With a son who is a sophomore in high school and a daughter who is a sophomore in college, I will take every chance I get to spend a little “quality time” with my kids, as schedules become hectic during the school year.
So when my wife asked me to join in on a mother-daughter shopping/dress-fitting trip to New Orleans, I uncharacteristically jumped at the chance. I was going to be nothing more than a glorified chauffeur for the day, but I relished the opportunity.
Her fitting was scheduled for 4 p.m. It was too early for a first-course for dinner, and too late for an afternoon snack. I planned to sit in my car and listen to WWOZ while the girls were in the dress shop, but being less than one block away from the Camellia Grill was too great of a lure to keep me stationary.
I headed over to Carrolton Street and walked into the Camellia Grill as their only afternoon customer. As I have done hundreds of times over the past 45 years, I ordered chili-cheese fries and a chocolate freeze with ice cream. I sat and read the New Orleans entertainment weeklies and visited with the Camellia crew until I thought the coast might be clear in the dress shop. I should have known better.
I walked into the dress shop and the two seamstresses, with straight pins between their teeth and measuring tape in hand, were still at the foot of my daughter who was on a pedestal in front of a full length mirror looking as beautiful as I have ever seen her. I took in the moment and then wound my way back though lace and tulle and headed back outside.
Many men would be griping and complaining at this point, and I was on the verge. But it was at that very moment, as I walked out of Yvonne LeFleur’s dress shop, that I realized that I was only a half a block away from Brightsen’s Restaurant on Dante Street. Instead of hopping back in the car and playing Words With Friends on my iPhone while listening to the radio, I took the short hike to the restaurant that was the biggest inspiration to me in my early cooking career.
I have written often of how I got my start in a commercial kitchen, so I won’t waste many column inches on that over-told tale. In short, I opened my first restaurant in 1987, fired the chef on opening night, and was forced into cooking behind the line with zero experience in a restaurant kitchen.
One year earlier Frank Brightsen had opened his iconic restaurant in a shotgun house in the River bend area of New Orleans. His culinary journey leading up to that day was the polar opposite of mine. He went to work under the tutelage of the great chef Paul Prudhomme at Commander’s Palace and spent several years there before moving with Prudhomme to the world famous, game-changing French Quarter eatery K-Paul’s. Brightsen spent several years at K-Paul’s until Chef Paul came to him one day and said, “It’s time for you to open your own place and Kay and I are going to help.”
Brightsen’s opened to instant fame and credibility, both of which were much deserved. Gene Bourg, the longtime food critic for the Times Picayune, gave Brightsen’s a rare five-bean rating (I think only two other restaurants at the time had garnered such acclaim, and one was Frank Brightsen’s former employer, Commander’s Palace).
As an accidental chef who was thrown into the fire on opening night, I knew quickly that my time with an Easy Bake Oven as a six-year old wouldn’t get me through a busy dinner shift or aid in future recipe development. So I began to submerge myself in food culture and cooking. I traveled to New Orleans and ate out as often as I could, trying to steal ideas and gain inspiration from that city’s finest. Brightsen’s was at the top of my list.
My wife always accompanied me on these culinary excursions and I still remember the first time we ate at Brightsen’s. I was blown away by the elegant simplicity and bold flavors of all of his dishes. Frank Brightsen’s food was “real.” He was “local” before local was cool. I instantly knew that Brightsen’s was “my kind of restaurant,” and my personal goal was to try and be as good as it one day.
All of those early days came back to me as I walked from the dress shop to Brightsen’s Restaurant around the corner. It is still one of the best restaurants in one of America’s best restaurant cities. 26-year old Robert would have never walked into a restaurant 30 minutes before dinner service just to say, “hi,” to a longtime idol and mentor. 55-year old Robert didn’t give it a second thought.
I walked through the front door and wound my way back through the restaurant to the kitchen where Frank Brightsen was standing and eating a bowl of red beans and rice. He gave me a gracious welcome; we shook hands, and began trading restaurant stories while the staff worked around us.
