2016 New Orleans Rising Stars: Why They Shine

2016 New Orleans Rising Stars: Why They Shine

It’s hard as a diner or drinker not to fall in love with New Orleans—the history, romance, and bon temps of it all. But the past is only a starting point for the newest generation of the city’s chefs, who are cooking progressive, occasionally brazen, food that’s rooted in Gulf products but free to explore the myriad cultures that make up this port city.

We experienced Southeast Asian, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, and Israeli flavors in New Orleans. We only ate one bowl of gumbo during our travels, and it was a roux-less version thickened West African-style with pounds of pulverized okra. That’s not to say the city is abandoning its heritage. New Orleans is America’s original melting pot, after all, and the city’s best talent is reclaiming that status, just inclusive of a more diverse population. 

It’s not just chefs who are making big moves in NOLA. A fledgling artisan community of coffee roasters, butchers, and bakers is bringing to market products of at the height of each craft. And the city’s bartending scene is so strong that national talent is staying long past Tales of the Cocktail to learn and work in New Orleans. Getting a good drink in the city has never been easier, or more rewarding. 

Over the last six months, we met with more than 80 chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, bartenders, and artisans to search for the industry leaders with the most compelling philosophies—and delicious food and drinks. Here are the men and women who are making it happen in New Orleans. 

Chef: Michael Gulotta, Maypop

Michael Gulotta has traditional New Orleans cooking in his bones—thanks to a lifetime of eating and years of training with Chef John Besh. Now, he’s helping define the future of cuisine in his hometown with MoPho, the cross-cultural marriage of East Bank Southeast Asian and down-home Bayou goodness. MoPho, in the center of a Mid-City strip mall, is a platform for endless creativity and exploration. It’s where Gulf ingredients meet hand-pounded curries, a multitude of fresh herbs, and a fresh chile heat. Pho takes the place of gumbo, and boudin noir gets stuffed into dumplings. Like the best of marriages, it works, beautifully, and it’s built with heart and a deep respect for both cultures.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Lamb Neck, House Curry, Creole Cream Cheese Roti, Smoked Tofu, and Roasted Beets
  • Pepper Jelly Braised Cedar Key Clams, Lamb Belly Lardo, and Annatto Beignets
Chef: Jeffrey Hansell, Oxlot 9

Jeffrey Hansell’s Southern, Gulf-inflected food is calculated—in the most genuine and endearing ways. At Oxlot 9 in Covington, he’s channeling an immense amount of research, expertise, and care into food that he likes to eat and cook. Take his down-and-dirty yaka mein, a regional Cantonese-Creole mash-up whoses primary power lies in its ability to cure hangovers. Hansell’s version gets a serious update with bacon-beef consommé, braised short ribs, peas, and smoked tomato relish. It’s chef-ified without losing its story and soul. That’s the crux of his cooking: it’s familiar, exciting, fresh. It’s informed by a mastery of Southern cuisine. And it will make Hansell a known quantity far beyond the banks of Lake Pontchartrain.  

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Yaka Mein: Beef-Bacon Consommé, Braised Short Rib, Black Eyed Peas, Arugula, Poached Egg, Smoked Tomato Relish, and Pickled Onion
  • Fried Frog Legs, Hot Sauce Butter, Buttermilk Dressing, Pickled Celery, and Dill
Chef: Alex Harrell, Angeline

Alex Harrell is making the food he was born to cook in the French Quarter restaurant he was destined to own. After working for more than a decade in New Orleans, in other people’s restaurants, a creative dam has burst from Harrell’s kitchen at Angeline. Ideas, flavors, and techniques all synthesize on the plate—somewhere near the intersection of elegance and cravability. A single, salted egg yolk lays in wait of diners’ forks, set within a giant chestnut flour raviolo. Local rabbits are given due respect in the form of a come-hither Milanese cutlet served with braised greens and pancetta-tomato gravy. His plates speak to his Southern upbringing and adopted city, and the Quarter, once again, has a destination-worthy restaurant.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Crispy Cauliflower, Olivade Aïoli, Sheep’s Milk Cheese, and Espelette
  • Salted Egg Yolk Raviolo, Chestnut Pasta, Roasted and Marinated Celery Root, Ricotta, and Orange Zest
Chef: Ryan Prewitt, Pêche

