Saturday, January 1, 2011

My 2010 "Meal of the Year" – A Big Easy Brunch "Sans Pants" at Commander’s Palace

What a truly amazing food year that was! I worked, played, and ate in 10 different cities, and enjoyed over 200 professionally prepared meals, many created by the country's top chefs.

So, you'd think with so many options, choosing a "Meal of the Year" would be difficult. Well, that's not the case. In fact, it’s a total no-brainer. And by brain, I actually mean pants.

That's right, my meal of the year came as a direct result of not wearing pants. I'd love to explain. This all took place on a press trip Michele and I attended, hosted by the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau.

We had been invited down to experience New Orleans' cuisine and seafood post BP oil spill, and since neither of us had ever been before, we jumped at the chance.

We had already enjoyed several days of incredible food, drinks, and music in the French Quarter, and the trip was to culminate in the Garden District with a special brunch, prepared by three of the city's star chefs, at the venerable Commander’s Palace.

For those of you that don't know, Commander’s Palace has been considered one of New Orleans' finest restaurants since it was built in 1880. A who's who of great chefs have passed through its bustling kitchen, including Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. This day it would be Executive Chef, Tory McPhail (tall hat) teaming up with Donald Link (ball cap) from Cochon, and Matt Murphy (right) from M Bistro at the Ritz Carlton. I was really, really looking forward to this meal.

As we waited to be seated, I stared hungrily into the colorfully decorated dining room. The smells were glorious; the scent was some sort of sweet, smoky amalgamation of bacon and butter. I was shaken from my trance as our group was led forward toward the source of these heavenly aromas. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

It was co-owner, Ti Adelaide Martin, and she asked if I could step aside and let the others pass. I did, to quizzical looks from my fellow media members. Then I heard something I'll never forget, "I'm sorry," she said with a stern smile, "we can't let you into the dining room without pants." It was true. I was not wearing pants. I was wearing shorts.

If you've never been to New Orleans in August, let me tell you, it's very humid, and very hot. People say things like, "it may only get up to 95 today." So, since it was brunch, and hot enough outside to accidentally make roux, I decided to go with a nice pair of khaki dress shorts.

She politely explained to me, and the completely horrified PR rep who had made the plans, that everyone who makes a reservation is told about the dress code, and that in the 130 year history of the establishment, no one has ever been allowed to enter the dining area sans pants. Clearly, my "don't you know who I am?" was not going to work.

My heart sank. Talk about a swift kick to the beignets. Michele and I were starving, and crazy with anticipation, and it would have been 30 minutes each way to go back to the hotel. Not only that, all our luggage had already been packed for the return trip to San Francisco following the meal.

Since everyone was flying out after this event, I had no intention of keeping the other press members waiting. The only option would be to return to the Ritz-Carlton to change, thereby missing out on the first half of the menu.

Then, just as my exposed knees and I were about to leave in shame, I was introduced to the true meaning of Southern hospitality. Ti told us that while I would not be allowed to enter the dinning room, she had checked with the kitchen, and they were fine with setting up the Chef's table.

I was told this is the hardest reservation in New Orleans, with people calling up to a year in advance. Out of sheer luck, they had decided to not book the table that morning, since the kitchen was hosting the aforementioned visiting chefs.

Michele and I looked at each other half-smiling, in total disbelief at our good fortune. A few seconds later we were seated smack in the middle of the most famous kitchen in New Orleans. A few friends from the press group came down to check on our situation, but as soon as they saw where we had landed, their looks of concern quickly turned to envious bemusement.

What followed was a brunch as magnificent as the setting, and as magical as the strange chain of events that led us to it. I hope you enjoy the photos, and enjoyed the story behind them.

Executive Chef, Tory McPhail, started things off in grand fashion with an amuse bouche of sweet corn Johnny cakes, pulled pork, soft poached quail egg, Atchafalaya river basin caviar, lemon and champagne gelee, hollandaise, and Louisiana sugarcane.

McPhail is known for his creative interpretations of classic Louisiana cuisine, which he reminded us was "the original fusion cuisine." Chef Tory prides himself on finding the very best local ingredients, and almost 90% of what's used in the restaurant comes from within 100 miles of the back door.

The benefits of such practices were as obvious, as they were delectable with this butter-roasted grouper with chanterelle mushrooms, Louisiana soybeans and crushed local blue crab bisque.

Chef Matt Murphy offered a “Veux Carre Brunch.” One gorgeous plate composed of four fabulous dishes. We had already enjoyed several examples of Chef Murphy's culinary skills at M Bistro, in the Ritz Carlton, so I was looking forward to seeing what he would come up with for this special menu. He did not disappoint.

By the way, in yet another twist of bonne chance, assisting Chef Murphy was Sous Chef Bradley McGehee (pictured above, far left), a former student of mine at the CCA! It was great seeing him again, and I'm glad he is getting to work with such talented chefs.

Alligator "Boudin" Sausage with Stewed Greens

Escargot "Croque Madame" with Quail Egg

Sweet Potato Biscuit With Truffle Scrambled Egg and Sausage Gravy

Jumbo Lump Crab Crepe with Goat Cheese, Sauce Choron, and Ghost Pepper Marinated Caviar

Donald Link, the James Beard Award-winning Executive Chef at Cochon, offered a hearty, Cajun change of pace to the "haute Creole" we had been enjoying, and presented a Sausage and Oyster Pie with Parmesan Bechamel and local Padrone Peppers. There was nothing light about this dish, except how it made you feel while you ate it.

