Chef Michael Stoltzfus introduced me to Mason Hereford when the latter was the sous chef at Coquette. Not every chef is as interested in making sure that food writers know about back of house staff, but Stoltzfus is one of the good folks and thus I met Mason. I can’t claim to know the guy, but what struck me about his appearance on the new season of Iron Chef was how much fun he and the cooks he brought, Liz Hollinger and Colleen Quarls, were having.
At Coquette, Hereford was doing some very high-end, fine dining cooking. At his restaurants Turkey and the Wolf and Molly’s Rise and Shine he’s doing comfort food from all over the world as interpreted by a guy with the experience to cook a fine-dining meal but who’d rather cook comfort food.
There’s a “grand slam mcmuffin” on the menu at Molly’s that has sage pork patties, a hash brown, house-made English muffins, griddled onions and American cheese. It’s a reimagining of the original dish, and when you see it on the menu you think maybe it was conceived at 3:00 a.m. but who cares? There’s also a crispy rice salad made with puffed rice, vegetables, herbs, peanuts and a spicy Southeast Asian dressing with yogurt and roti bread. I suspect it’s on the menu because it’s a breakfast joint and it’s his play on Rice Crispies. I’ll have to ask him, but regardless of the reason it’s on the menu, it’s awesome and I believe it’s indicative of the way he thinks about food.
Ten years or so ago, when a lot of fine dining chefs started opening more casual restaurants there was some grumbling about the loss of fine-dining restaurants. I think the complaint was that when a chef capable of helming a white tablecloth restaurant chose instead to open a place serving burgers, pho or sandwiches, it was a loss to the restaurant scene overall.
I said then and I still believe that there will always be a place in New Orleans for fine-dining restaurants, because people here love to eat well, and we attract visitors with that same predilection from all over the world. But the places most of us eat, most of the time are more casual. These are places that serve po’boys, or red beans and rice, or seafood or fried chicken. The more talented chefs who open places like that, the better, as far as I’m concerned, because those are the places most of us can afford to patronize and why shouldn’t we all get to benefit from good cooking?
You may not have seen the episode, so I’m not going to spoil it for you. I will say I enjoyed watching Hereford, Hollinger and Quarls compete, because they did it their way and they had fun doing it.