Wednesday, March 2, 2011
How a Louisiana chef took the long way back. By Anna Purdy. Photos by Robin May
"Call me Donald."
Almost before I am done shaking his hand and greeting him formally as "Chef Link," Donald Link, Louisiana son, favorite of restaurateuse Susan Spicer and New Orleans chef of international renown, corrects me politely.
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
How a Louisiana chef took the long way back. By Anna Purdy. Photos by Robin May
"Call me Donald."
Almost before I am done shaking his hand and greeting him formally as "Chef Link," Donald Link, Louisiana son, favorite of restaurateuse Susan Spicer and New Orleans chef of international renown, corrects me politely. Every business needs a face, a person to stand behind the brand and what the business is about. Never is this truer than in the restaurant business where every facet, from the wood used in the dining room to the light fixtures to the menu is, must be, a reflection of its creator. Donald Link is tall, quiet, polite and comfortably pointed. He is incredibly generous and knowledgeable about food and believes that simple, honest food leads to a great and repeatable dining experience. Simply put, he's a good Louisianan. Which means Cochon is a real Cajun restaurant and it is arriving this September, having already broken ground in River Ranch.
Growing up between Sulphur and Crowley, Link's family took turns eating at each set of grandparents' houses each week. It was here that he first learned to cook the stews, dressings and greens that would form the basis of his blossoming culinary empire. He began his career in kitchens at the age of 15 doing the tried-and-true first kitchen job, washing dishes. He worked his way up and over to California from southwestern Louisiana where he studied at the California Culinary Academy and climbed into some of San Francisco's finest restaurants, from Bizou to Elite Café. After a move back to Louisiana for a two-year stint as sous chef at Bayona under Spicer, California once more took hold of Link until he and his wife Amanda returned for good in 1999 for Link to work for Spicer at Herbsaint, now a nationally renowned eatery with many accolades under its belt due to the joint visions and talents of Spicer and Link.
By 2005 the lure of Louisiana's true homegrown style called to him.
Chef Donald Link, far left, takes a hands-on approach to his New Orleans eatery, Cochon.
"The idea behind the menu is that people would always come [to Herbsaint] and ask where to get Cajun food and I'd say, You need to get a car and drive about two hours west of here,'" Link recalls. "And the thing is people come to New Orleans looking for it. When we first started talking, my partner [sous chef] Stephen Stryjewski and I toyed around for a couple days with doing an Italian restaurant. No one's coming to New Orleans for Italian food. What makes sense is, I grew up in Louisiana, I can cook that food and have people come here for that food. And the people that live here want that food. It just makes so much sense."
He set out to provide locals and tourists alike with authentic Cajun food - simple, deep flavors coupled with a hand accustomed to correct seasoning and using local farmers for its fare, with an emphasis on fun and family, which is so strong in Link's rural Louisiana background, from the relaxed and fun servers to the ingredients, attained locally just like his grandparents did.
"Everything in here is being built by someone I know," he says. "I believe in community and I believe in supporting the community. We have a forager here on staff to make sure that all the produce we buy and as much meat as possible comes from within 100 miles."
After a delay due to Hurricane Katrina, Link opened the doors to Cochon in spring of 2006 at the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Andrew Higgins streets in New Orleans' Warehouse District, quickly winning the most auspicious culinary awards in America. The James Beard Foundation named Link Best Chef: South, 2007, and Cochon was nominated as Best New Restaurant the same year. The New York Times ranked Cochon in its top 10 best new restaurants in the country.
Says Susan Spicer, owner of several Big Easy restaurants who has worked with Link since making him her sous chef at Herbsaint and respected chef the world over: "I think Lafayette is going to be a great location for Donald because I know he feels such a strong connection with southwest Louisiana - as a food source, a favorite recreation area and as extended family terroir.' Donald is a proud, passionate chef who gives his all to whatever he undertakes, whether it's two-steppin', frog giggin' or cookin' up the best gumbo this side of the Atchafalaya Basin."
At its core the philosophy is interesting. Cajun cooking is considered by the rest of the world an anomaly, something cute and different to try, like visiting a dancing bear at the circus. Outsiders use their palates to gaze in curiosity at a world they don't understand, if they have ever even heard of it. (Most people outside of the area don't even know Cajun means anything more than a way to cook food, most often interpreted as blackened or spicy.) But why is it that the provincial way of cooking in rural Louisiana cannot be as respected as the rural cooking of Italy or France? Why can't this style of cooking, the basis of which is historically the same as the respected European styles, be taught in culinary schools as one to emulate? This is exactly what Link succeeded in doing with Cochon as soon as its doors were thrown open.
Billing itself "Cajun-Southern Cooking," Cochon became a hit soon after opening in 2006, receiving rave reviews from the foodie establishment and locals alike.
"This place is an enormous success. This restaurant is always busy. It's gotten so busy that the cab drivers have started fighting over who gets to work [outside the restaurant at night]," Link says proudly. "It's about coming back to your roots. When I say I wanted to do a Cajun-Southern restaurant I meant I wanted to do food more like my grandparents did - lima beans, greens - the setting, I think, is really important, too. You don't necessarily have to go to the other side of the tracks to a dive place to get good food. The food is key, but we want people to have fun. I don't think that you should have to give up great food, quality and service to have fun. There always seems to be this gap between this place has got great food but the servers are terrible' or the room isn't right."