Chef Ryan Prewitt needs little introduction in New Orleans, or in national culinary circles, for that matter. As chef and partner of Pêche, he serves the Gulf through the lens of a California-born chef—meaning product is paramount and plates are stripped down to their essence. Prewitt dresses sweet, addictive crab claws with tangy-hot pickled peppers and aromatic chile flakes. A whole roasted flounder is accentuated, as it should be, with white wine and browned butter. It’s confident, intuitive food that’s as exciting as it is comforting (when was the last time you had shrimp curry fettuccine?). Prewitt's work as a tastemaker, mentor, and Gulf storyteller has only begun and will no doubt help mold the next generation of the city's chefs.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Shrimp Curry Fettucine
  • Crab Claws, Pickled Banana Peppers, Chiles, and Mint 
Chef: Rebecca Wilcomb, Herbsaint

Rebecca Wilcomb is in the enviable position of making Herbsaint regulars feel at home on St. Charles while still engaging them in the here and now of the Gulf seasons. What those regulars may suspect but don’t want you to know is that Wilcomb is making some of most special food in the country—quietly and on her own terms. Wilcomb’s food is warm, nourishing, and nuanced. A dish of crispy goat, rice, curried lentils, and salad reads street food but has texture and depth for days. Her team makes its own chile powder by drying the summer’s excess hot peppers—the combination is potent and different every year. Wilcomb is more interested in feeding people than impressing them, a quality that will continue to fill her dining room and set her apart as a force in American dining.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Crispy Goat, Turmeric Rice, Curried Lentils, and Tomato-Cucumber Yogurt Salad
  • Gulf Shrimp and Fish Ceviche: Yellowfin Tuna, Drum, Shrimp, Cucumbers, Watermelon, Soy-Lime-Chile Vinaigrette, and Pepitas
Chef: Tobias Womack, Red's Chinese

Red’s Chinese is audacious. It’s bold and fun, and it represents the still untapped potential of New Orleans for enterprising young chefs. With Red’s, Tobias Womack has imported brazen American-style Chinese food to the Crescent City, kung pao-ing the hell out of pastrami and deep frying cream-cheesey crawfish rangoons. Womack does delivery for the under-served Bywater and dine-in for New Orleans’ most adventurous diners. If you don’t have a good time at Red’s, you probably don’t like in-your-face flavor, cheeky art, cold beer, karaoke (or yourself). Womack has a big personality to match his cuisine, and he’ll be a serious presence in the market for years to come.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • General's Chicken: Fried Chicken, Bourbon Soy, Smoked Peanuts, Chiles, and Cilantro
  • Deviled Tea Eggs, Smoked Clams, Chinese Mustard, and Celery Leaf
Hotel Chef: Daniel Causgrove, The Grill Room at The Windsor Court Hotel

The Grill Room at Windsor Court has a certain legacy of excellence, both in the chefs it employs and the fine-dining it produces. Chef Daniel Causgrove is maintaining, and modernizing, that legacy—all while overseeing three outlets and room service. Causgrove’s cooking has all the trappings of fine-dining, but it has some fun, too, as with a summer tomato salad that’s really a deconstructed lunch-counter BLT. And while lots of chefs work overtime to push flavors to the extreme, Causgrove dares to employ subtlety. There’s more enchantment than fireworks in a bowl of salt- and sugar-baked celery root, tarragon, crème fraîche, and caviar. It’s an intellectual, inviting style that brings new relevance to hotel dining in New Orleans and across the country. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Blue Crab, Sherry-infused Cream, Paddlefish Caviar, Asparagus, Pickled Radish, Black Garlic, and Manchego
  • Salt and Sugar-baked Celeriac, Crème Fraîche, Choupique Caviar, and Tarragon
Community: Justin LeBlanc, Bevi Seafood Co.

Justin LeBlanc is working to sustain seafood culture and community in New Orleans—and he’s making an honest living doing it.  Now with two locations, his Bevi Seafood Co. has taken over waning seafood markets in Metairie and Mid-City and re-imagined them as part cafe, part market, and biggest part seasonal crawfish supplier. It’s a model designed for local diners who want to know their fishmonger—the way their parents and grandparents did. It’s also designed to support local fishermen, bakeries, and farmers who supply LeBlanc’s operations with 90 percent of his products. Bolstered by a bustling lunch business, Bevi Seafood Co. offers the freshest fish and crustaceans in town—and a vision for building a sustainable, community-focused business. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • BBQ Shrimp, Worcestershire, Cream, Bay Leaf, Lemon, and Parish Brewing Company Canebrake Beer
  • Soft Shell Crab Sandwich with Tomato, Romaine, Onion, Caper, Parsley Relish, Fennel, Olive Oil, and Vinegar
Concept: Miles Landrem, Johnny Sánchez

