Playing with Tradition: New Orleans Chefs

By Kristi Willis
Photography by Jenna Noel and Ed Anderson

New Orleans is one of America’s richest food cities, with a cuisine strongly defined by Southern, Cajun and Creole influences. Tourists arrive with high expectations—craving classics like po’boys dripping with dressing, andouille and boudin sausages, oysters Rockefeller, gumbo and étouffée. But a new group of chefs with strong Southern roots is challenging the status quo and unapologetically adapting the dishes of their youth while staying true to their flavors, if not their heavy ingredients.  

Sylvain’s chef Alex Harrell grew up in Alabama but visited New Orleans often as a child. As an adult, he started his culinary career in the venerable kitchens of Galatoire’s and Brennan’s, but when it came time to create his own menu, he wanted to do something different. “Designing the menu became an evolution of how can I keep this fresh, seasonal and something I’d be interested in eating,” he says.

Harrell and crew produce as much as they can in-house, including all of their pastas and old world-style salami, pâtés and terrines. Southern ingredients are featured on the Sylvain menu, but are presented in an unexpected way: chicken livers are served as a pâté on crostini rather than fried, gulf shrimp is paired with clams and chorizo instead of with grits or in étouffée and the description of the daily fish dish is kept intentionally vague so that Harrell can feature what is fresh from the docks and the field. On a hot June day, the special included mangrove snapper served with an onion puree and corn and tomatoes from Holly Grove Market and Farm.

RushingsPhotography by Ed Anderson © 2012; MiLa chefs Slade Rushing and Allison Vines-Rushing


MiLa chefs Allison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing both grew up in the South—northern Louisiana and Mississippi, respectively—and developed a strong appreciation for the traditional cuisine. As they worked their way through kitchens across the country, they focused their attention on the foods of their childhoods, but with more refined techniques, simple, fresh ingredients and a lighter touch.

At Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar in New York, for example, they tinkered with the recipe for oysters Rockefeller (included in their new cookbook, Southern Comfort: A New Take on the Recipes We Grew Up With). “Instead of cooking the oysters to death in the oven and putting a paste on it, we deconstructed it,” says Slade. “We cook the spinach in brown butter with shallots and chop it real fine, we poach the oysters in lemon butter, lay them on the spinach, top it with bacon chips and then grate fresh licorice root on it. It has all of the true flavors of what a Rockefeller is.”

Another play on a standard is the Rushings’ gumbo consommé on MiLa’s tasting menu. “We take lobster heads, andouille and all the ingredients for a gumbo and make a consommé out of it,” says Slade. “Then we sauté shrimp [and] vegetables and a put a little filé on the plate.” Diners are surprised when the waiter delivers a broth that’s delicate yet packed with all the flavors of a rich gumbo.

The Rushings source their produce from Lujele Farms in Mount Hermon, which forces them to cook out of necessity and abundance. In the summer, they can get overloaded with summer squash and must rely on creativity to come up with unique ways to prepare it. “We don’t waste anything,” says Slade. “We were taught to cross-utilize every bone, the skin, everything—don’t let anything go to waste. It brews creativity.”

Chef-Bart-BellPhotography by Jenna Noel; Chef Bart Bell of Crescent Pie & Sausage Company

Chef Bart Bell of Crescent Pie & Sausage Company, in the Mid-City neighborhood, grew up in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, just outside of Lafayette. He was tempted by the great food cities like New York and San Francisco, but felt New Orleans was a unique place to run a restaurant. “New Orleans has the great food, but it’s also a little gritty and dirty,” says Bell. “It has something special that those other places just don’t have. I wanted to cook what I remember eating as a kid, and to have fun with it—really showcasing some Louisiana ingredients.”

