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Best of the Year: Restaurants, Chefs and More

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Chef of the YEAR
Donald Link

Cochon, Cochon Butcher, Calcasieu, Herbsaint

2009 has been a good year for Donald Link. His restaurant Herbsaint has continued to hit on all cylinders. Cochon, the restaurant he operates with partner Steven Stryjewski, remains the go-to place for Cajun cuisine in New Orleans.

Cochon Butcher, a butcher and sandwich shop, and Calcasieu, an elegant but understated banquet space have both launched successfully. Finally, Real Cajun, the cookbook on which Link has been working for some time, was released to excellent reviews. Link has been remarkably successful in everything he’s tried, the result of hard work, a talent for cooking and an excellent sense for business.

Link grew up in Acadia Parish, and he has early food memories from his grandparents’ kitchens, as well as those of his extended family. That food – simple, hearty and honest – still influences his cooking today.

The influence is most apparent at Cochon. There, he and Stryjewski take Cajun and Southern food and present it in way that is both sophisticated yet still rustic. It is the kind of place at which you will find fried rabbit livers served with pepper jelly and fresh mint on toast, or “panéed” pork cheeks with goat cheese, arugula and a beet “rosti.” It is serious food, and with Cochon Butcher around the corner, where Link and staff produce both excellent sandwiches and artisanal cured meats, he has the block sewn up.

Herbsaint, Link’s first restaurant, is one of New Orleans’ finest. There is a somewhat continental feel to the tables that line St. Charles Avenue, and a reserved sophistication to the menu. House-made spaghetti with guanciale and a fried-poached egg is a magnificent take on pasta carbonara, for example. A confit of Muscovy duck leg is served over Louisiana dirty rice with a citrus gastrique to balance the richness. Link sources and serves excellent product, then respects it enough to let it shine through in every preparation.

Link began curing his own meats and making sausages before he had Cochon Butcher at which to sell them. Lucky diners at Herbsaint began sampling his products some time ago, but with his new operations he’s expanded dramatically. One look at the curing case at Cochon Butcher, filled with all manner of charcuterie, will tell you how seriously Link takes that craft. It is also apparent when you taste the products, which have a depth of flavor you can’t duplicate with mass-production.

Chef Link was first named Chef of the Year in 2002, and he’s the first chef to be so honored a second time. This year, however, there was little doubt that Donald Link deserved the award, and we are proud to name him Chef of the Year, 2009.

– Robert Peyton



Best New CHEF
Michael Stoltzfus

Coquette

There are many ways to learn a craft, but the journey has to begin with desire, opportunity and talent. Michael Stoltzfus found all three within himself, and he never really had to leave home. Thankfully for us, he did.

His childhood on Maryland’s Eastern Shore was based in agriculture. The family grew corn, alfalfa and wheat, had a small garden and raised about 100 head of cattle. Importantly, Stoltzfus’s mother was a fantastic baker.

While Stoltzfus was in college studying Web site design, Mom opened a small restaurant. It was a new venture for her and her son decided to help out. Neither one had ever been involved in restaurant operations before.

But the hospitality bug was biting, and soon Stoltzfus determined that this was the life he was meant to have. After a while, he moved on to the restaurant scene in Annapolis, worked his way into a manager’s role, then yearned for a little more excitement than the quiet Maryland landscape could offer.

At about the same time as he was envisioning a life in a restaurant, Lillian Hubbard, his significant other and today his partner at Coquette, gave him a book written by noted French chef, Alain Ducasse. Stoltzfus took one look and said, “I can’t do any of this.”

It is at this point in the story that New Orleans enters the picture. Hubbard’s parents had moved to the city just before Hurricane Katrina, and the kids liked what they experienced during visits.  After Hubbard’s college graduation in 2007, the road to New Orleans beckoned.

John Besh at Restaurant August saw something in Stoltzfus’ enthusiasm and brought him on board. The rest, as they say, is history. Stoltzfus learned well and yearned for his own place.

“When I first saw the building at Magazine and Washington, I was swept away. Never had I envisioned that I would own such a place, let alone be the executive chef,” says Stoltzfus. Hubbard takes care of the front of the house, while Stoltzfus handles the challenges of the kitchen.

Best of all, this young team makes it all work. In a very short time period, Coquette has taken its place among New Orleans’ excellent dining destinations.

Stoltzfus is really happy about Coquette and his adopted home. “The people of New Orleans like their traditions, and we enjoy placing a lot of adventure onto their plates and palates. Today, in this town, there is a broader range of ingredients and preparations than has ever been here. We are proud of our role in the new New Orleans dining scene.”

The name of the restaurant comes from Hubbard, who, during her years in France, was often referred to as a flirtatious and playful girl, a coquette. It is the perfect title for this ambitious bistro, where a young man and a young woman are living a dream on their terms.

On-the-job training, combined with talent and desire, can bring amazing results.

