Interview with New Orleans Rising Star Chef Alex Harrell

by Lisa Elbert
February 2016

Lisa Elbert: How did you get your start?
Alex Harrell:
My first job was kind of at a little family seafood restaurant in north Florida. A family friend was opening the restaurant and needed people to work, and they asked me if I had any interest. I thought it would be a great way to work for the summer and live on the beach. I had no idea what restaurant work entailed, but I learned quickly that I enjoyed it. I was in school doing post-graduate work at the University of Alabama in biology at the time, and I never even thought about cooking as a career. But that laid the foundation for what would be my career to this point.

LE: Who's your mentor?
AH:
Gerard Maras. I started working for him at Gerard's Downtown in New Orleans. Gerard is a hands-on chef. He's a working chef; he was always in the kitchen with us. He worked on the line, he cooked, and he actually took time to teach and train people. And he would answer our questions and had enough patience to deal with young cooks who were looking to learn. If you showed motivation and you showed interest, and you came in and worked hard, then he would invest himself in your development. It’s something I really value because I had no culinary training. It was all on the job training and reading. So, to have someone that would teach me and take the time to do so was incredibly valuable to me early on.

LE: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
AH:
It's interesting, New Orleans is a tight-knit community. Most of the chefs that own restaurants or run kitchens at some point all worked together, so there's a lot of collaboration. We involve each other in charitable organizations and events, and there's a lot of interaction in just supporting each other by going to each other’s restaurants. I personally get involved because we use a ton of local product, so we try to engage the growers and producers of really high quality products to develop that sense of community. It builds communal bonds. We get out and are involved in events, charities, and industry-led organizations as much as possible.

LE: What's the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
AH:
 Going from being a chef, an employee of someone else, to opening your own business. Because, no matter how much homework you've done or how much responsibility you had as an employee, you've never fully experienced the challenges owning your own place can bring. I'm not only responsible for the kitchen, the economics of the kitchen, etc., but I have to look at business development now. And it's everyone. I have to develop bank relations. Relations with other businesses in the city, like vendors and contractors. All sorts of things that I was never fully involved in as executive chef. That's the biggest challenge for me. It's a steep learning curve. You make mistakes, you learn from them, and continue to push on forward and grow. It's a huge challenge, but, at the same time, once you figure it out, it's a lot of fun. It's been a lot of fun. 

LE: What's your five year plan?
AH:
It's hard to say because Angeline isn't even a year old yet. I think, primarily, it's to build Angeline into a successful business and restaurant and develop a strong, local clientele. I want to position us as one of the best restaurants in the city and start to look at expanding opportunities. We're ambitious, and I certainly have other concepts that I’m always thinking about, so I’m not opposed to growing in another restaurant in New Orleans or somewhere else in the Southeast. Once we feel like we've developed Angeline qualitatively and quantitatively, we'll start looking at other options and other opportunities.