Chef Shuffling

Back before celebrity chefs, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and cell phones were the size of bricks, a restaurant’s name said it all. Not anymore. In today’s food-savvy world the mark of a restaurant’s identity often resides in its executive chef. But chefs can be an itinerant bunch and, true to form, there has been some turnover at top kitchens around town recently. Here is a look at a few of these and how the changes have reshaped their identities.

Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising development has been the return of Chef Peter Vazquez, all the more remarkable for his having resurfaced in suburbia, where he now works with meat and fire at Mimi’s in River Ridge. Vazquez made his mark pre-Hurricane Katrina at Marisol’s, where his confrontational menus challenged New Orleans diners at a time where they were collectively more reserved. Since then New Orleans has grown more adventurous.

But has River Ridge?

Vazquez is out to change some minds and if anyone can do it, he can. Given his array of tattoos and (alleged) mercenary training, it does seem unlikely that anyone will complain directly to this chef about the new menu’s lack of eggplant Parmesan.

Vazquez overhauled the menu from the get-go. To ease the transition he and owner David Whitmore kept the focus on Italian, but they broadened the scope to encompass different regions. An appetizer of Steamer Clams in a tomato broth gets smoky, bacon-like goodness from pork jowl and some heat from chili pepper. For the main courses, Vazquez does a good job of accommodating the more reticent diners with classics such as a veal scaloppini in a citrus-caper sauce. “It would be insane for me to go full Marisol on this place,” he says. “And I accept that.”

However, the real rewards come from his specials – such as Sea Urchin and Spaghetti – which are traditionally Italian but also challenge the status. Vazquez has been pleasantly surprised by customers’ willingness to try the more adventurous fare. “Not too long ago I ran duck necks stuffed with boudin noir. I said if anyone can sell this out here, I will (insert here an unprintable term for being surprised). Then the first order came in and I sold three.

That gave me hope.”

Overall the reception has been positive, but Mimi’s had to work through a rough transition period. “It was met with a great uproar and animosity,” Vasquez shrugs. “We kinda expected that. We steeled ourselves for it, it happened and we’ve moved on. And now I have a lot more stuff up my sleeve to inflict upon people. Stay tuned.”

The Rib Room at the Omni Royal Orleans has defined the white-collar business lunch for generations. But in 2007, it lost Dalton Milton, its charismatic maitre d’ of 46 years and, recently, its chef of several years. But the Omni scored a coup by landing highly esteemed Chef Rene Bajeux, who’s back in town and breathing new life into a classic restaurant.

Bajeux, born and raised in Alsace, brings to the Rib Room his expressive French style of cooking, contemporized with an American sensibility. But the Rib Room is a conservative place. What can diners expect in the way of change? “I put the focus back on our rotisserie,” Bajeux says. “It is the Rib Room’s signature piece of equipment. I wanted to make it exciting again by roasting other types of meats, like cochon de lait and whole leg of lamb.”

Legacy dishes remain, such as the signature prime rib served sizzling on a platter. But diners can branch out though an expanded focus on seafood, primarily wild-caught fish, cooked on the rotisserie and finished with one of Bajeux’s many creative touches. “Light vinaigrettes, if well made, bring a lot of flavor,” Bajeux explains. “For a NOWFE (New Orleans Wine & Food Experience) dinner I made a dish of black tea smoked quail over arugula with a lavender honey glaze and citrus vinaigrette.”

Perhaps the biggest thing Bajeux brings is his reputation. He is a classically trained, highly regarded chef who’s well respected by both the industry and his customers. He puts an esteemed face back on a Marque destination.

At the Warehouse District’s high-flying Meson 923, contemporary cool and ambitious cuisine converge in a singular, aesthetically striking package. After the departure of Chris Lynch, sous chef Baruch Rabasa stepped in last fall to fill the spot. With a low-key personality that belies the ambitions of the food, Rabasa has kept a steady hand on the tiller while rolling in new tricks of his own.

Rabasa describes his cooking as a combination of modern and classical, with a quasi-experimental component thrown in for a bit of an X-factor. “I’m from Mexico, and my father’s family is from Barcelona,” Rabasa says. “I’m willing to try new stuff and would call it contemporary American food ingrained with classical French technique, which I learned at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America).”

Latin influences are represented as well, including unusual ingredients such as huitlacoche, a corn fungus popular in Mexican cuisine but relatively unknown here. It was recently incorporated into a creamy risotto that was paired with slow-roasted duck breast. Along with unusual ingredients, Rabasa uses modern techniques such as sous vide for a lot of his preparations. “All the baby vegetables get cooked sous vide, as well as the artichokes. For the meats, we’ll do sous vide because it lends to a more uniform sauté when we finish it. If you’ve ever seen a filet that gets done sous vide, you’ll see it gets done mid-rare all the way through top to bottom. Then just sear it on the outside to finish for a crust and you get a perfectly cooked steak.”

Order Up
Each of these chefs brings something new to the table. Here are some recommended places to start:

Mimi’s. Ask about the specials, as Vazquez has fun with these. For those who want to play it safe, try the Veal Hanger Steak. The soft-cooked egg stirred into the warm homemade spaghetti adds richness and authenticity.

Rib Room. The Sizzling Prime Rib is a favorite here. Ask for horseradish on the side. To get a feel for Bajeux’s deft touch with seafood, consider his fish specials.

Meson 923. Rabasa has a talent for pairing unusual components that work well together. His Salmon with a Kimchee and Potato Pirogue dressed with a Korean Braised Rib Ragout is one example.

Shake-Up Smorgasbord

10160 Jefferson Highway

The Rib Room
Omni Royal Orleans Hotel
621 Saint Louis St.

Meson 923
923 South Peters St.

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