– Tim McNallly
 



Best New Restaurant
Chef Nathanial Zimet

Boucherie

Nathanial Zimet, the chef at this year’s Best New Restaurant, has a familiar story about why he’s in New Orleans. After a culinary education at Le Cordon Bleu in Britain and Australia, he followed his girlfriend to New Orleans, where she was attending Tulane University. Apart from a return to his native North Carolina after Hurricane Katrina, he hasn’t really left since.

Zimet has worked in some of the best kitchens in New Orleans, among them Ralph’s on the Park, Stella!, the Bank Cafe and Iris. It was while he was in the kitchen at Iris that he decided to build the big “K&B purple” truck that first garnered him serious attention. The “Que Crawl” van became a fixture, often parked outside of Tipitina’s to feed hungry concertgoers barbecue, slow-cooked greens and grits fries.

In the summer of 2007 Zimet met James Denio, who would be his partner at Boucherie. A native of New Jersey, Denio also followed a girlfriend to New Orleans, and his background in the restaurant industry – he’s been working in restaurants in some capacity since he was 14 – was a point of connection for the two. They continued to develop Zimet’s business catering film and television commercial shoots, and that success allowed Zimet to make good on his dream to open a less-mobile operation. When Ian Schnoebelen decided to move Iris, he called Zimet, and with funding from Zimet’s father David, the dream became a reality.

The food at Boucherie is contemporary Southern, which to Zimet encompasses all of the disparate influences to be found on the menu. Zimet describes Southern food as based on outstanding ingredients, presented directly. As a result, even dishes that might not seem native to the deep South – hamachi sashimi with pickles for example – are, to Zimet, Southern. Certainly the brisket in his Pho is a connection to his roots, and a dish of Cushaw dumplings combines the locally grown squash with a soft, Chinese-style jacket to delicious effect. That said, most of the food served at Boucherie is recognizably Southern: a pulled pork cake with potato confit and purple cabbage slaw could easily be described as a deconstruction of the traditional barbecue sandwich. Excellent fries, seasoned with garlic and Parmesan cheese, show up to accompany a smoked Black Angus brisket in another outstanding dish.

Zimet has ambitions to open a fine-dining restaurant at some point, but it’s difficult to see him being pretentious about the food he cooks. “Fine dining for the people” is Boucherie’s motto, and Zimet and Denio take it very seriously. They are open to requests, and have been known to go off the menu completely when asked to prepare a vegan meal. That is a pretty amazing thing for a restaurant that features so much beautiful, beautiful pork.

Above all else, Boucherie is our choice for Best New Restaurant because there is passion displayed on the plate; we’re proud to honor that passion.

– R.P.
 




HONOR ROLL
Chef Andrea Apuzzo

ANDREA’S

This Jan. 21 will mark the 25th anniversary of the opening of Chef Andrea Apuzzo’s namesake restaurant in Metairie. Throughout the years, Apuzzo has witnessed the children of his very first guests grow up, marry and bring in children of their own. Birthdays, graduations and holidays – these are all popular reasons for guests to return to Andrea’s for his great Northern Italian cuisine. But perhaps the best reason is Apuzzo, who for so many guests is like family himself. Few chefs in the city are as closely associated as Apuzzo is with his restaurant. They are virtually synonymous. We are therefore pleased to present Apuzzo with this year’s Honor Roll award for his years of dedicated service.

Apuzzo was born and raised in Capri, Italy. “I grew up in a food family,” he says. “Two of my uncles were bakers, and I have four uncles in the restaurant business in Capri, and also in Buenos Aires and Northern Italy. Where I was from, they make you work as a little kid; it keeps you off the street. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up: be a cook.”

Apuzzo traveled the world, working in such far-flung places as Bermuda, Switzerland, Germany and Argentina. In 1975 he came to the U.S., where he helped open the Omni International Hotel in Atlanta. He left there to work at the Royal Orleans in New Orleans in 1977. “As a little kid, I heard that America was the land of opportunity and I knew then I wanted to come to the United States,” he recalls. After helping boost the ratings of the Royal Orleans from three to five stars, in 1985 he fulfilled his lifelong dream and opened Andrea’s with the encouragement and support of his fans, friends and family.

Along with his duties in the kitchen, Apuzzo is very active in charitable work, partnering with such causes as Children’s Hospital and the American Heart Association. Schools are particularly important to him. “I do a lot of stuff with schools because education is very important to me. I go to the schools and usually do a cooking demonstration, and the kids love that.”

Northern Italian cuisine is trendy now in the city, with a small avalanche of new restaurants focusing on this heretofore underserved regional cuisine. But Apuzzo claimed this territory first. “I’ve been doing this for 51 years now,” Andrea says. “I tell my guests: My home is your home. Guests tell me they don’t feel like they are coming to a restaurant; instead they feel like they are coming to a home. This is what gives me such great satisfaction.”

– Jay Forman
 

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