Interview with New Orleans Rising Star Chef Michael Gulotta of MOPHO

by Lisa Elbert
February 2016

Lisa Elbert: How did you get your start?
Michael Gulotta:
I always wanted to cook, so I kind of knew I wanted to go to culinary school when I was a senior in high school. Then I wrecked my car during Mardi Gras, so I got a job as a line cook at the Planet Hollywood where my brother worked. I was there for about six months before I went to culinary school at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. My brother was a captain at Emeril's Delmonico, so he got me a job on fry and pastry there for a summer, like an internship. While I was in school, I worked small restaurants in Thibodaux as a line cook. Then, for John Folse at Bittersweet Plantation, which was highly regarded at the time. Next, I did an externship at a country club in Columbus. The chef there was trying to get into the Bocuse D'or, and I did ACF food competitions, so I came up to work with him to do it. I worked a summer there, and he did everything from scratch. Brought in all whole fish, whole salmon, whole trout. It was a cool little place, and he was trying to do it right. I moved back to New Orleans and kept applying for August but I never got it, so I ended up working for Pete Vazquez at Marisol. He was doing some crazy stuff in New Orleans: great charcuterie, everything from scratch. Even a lobster grilled cheese sandwich (I had to make the white bread from scratch). It was just three of us—pretty intense. I stayed on after I graduated to secure school funding to go to Italy. Besh finally hired me at August six months before I went to Italy. So, I worked six months as hard as I could to leave a good position, I was in Italy for a year and came back and they held my spot at August. Then, after a year, Besh sent me to Germany for a year and a half. I came back after Katrina hit and became a sous at August when I got back. Then I became chef de cuisine. When I got there, it was only August, but when I left we had 9 restaurants. We had to train everyone. It was a grind.

LE: Who is your mentor?
MG:
Karl Joseph Fuchs, Marco Ballo, Pete Vazquez, John Folse, and John Besh. I have a lot of mentors, and I’ve learned a lot. It's hard to say that any one of them was my mentor. But I think my brother was really my mentor because he was the first one to get me a job at a restaurant. He was a somm, manager, general manager, and he opened restaurants. He really taught me how to manage food and labor costs and really opened my eyes to the back side of it. And he taught me that BOH and FOH need each other. There's always a little tension between them, but there's a synergy that I learned working with him and alongside him. He taught me what it takes to go out and really make a guest happy from the back of the house. How great service can save a meal if the kitchen makes a mistake, and vice versa.

LE: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
MG:
Nowadays it's a little harder because I have to focus on building my company. I sit on the board of the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. I used to do dinners for Café Reconcile and Café Hope. In the last year and a half, I haven't done as much. My company is trying to form its own nonprofit, Dishroom Heroes, where we teach life skills, how to open bank accounts, offer pro bono legal help, and have them on a roster where, if some restaurant needs someone, they're available. Not to cook, because they probably don't want to cook. But they can get the paycheck they need; they can be gainfully employed. 

LE: What's the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
MG:
When we first opened, the menu was a lot wackier. There was rice with uni and lard and whole trotters with crab and Meyer lemon. The food was stuff I wanted to pick up with my hands and eat. Now, we’ve had to go more traditional with things that bridge the gap. What the New Orleans market really wants is to find that happy medium. New Orleans is kind of old school. There was a learning curve in the beginning, and we got murdered on social media. At the end of the day, you’re looking at the books, and you have to figure it out. We had to be fluid and on the fly. We couldn’t have things on the menu that weren’t selling, and that taught us to be limber. 

LE: How is the community response now?
MG:
For summertime in New Orleans, I cannot complain. We’ve built a strong local clientele. There are so many new restaurants, and all of them are hot, but we’re holding on in our sophomore summer thanks to our regulars. We just added go-to bowls of pho and they’re selling like crazy and at a better margin. We’re picking out quality stuff, made go-to with luscious things. People got frustrated with picking their own bowls, but we’re bridging a gap between diehard fans and people who have never eaten pho. Sometimes, we have whole tables of Vietnamese families in the restaurant.

LE: What's your five year plan?
MG:
I have two sous chefs who helped me open. I would love to be able to help them, to build a little group. We should keep this open long enough to open another restaurant. One sous wants to take a concept more Southeast Asian. This was supposed to be approachable. He wants to do more fine dining. Another sous is into a grill and bar.