Commander’s Palace, nestled in the heart of the Garden District, is at the top of the menu, if you will, when it comes to fine dining in New Orleans. This year, longtime Commander’s chef Tory McPhail announced he would be leaving the restaurant after 18 years to move closer to family in Montana. Though many are sad to see McPhail say goodbye, a new executive chef has been named that promises to continue the restaurant’s high reputation.
Chef Megan “Meg” Bickford has worked alongside McPhail since 2008, and was the executive chef of Café Adelaide in the French Quarter. Bickford knows the ins and outs of New Orleans and Commander’s Palace’s style, and the flavors that make the city and restaurant famous. Though she doesn’t necessarily like to focus on the fact that she is the first female executive chef of the iconic restaurant, this move is symbolic in many ways for other women in the culinary industry, as well as young women with dreams of one day running a major, award-winning restaurant.
In this month’s Persona we get to know a little more about Bickford, as well as what inspires her passion for cooking and what she plans to bring to her new position.
Q: Why are you a chef and what do you love about your job?
Growing up, food always brought my family together. We had a home cooked meal at least six out of seven nights a week. We cook and we have conservation. Everyone in the family knows how to cook — mom, dad, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great aunts, you name it! Being in the kitchen, the heart of the home, was the event, not necessarily sitting down to dinner. The smell of pecan pie brings my grandma back to me. The smell of fried oysters brings me right to the holidays with my family. There’s something powerful in that.
I believe food changes you, and I wanted to make memories for people. I see our industry as the people industry. Being a chef is not all about the food, it’s the people that I love most about my job. Teaching people and watching people grow in and out of the kitchen is amazing and so rewarding. My role has allowed me to be there for people, professionally and personally, and guide people through their journey. Watching a cook grow up in our kitchen and then go on to follow their dreams is unbelievably fulfilling. I love watching my team have their “aha!” moment. And it’s fun!
Q: Who has inspired you the most in your cooking journey?
I’ll be honest — this is a hard one to answer as I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of mentors. In my journey at Commander’s chef Tory taught me so much and Chris Barbato truly inspired and pushed me. Chris forced me to think about food in a way that I was not yet. We’d gather and collaborate on the spot. He tries to find things you haven’t done and teaches you how to do it. He’d make you do it over and over again until you became good at it. The constant pushing and teaching really got me to where I am today. Chris cared about where you came from and where you were going, and he was never satisfied with just good enough.
Other influences include Nigella Lawson. I read her book “How to Be a Domestic Goddess” when I was in the ninth grade and it opened the world to me. It had me making things that I didn’t think I was capable of. It taught me how to impress people with what I could create. Julia Child, and her want to spread knowledge, is another inspiration to me. She was constantly learning and being playful. She was such a powerful force.
Q: What does it mean to you to be the first female chef at the head of Commander’s?
I am both honored and surprised that people are excited about having a female chef at the head. There have always been plenty of us here and I’ve been part of the Commander’s team for many years, including serving as head chef for another restaurant in the group in the past. I appreciate the title but it’s the latter that I am most excited about.
Q: What are you going to take from your time at Café Adelaide into your new post at Commander’s?
Cafe Adelaide and The Swizzle Stick Bar was an awful lot of fun. It was energetic and totally New Orleans. It was a great learning ground for me and made it clear that Ti, Lally and team had plans for me. I learned a lot about myself and what kind of chef I want to be and how I want to run a kitchen.
Q: What does being at the head of such an iconic restaurant mean to you?
To me, Commander’s isn’t iconic tomorrow if we don’t prove ourselves today. It’s not about maintaining expectations; it’s about striving to exceed them. There have been so many amazing things that happened in this building – food, growth, people. We have to continue that growth. To me that is the exciting challenge ahead. It’s not about what got us here but where we are going.
Q: Are you going to bring any new ideas into Commander’s or just perfect the foundation that’s already there?
Commander’s is and has always been constantly evolving. New ideas are not only welcomed but expected. We have food meetings to share ideas and inspiration for new dishes. The team talks about what we are excited about and what we want to create together. Ti gives me stacks of magazines, newspapers, and menus from all over the world. We are constantly collaborating as a group and we all strive to push Commander’s forward.
Q: If you could describe New Orleans food/cuisine to someone not from New Orleans, what would you say?
We pack a lot of punch! But it’s not all about spice, though it has that reputation. It’s about complexity in flavors. It’s full of depths of flavor, created by our cooking methods and building flavors to work together. It comes from many, many influences around the world and it’s continuing to evolve. We want to be the leading edge of that.
Food to us is a way of life and it’s about the whole experience of eating.
Favorite NOLA restaurant (other than Commander’s)? On my day off, you might find me at Secret Thai.
Favorite thing to cook? While this changes constantly, there’s something so satisfying by perfecting day-to-day simplicities, like the perfect sunny side up egg or a finished sauce, like our veal demi-glace. There are so many opportunities for that not to go right but it’s so wonderful when they do. Our demi-glace takes 2 and a half days to complete so you better believe it’s satisfying when it comes out just right!
Favorite cocktail? Whiskey Smash
Favorite junk food? My husband calls me the chip monster so needless to say its Zapp’s Spicy Cajun Crawtators.
True confession: My 3-year-old daughter Stella has a very late bedtime. I work nights, weekends, holidays, etc. So, when I get home, my daughter and I play. We have a dance party, where we get to wiggle it all off, we run around, and I tuck her in at night. It’s our little secret.