Interview with New Orleans Rising Star Chef Tobias Womack of Red’s Chinese

by Lisa Elbert
February 2016

Lisa Elbert: How did you get your start?
Tobias Womack:
As a dishwasher because I got kicked out of school and had no other options. But my mother is a very avid cook, and I spent a lot of time with her in the kitchen. 

LE: Who's your mentor?
TW:
Judy Rodgers from Zuni Café for her firmness and compassion. She had that restaurant for 32 years, started from scratch. She was an incredible person. 

LE: Why name the restaurant Red's? 
I'm a ginger, I have red hair. So that's why we call it Red's Chinese. We've been thinking about Blondie's Taqueria, because she [Amy Mosberger] has blonde hair. 

LE: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
TW:
We do an industry night at the restaurant on Mondays. We invite everyone in the industry to come down, and we feed them for a very, very fair price until they tell us not to feed them anymore. It's $13 for all you can eat, but you have to eat what we give you, no menu. We do a lot of training in the Ninth Ward. Every day I get about four applicants, kids looking for work. I hire them, give them the tools they need to move them forward like shoes and knives and cookbooks. Some stay, some go. We work with Liberty’s Kitchen. It's a larger program, but we're partnered with them. They find at-risk youths, train them, set standards, and then set them off into the world. The first two weeks are with Liberty’s Kitchen. If it's a fit, they're hired on.

LE: What's the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
TW:
Staffing can be very difficult. There's a tremendous number of restaurants in New Orleans but not a lot of skilled staff. People in the past saw us as outsiders. It's contentious. The landscape is going to change over the next few years. Underneath all the layers of the restaurant, we pull a lot of kids from the neighborhood and teach them to become cooks. So it makes that challenge feel a little harder when comments like the one on the StarChefs article were made [referencing the lack of diversity of Risign Star chefs]. Otherwise, the daily grind, long hours, all those magical things. Cars have hit fire hydrants, and we lose water. We've lost power a few times—it just goes out. A few times we've had water come through that's not drinkable. The infrastructure of the city makes this happen here more than any other city. It happens a lot, and it's a really big challenge.

LE: What's your five year plan?
TW:
We have nine years left on our lease. We're putting a lot more money into the building itself and strengthening the entire foundation of the restaurant, staff and structure. What I would really love to do is take over the upstairs unit to our building; it's fairly residential. If we could open that up into a classroom, that would be awesome. Or have it be a place for other industry people to come and learn about different products. Resources, cookbooks, a lending library, classes like “pasta 101” or “butchery 101.”