Chef Sue Zemanick began her foray into cooking at just 15 years old in her hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. A young—and obvious—natural, Zemanick later enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. Not only did she graduate at the top of her class, Zemanick even stayed on to become a chef-instructor for the prestigious New York culinary school's seafood program.
She might have been a talented instructor, but teaching wasn't enough for Zemanick. She wanted to cook. So in 2003, she moved to New Orleans—she jokes it was for all the plentiful crab meat in the area. She first took a job at local legend Commander's Palace, later joining the brigade at the famous Gautreau's. Zemanick worked her way through the kitchen, becoming executive chef in 2005—just three weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit. The storm shut down the restaurant for a year and a half.
When Zemanick returned to the restaurant, she became a culinary force to be reckoned with, gaining three James Beard nominations and a spot on Bravo's "Top Chef Masters" (which she has described as a surreal experience). Since her ascension to the top of the ranks, the menu at Gautreau's changes more frequently and is more heavily focused on seafood with an emphasis on contemporary American flavor profiles. Accolades—including awards for 2008 Food & Wine "Top 10 Best New Chef," 2008 New Orleans Magazine "Chef of the Year," and StarChefs.com Rising Star Chef—attest to the chef's natural talents, and clear affinity for the people and food of New Orleans.
Interview with Rising Star Chef Sue Zemanick of Gautreau’s – New Orleans, LA
Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Sue Zemanick: When I was 14 years old, I got my first cooking job. My uncle owned a catering business in Pennsylvania. I saw what he was doing, and I wanted to be a part of it. I loved to eat. Everything in my life was based around food.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
SZ: I do a lot of charity events, and donate food to lots of places and a lot of events: the ASPCA, Save Our Cemeteries, we've donated to a lot of schools, and to the Edible Schoolyard program in town. We do anything we can, as long as it's feasible. The biggest thing we do is for the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, which is an event for 1,000 people.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
SZ: To keep everything true to its original state. I try not to mess with fish or produce, but rather let them stand out and be the main thing. I love gastronomy and sous vide, but I really like the way people used to cook.
AB: What's the toughest thing you've had to do in your job?
SZ: Trying to get your staff to have the same philosophy and respect for food that you do. And inspire them. This job at Gautreau's is the best kitchen I've ever been in. I want the cooks here to become chefs, not to become stagnant. It was hard, of course, with Hurricane Katrina. I took over the kitchen three weeks before the storm. But that's why I stuck around. [Owner] Patrick [Singley] asked me to be executive chef, and I thought it was a great opportunity. I changed most of the dishes on the menu.
AB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
SZ: I'd like to have another restaurant, have a newer restaurant. Patrick and I talk about doing something together. This is an old restaurant, an old place. We've had the same clientele for a while now. I'd like something a bit more modern and less expensive, and serve food that everyone can appreciate and enjoy. I don't feel that good food has to be expensive. It shouldn't be expensive.
AB: What's your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
SZ: Achieving everything I've wanted to before I turned 30 years old. I've achieved most of my goals and I've made my parents proud.