It was the first time I had been in that tiny kitchen since my very first visit back in 1988. I still remember finishing my meal and asking to walk back to the kitchen to say hello and thank my culinary idol. I expected to see a full staff of chefs manning stoves similar to the Commander’s Palace kitchen I had walked through so many times on the way to their courtyard. I was surprised to see Frank standing in front of a six-burner stove with a sous chef in a small back room passing him proteins. I was instantly impressed.
On this recent visit the kitchen looked the same but he had added a four-burner stove to his line.
Brightsen asked if I would like a bowl of red beans and I declined (I’m still regretting that decision, by the way). We sat at a small table and talked about the restaurant business for several minutes. We spoke of our mutual admiration of Prudhomme and legendary New Orleans restaurateur Warren LeRuth. We talked about the state of the restaurant business in the Crescent City and how there are twice as many restaurants in the city today as there were pre-Katrina. I reminded him that he kicked my butt on national television at the Food Network’s Great American Seafood Cook Off the year after Katrina. Most of all I soaked in the opportunity to sit— if only for a few minutes— with one of my culinary heroes.
Once the chef had finished his red beans, I took that as my cue to let him get ready for dinner service. We promised to visit again, and on my way out he handed me a bag of homemade meat pies, that evening’s feature, that had just come out of the oven.
On my way back to the car my wife called letting me know that the fitting was finally finished. I told her, “Skip the dinner reservations, I’ve got meat pies.” She didn’t even flinch at that statement. As the one who has traveled at my side along this 28-year culinary journey, from that first visit to Brightsen’s to this most recent, she knows it’s just another day with a restaurant guy. The fact that we had a beautiful 19-year old daughter along for the ride this time made it better than either of us could have ever imagined back in 1988.
White Bean Soup
This recipe is Creole New Orleans meets Tuscan white bean soup.
¼ c. Bacon fat
3 c. Onion, diced
3 c. Carrot, diced
3 c. Celery, diced
½ c. White wine
½ c. Ham, diced
2 tsp Poultry Seasoning
2 tsp RSJ Herb Blend
2 tsp RSJ Seasoning Blend
1 TB Worcestershire sauce
2 TB Kosher salt
2 tsp Hot sauce
1 tsp White pepper
1 ea. 15 oz. can white navy beans, drained, rinsed and pureed with 4 c. pork stock
5 ea. 15 oz. can white navy beans, drained, rinsed, kept whole
2 c. Pork stock
¼ c. Pesto
Reserved hock meat from Pork Stock recipe
White Bean Stufato
In a stockpot, sauté onion, carrot and celery in bacon fat for 5-7 minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently. Add wine and cook 3-4 more minutes.
Add ham and seasonings and cook 7-8 minutes.
Add the pureed beans, whole beans and the 2 cups of pork stock and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce heat and add the chopped hock meat and pesto. Stir well and simmer for 30-45 minutes.
Yield: 1 gallon
RSJ Herb Blend
2 TB Dried oregano
2 TB Dried basil
2 TB Dried thyme
1 TB Dried rosemary
1 TB Dried marjoram
Combine all ingredients.
Yield: ½ cup
RSJ Seasoning Blend
2 TB Iodized salt
2 TB Fresh ground black pepper
2 TB Garlic powder
1 TB Onion powder
1 TB Lemon pepper
Combine all ingredients
Yield: ½ cup
3 ea Ham hocks
1 ea Medium onion, quartered
1 ea Bay leaf
1 TB Whole black peppercorn
2 ea Garlic cloves, smashed
1 ea Sprig fresh thyme
1 ½ gallons Cold water
Combine all ingredients in a stockpot. Simmer gently for 3 hours, skimming any impurities that rise to the top. Strain, reserve meat from hocks for another use and discard the rest.
Yield: 1 gallon stock