New Tricks for Old Dogs?

Galatoire’s has named Michael Sichel as its next executive chef. Here’s the release:

“We are honored to welcome such an esteemed chef into our Galatoire’s family,” said Galatoire’s Chairman Todd Trosclair. “Galatoire’s prides itself in upholding its storied tradition and serving the highest quality French Creole cuisine that customers have enjoyed and others have envied for more than 106 years. We are excited that Michael will be part of the next successful chapter in Galatoire’s history.”

In his new role at Galatoire’s, Sichel will manage one of the largest and busiest fine dining kitchens in New Orleans, overseeing a staff of more than 30 and preparing the James Beard Award-winning restaurant’s signature dishes.

In addition to his work to date in New Orleans, Sichel has spent more than 13 years honing his cooking skills in Provence, France, and in the kitchens of notable restaurants nationwide, including Rubicon with Traci des Jardins in San Francisco and Gotham Bar & Grill with Alfred Portale in New York.

“It’s a huge honor to be chosen to lead the kitchen of the proudest house in America,” says Sichel. “Galatoire’s is internationally known for its excellence and beloved locally for its traditions. My immediate goal is to combine the finest Gulf seafood and local seasonal product with Escoffier techniques to uphold Galatoire’s standards.”

Sichel cooked some good food at 7 on Fulton a few years ago and at Indigo before that. His cooking, however, does not bring to mind the menu at Galatoire’s. I will be the first to defend the food at the venerable French Quarter restaurant, but inventive it’s not. When former executive chef Brian Landry added some specials to the menu, they were not warmly received. People tend to go to Galatoire’s for the sort of dishes that have been on the menu for decades. I’m not sure whether Sichel is expected to shake things up, but it will be interesting to see whether he’s given freedom to tweak the menu. Sichel can turn out the kind of classic French cuisine on which the menu at Galatoire’s is based; the question is whether Galatoire’s patrons will approve of even the best-intentioned and executed changes to the food.

There may be a model for Sichel’s new role in the job Rene Bajeux has done at the Rib Room. Like Galatoire’s, the Rib Room has had a more or less standard menu for decades. When the restaurant brought in chef Anthony Spizale, that started to change. Spizale was given the opportunity to add specials to the menu that reflected his own cooking, but the focus was still on the prime rib. When Rene Bajeux returned to New Orleans to helm the kitchen, I wondered whether he’d be given more leeway. My first meal at the restaurant under Bajeux’s direction was pretty good, but it appeared that Bajeux was simply going to step into the role vacated by Spizale. The menu was unchanged; the only evidence of Bajeux’s influence was the three-course prix fixe menu.

The menu when I last dined at the Rib Room was very different. The standards are still there – prime rib, filet, sirloin and turtle soup are options, but duck confit and poulet grand-mère are on the rotisserie menu, and braised rabbit legs with mustard, leeks and grits appear alongside veal Tanet as entrées. This is an unqualified improvement over the restaurant’s prior menu. It’s a shame that Spizale wasn’t given the same opportunity to expand the menu, but now that he’s lined up to be the executive chef at Manning’s on Fulton Street, I suppose it’s a happy ending for everyone. (I do not mean that euphemistically.)

The Rib Room is open daily from 6:30 to 10, and you can call 529-7046 for more information.

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