Voltaggio, and Shola Olunloyo at Speck in Philadelphia. There is so much great talent and friends to choose from. But right now the main focus is still on Root.