Miles Landrem is the talent behind Johnny Sánchez, the partnership between New Orleans’ son John Besh and New Yorker Aarón Sánchez. As the name implies, a piece of each of the mega chefs’ culinary heritage fits into the equation. Ultimately, though, it’s Landrem’s layered, technical cooking that’s driving the concept and cuisine forward. Under Landrem’s leadership, the restaurant opened in Baltimore, then New Orleans, and possibly in another city soon. No doubt, wherever Landrem goes, his crispy arroz con pollo, handmade tortillas, and lump crab sopes will win the city over.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Lump Crab Sopes, Choupique Ghost Pepper Caviar, Burrata, and Jalapeños
  • Arroz con Pollo: Crispy Rice, Chicken, Red Salsa, Habanero Hot Sauce, Poblanos, Caramelized Onions, and Chicken Stock
Restaurateur: Justin Devillier, La Petite Grocery

Instead of bouncing around, as most chefs do, or abandoning a restaurant in trouble, Chef Justin Devillier set his roots deep when he took over the kitchen at La Petite Grocery. He’s been in a rewarding, symbiotic relationship with New Orleans ever since. The city got soulful Southern food and a generous chef organizer out of the equation (name an event in town that Devillier hasn’t supported), and Devillier got the backing he needed to sustain and grow the restaurant—and open a second concept, Balise, in 2015. Loyalty is his business plan. As Devillier comes into his own as a restaurateur, you can bet he has New Orleans’ best interests at heart. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Grilled Napa Cabbage, Crispy Pork Belly, Gulf Shrimp, and Nước Chấm
  • Beef Tartare, Pumpernickel Fried Oysters, Pickled Mustard Seeds, Horseradish, and Oyster Emulsion
Pastry Chef: Blake Abene, Square Root

In a national climate where desserts are growing more savory, less beautiful, and simpler to execute, Blake Abene and his intricate compositions at Square Root defy the trend. Abene is 100 percent pastry chef with the technical mastery and precise plating to prove it. He combines those hard-earned skills (leaned under Johnny Iuzzini and Paul Leibrandt) with a progressive palate. Abene sidles sake kasu up to pistachio, and pairs Fernet Branca with Thai basil and peach. Square Root—with its dizzying, whimsical tasting menu—is an ideal venue to showcase a man who’s doubling down on his craft and proving the power of fine-dining pastry.  

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Chocolate Mousse, Juniper-pickled Blueberries, Ricotta-Olive Oil Cake, Black Cocoa Crumble, Cinnamon-Almond Cremeux, Wild Blueberry Sorbet, and Petite Sorrel
  • Winter Squash Mousse, Raisin Purée, Fried Pecans, Curried Ice Cream, and Cane Syrup Foam 
Pastry Chef: Patrick Wellman, Coquette

Patrick Wellman’s pastry skills developed at lightning speed. In fewer than four years years, he went from working guest services in South Beach to executing one of the most satisfying pastry programs in New Orleans. His success at Coquette is due, in part, to solid mentorship from Zak Miller, but it also has a lot to do with his style of edited comfort desserts that are pushed just outside their comfort zone. A satsuma creamsicle is anchored by dark black sesame paste, and pain au chocolat and ganache get a wallop of a dollop of Chartreuse whipped cream. Wellman twists texture and flavor without cluttering the plate—a pro play from a pastry chef who will only continue to grow and rise. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Banana Bread Pudding, Peanut Butter Sorbet, Peanut Crumble, Salted Caramel, and Banana Glace
  • Creamsicle: Satsuma Sherbet, Whipped Vanilla Crème Fraîche, Satsuma Segments, Black Sesame, and Black Sesame Meringues
Artisan: Graison Gill, Bellegarde Bakery

As of this summer, Graison Gill became the proud owner of one of the largest solid granite mills in America with which he grinds whole wheat, rice, and corn flours for his artisan breads at Bellegarde Bakery—so named for New Orelans’ first registered bakery. As a craftsman, Gill wants to touch and understand every step of the bread-baking process—sharpening the millstones, selecting the grains, producing the flour, shaping the loaves, and loading up his deck ovens. He even sources his own salt from the mine on Avery Island. Tapped into a national community of bakers, farmers, wheat breeders, and millers, Gill is on a freshly milled flour-fueled mission to bring integrity back to the New Orleans loaf.

Breads that clinched it:

  • Acadian Miche
  • Ciabatta
Artisan: Geoffrey Meeker, French Truck Coffee

Even though local ports are chockful of imported beans, specialty coffee is a hard sell in New Orleans, a city where the beans are served near black and the acronym CDM needs no explanation. But that’s changing. Roaster Geoffrey Meeker’s light- to medium-roast coffees and bottled cold brews are waking New Orleans up to the possibilities of third wave roasting—and propelling the growth of his French Truck Coffee. Part of French Truck’s magic is that it’s building on New Orleans coffee culture instead of abandoning it. Meeker makes a chicory blend, a darker roast, and a milk- and sugar-laced iced coffee that make conversion easier, all while introducing the market to the finer points of single origin Yirgacheffe.