Not only did we get the all this amazing food, prepared and served by these world-class chefs, but we also were blessed with several signature cocktails, like this "Tequilla Mockingbird." In addition to being brilliant at finding tables for people without pants, Ti Adelaide Martin is also an accomplished mixologist.

Speaking of tequila, halfway through brunch, and for no apparent reason, these guys walked into the kitchen and played this to the cooks. Would I be using the local term "Lagniappe" correctly to describe this?

As the meal came toward a close, Michele and I discussed how we could tactfully pass on dessert. We knew Commander’s Palace was known for its decadent desserts, but we were full…and not regular full, New Orleans' full. We decided we'd just split a plate of something, so as not to insult our hosts.

When we informed the server of our plan, she formed a smile as slow and sweet as molasses before simply saying, "No, that's not going to happen." She returned with a tray containing full orders of five of their most popular desserts, including a classic Crème Brulee, and a you-have-to-try-it-before-you-die Bread Pudding Soufflé.

From the depths of under-dressed despair, to the ecstasy of the ultimate Chef's table, this had been an experience we'd never forget. What a meal, and what a memory. A huge merci beaucoup to Commander’s Palace for a truly extraordinary brunch, and to Chefs McPhail, Link, Murphy, and McGehee for letting us share their kitchen!


Anonymous said...

What a fabulous assortment of culinary treats. Oh how I would have loved to be at your table.

Anonymous said...

long time listener (as in 'watcher', via youtube), first-time caller (as in 'poster', on this blog)...

after seeing this food, words fail me.

here's a few...


less than eloquent, but fairly self-explanatory.

thanks for sharing an amazing culinary experience. so much so, that i took the long way out and actually posted this here, as youtube comments were disabled.

happy new year, john and michele. looking forward to so much more in 2011.

~ stooge81

ClaireWalter said...

You experienced Food Decadence with a capital D, boldfaced and underscored if the comments section would take those. I haven't been to Louisiana since the spill, but I vicariously enjoyed your report -- and I love the video. Happy New Year, Chef John & Michele. Claire @

Andrea said...

It's a shame. I lived in New Orleans over 20 years and never had the pleasure of going there. I must make a trip ASAP to check it out!

Donna@YummaYumma said...

Wow, that all sounds so amazingly delectable! I'm so jealous :)

Jenny Kelley said...

What a fabulous feast! A perfect choice from 2010 to ring in the new year. Have a fun and flavorful New Year Chef John!


Chef John said...

Thanks Claire!! And a Happy New Year to all!

Chuck said...

John......gourmand moderne....
....teacher of chefs....award winning lifer......

..."dinning" room? Twice?

Happy New Year anyway, y'all !!!

Honda said...

lol u are lucky :D
good blog!

Cortney Marsh said...

There is just something so wrong seeing Cajun food so dressed up. It'a really unnatural, I live in Nola now and have live in Louisiana all my life and Cajun food is to us like soul food is to the rest of the south or BBQ. It's messy, comforting, homey. Not pretty but prefect all at the same time. Next time your in town look me up I'll show you what real Cajun food is.

BillWade,NH said...

ah, my favorite restaurant!

Asian Malaysian said...

TEQUILA! Chef John why the fudge did you disable comments for the youtube clip?! I almost burst at the end of that clip!!

Troy said...

Funny enough, on the front page of their states "make a reservation." then "No Shorts. Jackets preferred at dinner." I wonder if they made that change after a visit from everyone's favorite chef?

Anonymous said...

Commanders is a unique offering. I can say it was the best meal of my life. Sauces constructed with such care and understanding. This place stands out in a city of stand out restaurants.

rubi said...

Chef John,

You are so right about that Bread Pudding Souffle as a MUST try-before you-die dessert. It was the BEST dessert i've ever had!

Commander's Palace was definitely the highlight of our family trip to New Orleans a couple of years ago. Such an amazing place!

Anonymous said...

@ Chuck Chef John is more commonly found in the kitchen where he never needs any corrections ... LOL dining (dinning) room is a relative less familiar place, and on this occasion it was a once-in-a-lfetime experience ... a lot to get excited about when telling the story.

Pantalone said...

Show us!Show us!
Show us how to make those tasty treats !!!

please .......

Unknown said...

I bet lots of people looked up the Commander's Palace website after reading this. I'd love to have a go at the bread pudding souffle, which apparently comes with warm whiskey cream. Lovely!

sequimteeth said...

You are a lucky man. What a great experience. It tasted as good as the presentation looked I bet. Please let me be your camera bearer next trip there.

Anonymous said...

Chef John.. you are not only a creative charismatic cook but a good storyteller. I believe this happened of course,... and I like the way you tell it. What other cooking adventures have you had that you might not have shared yet?

Elizabeth Howes said...

Ugh, I'm oozing with envy right now. It looks like you and Michele had an amazing time -- definitely well-deserved!

Hope to see you in 2011!

Chef John said...

Thanks and happy new year!! Please let me know if you are ever in the city!

Sharena said...

Besides the food, what strikes me the most about this being a great restaurant was their hospitality. It's nice to know that Chef John was not disappointed and turned away at the door.