Bell makes sausages that honor the tradition of smoked meats in the region, but the menu features both traditional regional recipes like chaurice as well as Bell’s own creations like a zampina sausage made with chicken rather than the traditional veal. He has a number of conventional items on the regular menu, like jambalaya, red beans and rice, and court bouillon, but he applies a seasonal rule to certain dishes. For example: he won’t make gumbo when the temperature rises above 70 degrees. “People always say to me, ‘Bart, your gumbo is great; why aren’t you making it?’” Bell says. “I explain that if I made gumbo year-round, it would taste like everyone else’s gumbo.”

Eschewing the traditional New Orleans standards does raise the occasional eyebrow—particularly those of out-of-towners. Harrell had a party leave brunch because neither eggs Benedict nor beignets were on the menu. “I told them that’s not what we do, and there are people who do that better than we do,” he says. And chefs like the Rushings, whose kitchen is housed in a hotel, must work to strike a balance between the expected and the creative to cater to their particular clientele, “I wish we could just do the creative, but that’s not how New Orleans is,” says Slade.
Expect to see even more innovation as this new class of Big Easy chefs and their peers continue to redefine a cuisine by marrying tradition with seasonality and a bit of playfulness.

Find recipes from Chef Alex Harrell in our Recipes' Section: Butter Bean Spread and Pickled Sweet Onions

625 Chartres St., New Orleans
504-265-8123  •

In the Renaissance New Orleans Père Marquette Hotel
817 Common St., New Orleans
504-412-2580  •

Crescent Pie & Sausage Company
4400 Banks St., New Orleans
504-482-2426  •

Photography by Ed Anderson © 2012; MiLa chefs Slade Rushing and Allison Vines-Rushing's Oyster Swiss Chard Gratin


Reprinted with permission from Southern Comfort: A New Take on the Recipes We Grew Up With by Allison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing

Serves 8

3 thick slices smoky bacon, cut into small dice
2 T. unsalted butter
1 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 bunches Swiss chard, stemmed, leaves chopped into ½-in. dice
2 c. heavy cream
1/8 t. freshly grated nutmeg
18 oysters, freshly shucked, patted dry and coarsely chopped
½ t. salt
½ t. freshly ground black pepper
1 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 c. fresh bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 400°.

Brown the bacon in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the butter, onion, garlic and Swiss chard and sauté until the chard is completely wilted. Remove from the heat. Pour the mixture into a colander set in the sink and squeeze out all excess liquid. Reserve.

Return the pan to the stove and add the cream and nutmeg. Bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to medium-low so that the cream does not boil over. Cook the cream until it reduces to 1 cup. Set aside to cool.

In a bowl, combine the chard mixture, cooled cream and oysters. Mix well and season with salt and pepper. Spoon the mixture into a 3-quart gratin dish. Using the back of a spoon, spread the mixture evenly. In a small bowl, mix together the Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs and sprinkle the topping evenly over the gratin.

Bake until the mixture is bubbling around the sides and the crust is lightly golden brown, about 12 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let cool slightly before serving.

Photography by Jenna Noel; Chef Bart Bell of Crescent Pie & Sausage Company's smoked meat platter.


Courtesy of Bart Bell, Crescent Pie & Sausage Company

Serves 4

2 T. butter
1 lb. dry fusilli pasta, prepared according to package directions
Salt and pepper, to taste
½ lb. grated Muenster cheese
1 handful grated Parmesan
2 c. of heavy cream
2 T. olive oil
2 lb. kale, washed and stemmed and cut into bite-size pieces
¼ c. white wine
1 lb. Crescent Pie & Sausage Company Smoked Chaurice
        (or your favorite chorizo or spicy sausage), grilled and sliced

Heat the butter in a nonstick skillet. Add the cooked pasta and season with salt and pepper. Toss in both cheeses, mixing with the pasta. Once mixed, do not stir so that the cheeses will carmelize. Then flip like a pancake, add the cream and reduce to your liking.
In a seperate pan, sauté the kale in olive oil, add the white wine and a little salt and cover. Once the kale is wilted, uncover the pan and toss.

Slide pasta pancake onto a platter. Top with the cooked sausage and kale.

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