Coffees that clinched it:

  • New Orleans Iced Coffee
  • Red Honey Costa Rica
Artisan: Leighann Smith, Dryades Public Market

Leighann Smith has the words “Meat Mama” sewn into her chef’s coat, and she lives up to the moniker. Coming up the ranks at Donald Link’s Cochon Butcher, Smith mastered the crafts of animal fabrication and charcuterie-making in a high volume setting. On their own, Cochon’s muffulettas claimed 250 to 350 pounds of cured meats a week—and that’s not to mention a case stocked with tasso, boudin, ham, and bacon. Now running the butchery program at Dryades Public Market, Smith represents the future of meat, one where a more diverse group of folks can access meat from responsibly raised animals, well executed charcuterie is no longer a luxury, and meat mamas are central figures in feeding a community.

Charcuterie that clinched it:

  • Head Cheese, Abita Beer Mustard, Pickled Cabbage, Banana Peppers, and Onions
  • 19-month Aged Country Ham
Bartender: Jesse Carr, Balise

Jesse Carr wasn’t so much biding his time as busting his ass in some of Chicago’s and New York City’s best cocktail bars (Violet Hour, Death & Co., Maison Premiere) before he packed up his family and moved to New Orleans. Now, all the skills, drills, and fine liquor knowledge he earned is on full display at Justin Devillier’s La Petite Grocery and Balise. You can expect a lot more than riffs on classics at Carr’s bar. Rollo Raiders is an improbably good-and-savory combination of kummel, gin, aquavit, Greek yogurt, lemon, orgeat, and carraway seeds. His pretty Tueur Amere looks innocent and fruity enough, until Baska Snaps and Cappalletti smack you in the palate. Carr has creative mojo and he’s not afraid to use it to make some of the most delicious, progressive drinks in the country. 

Drinks that clinched it: 

  • Aguardiente: Cinnamon-infused Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, Amargo Villet, Ginger Syrup, Lime Juice, and Angostura Bitters
  • Sandhill Crane: Macchu Pisco, Calvados, Cranberry-Thyme Syrup, Walnut Liqueur, and Orange Flour Water
Bartender: Nick Detrich, Cane and Table

Rum intoxicated Nick Detrich early on in his career, and the spirit took hold. Now, it’s pouring forth in great depth, complexity, and quantity at Detrich’s dream-of-a-bar, Cane and Table. Backed by the team from Cure, Cane and Table serves a kitsch-free vision of tiki, or more specifically proto-tiki. Detrich and his team explore the history, cultures, and flavors that led to the rum-soaked American cocktail movement. This is still tiki in the French Quarter, though, and it’s a whole hell of a lotta fun. There are pink drinks (notably Detrich’s Campari-tinted Absent Stars), coconut-filled concoctions, and piña coladas (laced with Baska Snaps to keep the tropical frivolity in check)—and they’re all part the vision that makes Detrich’s Cane and Table one of America’s essential cocktail bars. 

Drinks that clinched it: 

  • Absent Stars: La Favorite Coeur de Canne Rhum Agricole, Campari, Lemon, Passionfruit, and Hopped Grapefruit Bitters
  • Smoak and Plank: Mezcal, Cherry Bounce, Spiced Rum, Lime Juice, Grenadine, and St. Ango
Sommelier: Reno De Ranieri, Pêche

Herbsaint, Cochon, Cochon Butcher, and Pêche—they’re landmark restaurants in a city devoted to its food. Beyond their proprietor, Donald Link, they all have one thing in common: a wine list assembled by Beverage Director Reno DeRanieri. DeRanieri’s programs are distinct but cohesive, focusing on high-acid, low-alcohol wines that are food friendly and speak of the place they’re from. It’s a refreshing, honest philosophy that tends to keep his lists tight, fluid, and heavily Old World. Whether he’s highlighting a small Chenin Blanc producer or bringing in a rare bottle of 100 percent Clairette from the Rhône, DeRanieri is transforming dining experiences in New Orleans. And as Link’s restaurant group expands, so will DeRanieri’s reach in the wine world. 

Pairings that clinched it: 

  • Whole Roasted Flounder, White Wine Butter, Radishes and Sunflower Seeds paired with Clairette, Chateau Simone, Provence, France, 2012
  • Shrimp Curry Fettuccine paired with Riesling, Weiser Kumpsteler, Mosel, Germany, 2013