Chef Austin Kirzner
Red Fish Grill, New Orleans
Where destiny is concerned, the proverbial deck was stacked in favor of Austin Kirzner becoming executive chef of The French Quarter’s go-to seafood restaurant.
He grew up in New Orleans, always underfoot in the kitchens of his mother and both grandmothers – all great cooks – and fishing with his father and uncle. His mother’s family has deep roots going back about five generations in New Orleans, first in the Irish Channel, then Uptown, where Kirzner [and his mother before him] grew up. The family cooked with all the flavor and tradition of its heritage, and in his early childhood, when his grandmother took care of him during the day, one-pot cooking was one of their principal activities. “I have very early memories of standing on a chair watching over her shoulder as she made gumbos, jambalaya, and stews, and helping whenever I could,” he recalls. In grammar school, he would invite friends over and cook for them; in sixth grade, he made a Red Fish Court Bouillon for a school project. He always knew he wanted to cook.
During high school and through college, he waited tables at a seafood restaurant in the Quarter – just a block away from Ralph Brennan’s Red Fish Grill, whose kitchen he now commands. “I had probably walked by this spot 1,000 times,” he muses, “without ever dreaming of being executive chef right here!…” Kirzner studied Hospitality Management at the University of Southern Mississippi, then continued on for a degree in Culinary Arts from Delgado. “I knew how to cook, but needed specific techniques and organization to develop my chef skills,” he says.
His first real professional kitchen experience was an intensive twelve-month externship at the renowned Commander’s Palace, another great New Orleans institution owned by the Brennan family. “The big open kitchen there was how I learned professionalism,” he recalls, “everyone was on view, and had to be well behaved, from production cooks like me, peeling cases of potatoes, all the way up the line. It was great training.” When Kirzner, like so many others, was displaced by Katrina, he landed in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant in San Antonio for about four months before returning to New Orleans. Commander’s Palace would be closed for two years after the storm, but he was welcomed to the kitchen of its sister restaurant, Café Adelaide, where he worked for two and a half years under the mentorship of executive chef Danny Trace.
When Trace headed to Destin, Florida to open a Commander’s Palace in the resort town, Kirzner went with him. Then came the oil spill; then the economic crisis. He found his next job – and Ralph Brennan – through an unlikely source: one of his seafood purveyors.
Kirzner began as a sous chef at Red Fish Grill in September 2009, and less than three years later, was named executive chef of the place he had walked by every day as a teenage waiter. “I love it here,” he says, “There’s never a dull moment. You never know who – or what – will walk in the door. In the 11am lull before lunch, a tour bus from the Swamp Boat will pull up, and suddenly we’re FULL! And we’ll be busy ‘til closing; it’s a fast, fast pace. Running a really great restaurant on a really great street in the center of tourism is not exactly easy, but it’s good fun.” He confides that his harshest critics are not the tourists, though, but his regulars, “the folks I see walking down the street every day, who have their favorite bar tender, and their favorite dishes. People from here have their mothers’ and grandmothers’ cooking to compare ours to, and that’s a very tall order. Sometimes impossible!” says the chef, who, as a local himself, knows whereof he speaks.
Kirzner keeps it local by sourcing not just his seafood, but his produce and other products, from as close-by as he can. His wife’s brothers own Covey Rise Farms on Lake Pontchartrain’s Northshore, and their fresh tomatoes, squash, greens, and citrus are a constant feature on the menus at Red Fish Grill. Kirzner has recently revamped those menus, getting back to true New Orleans flavors. He’s keeping it more traditional, which is what he knows people are looking for, in the Quarter. ‘New’ old favorites he’s brought back include Barbequed Oysters, Alligator Sausage Gumbo, and Chocolate Bread Pudding. As a chef, he’s also keeping it closely in tune with the rhythms of Nature: “If it’s not in season,” he states simply, “we’re not serving it.”
“I especially love cooking seafood,” he continues, “and I love being able to cook the freshest seafood every day.” These days, the thanks to a special company-wide “Get Fit with Ralph” program, the whole staff at Red Fish Grill is focused on healthy eating. Contrary to popular belief, Kirzner assures us, this is not as difficult as it might seem, in New Orleans. “Our signature dish, after all, is a grilled piece of Redfish topped with Jumbo-lump Crabmeat, and most of our fish is pan-seared or grilled.”
Kirzner is a chef who is informed by his own New Orleans roots; blessed with the bounty of the Gulf; and determined to please his fellow natives as much as those who travel from afar to partake of his city’s legendary seafood. He is right at home at Red Fish Grill.
Click here for more information about the Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off, presented by Louisiana Life Magazine.