When Work is Play
A month with my favorite chefs
MoPho Shrimp tapioca noodles
Sara Essex Bradley
In addition to serving as a dining columnist for this esteemed magazine, I’m also the Culinary Programming Director for the Southern Food & Beverage Museum (SoFab). I do many things there, among them teaching cooking classes to big groups in the Rouses Culinary Innovation Center, the wonderful state-of-the-art, residential-style kitchen. It is my playground. When the museum needed a four-course, seated dinner catered for a national insurance company hosting 50 very fancy ladies in town for Essence Festival, I took on the job. No big deal. Late the night before the client ballooned the guest list to 72. I am neither a restaurateur nor a caterer, just an accomplished cook and a better-than average party planner, so an experience that started out fun devolved into madness as I tried to arrange flowers, prep, cook – all by myself.
Drowning, I screamed for help. My friend, chef Melissa Araujuo of Saveur Catering and Alma Pop-up, heard my call. She kicked in and saved me, gratis. She left me to cook the major dishes while she did all of the ancillary work – boiling perfect shrimp, cooking perfect rice, plating every dish in an artful way that’s leagues beyond my skill level and way below hers. I owed her big time, but all she wanted was a meal, so I offered an over-the-top experience at the place of her choice. She chose Toups’ Meatery, rock star chef Isaac Toups’ palace of pork. Melissa’s sous chef, Jordan “Flash” Holley, joined us.
At my urging, with child-like glee the chefs ordered just about everything on the menu. There are few things as fulfilling as providing a fine meal to people who cook for a living, either because you cooked it yourself (although this can feel like being psychoanalyzed by Freud) or one of their chef-heroes is in the kitchen.
We started our monster midday repast with the Meatery Board, a voluminous selection of house-made meats, pâtés, pickles and condiments; an order of piping hot cracklin’; a lovely salad of screamingly fresh Covey Rose vegetables in a light bacon vinaigrette; a torchon of foie gras; and veal sweetbread poutine made with cheddar cheese curds and green onion gravy.
The to-go boxes were already filling up with leftovers, but the discovery mission continued with Barbecue Goat with citrus slaw; medium-rare Venison Backstrap served with barley flecked with caramelized onions, horseradish crème fraiche and dried cherry jam; and a killer Buttermilk Fried Chicken Sandwich.
I contemplated heading to the ladies’ room for a nap, but the arrival of dessert stooped me: Chocolate Mousse made with cayenne and cane syrup and served with blood orange and candied almonds; and Warm Bourbon Cornbread Pudding.
It was a meal for the ages. I figured we would talk about it for years to come.
Imagine my joy when, a few weeks later, I learned that Issac Toups and his wife/sommelier/business partner Amanda had signed the lease to take over the beautiful restaurant space within SoFab. Toups’ kitchen will be right across the building from mine. This is a thrilling new partnership. On behalf of our team at SoFab I would like to welcome the addition of Toups’ South (the Meatery will remain on Carrollton Avenue) to our happy place. They estimate opening in mid-September.
I celebrated my happy birthday with another of my favorite chefs, Michael Gulotta. He hits the mark every time.
Knowing what her pick would be, I left my newly no longer vegan – not even vegetarian, but now pescatarian (seafood eating) – daughter, Cecilia, to choose the place. She predictably chose MoPho. We couldn’t decide (never can), so we ordered and split three entrées: Mussels Braised in Coconut Red Curry; Gulf Shrimp in Fresh Turmeric Curry; and Crispy Summer Vegetable Tempura with bulgur wheat and sweet corn and coconut risotto – another memorable meal.