Cochon boasts a butcher shop in the back where you can order deli-style lunch or take home some boudin, bacon or chorizo made on location, as well as bacon pralines and mighty slabs of lamb. A pastrami room cures the meats they butcher and their on-site pastry kitchen handles the breads, crackers, sweets and crusts.
Donald Link is a success by any person's or business' standards. He has been internationally recognized as a chef to be reckoned with. He and his businesses have won accolades on top of awards, and Link even has a cooking segment on msn.com. So why did Lafayette win Link's heart for his second Cochon location after being courted by New York, the West Coast, the casino in Biloxi and certainly the oil cities of Texas?
The answer, it turns out, is a very south Louisiana one: "It's kind of a philosophical question of when we were thinking about doing another restaurant: Why? Why are we doing another restaurant?" Link explains. "Our reasons are, we want to promote our staff, we want to provide jobs, we want to provide growth opportunities for the people that work for us. So wherever we go there had to be purpose beyond money."
Most restaurateurs found after Katrina that having a second location that they and their staff could call home to be a boon. It's something to rely on.
To prove his point, the Cochon planned for Lafayette is a work of love. Link spreads the blueprints over the table excitedly like unwrapping a present. Opening itself out onto the Vermilion River there will be about 6,000 square feet with 2,000 of that dedicated to pure patio space. A private, closed dining area can be rented out or opened up. Most everything inside is being made by someone he calls family or friend. "My cousin, Dwayne Link, is building a giant steel smoker 14 feet tall to go in front of the restaurant," Link says. "Then we have another smoker in the open kitchen. The bar has reclaimed wood floors that seats 50. There is a courtyard with a citrus orchard [off the patio]."
Like the first Cochon, the emphasis will be on locally attained goods, everything from meats to herbs to honey. The wood used in its smokers and ovens is always a mixture of oak and pecan.
Cochon in New Orleans is a triple threat: restaurant, delicatessen and butcher shop.
"I look forward to Cochon joining in the new movement of Lafayette's food scene," says Manny Augello, who had the pleasure of being a guest worker at Cochon a few months ago and is now the executive chef at Jolie's Bistro. "I admire Donald's work and character. I believe Donald will bring some well deserved national attention to the great things already happening here." Like Cochon, Jolie's bases its menu on locally attained goods.
The menu won't be exactly the same as the mother location. While Link does have some reservations about how his take on Cajun food will be accepted here, there probably isn't a worry. To simply assume Cochon will be a hoity-toity, four-star affair would not be advised. Cochon has men in business suits on power lunches, tourists donning fanny packs and a messy writer lurking in black in its corner. Outside the doors of Cochon's butcher shop in the back of its restaurant a woman is standing, smoking a small cigar with the words "fried chicken" in cursive diagonally straddling her forearm. One of Cochon's strengths is it plays to everyone's stomachs and comfort levels. This is a place you could run into for a quick lunch while out on a bike ride or stumble into while wearing a Mardi Gras costume and comfortably sit next to a bevy of Glenlivet-guzzling grandmothers.
In order to understand the food at Cochon and how it is at once refined yet accessible, it is easier to describe some of the dishes tried. Here are a few - and the reasons gyms were invented for food writers:
Wood-fired Oyster Roast
Cochon is home to a wood-burning oven that roasts its delicacies at a toasty 750 degrees. To understand these oysters, imagine envelopes of oyster butter opening in your mouth with a smoky sweetness and a deep flavor of roasted chilis. Link uses red pepper flakes without the seeds because, he explains, it conveys the flavor without a lot of the heat. I like it because I find the seeds leave a bitter taste. (Think of the red pepper flakes at pizza joints - you don't really mind the often-bitter bite because the heavy cheese masks it.) If these don't make it to the menu in Lafayette I will eat at our location until I burst then immediately drive to the New Orleans' location in hopes that I will be hungry enough to eat these oysters. I'll drive slowly. It's worth it.
The Rabbit & Dumplings sizzle in the skillet in which they're cooked and served.
Smoked Pork Ribs with Watermelon Pickle
Like most every other meat at Cochon that is butchered on the premises, these ribs are fantastic and have that good feeling of being homemade. Moist without a coating of fat, they fall off the bone by a tap of the fork. Borrowing from the tradition of Mongolian barbecue, the ribs are served after being slow-smoked and wood-roasted with Cochon's sauce then topped with dollops of pickled watermelon for that sweet and sour addition.
Rabbit & Dumplings
First off, if you are one of those idiots who immediately touches hot plates, be careful with this dish as it is served in the wee cast iron pan it is cooked in. I speak as one such idiot. The rabbit is found locally. A stew is made with slow care then put in the pan with dumplings baked on the top, also roasted in the wood-burning oven for that melted, deep, smoky flavor baked in.
Duck and Andouille Gumbo
There is an old line that says your roux should be as dark as bayou water. This gumbo hangs heavy and dark, clinging for dear life to your spoon. It doesn't revolutionize gumbo nor should it. Gumbo can trade meaty ingredients, but it can never trade its character.
Braised Pork Cheeks and Grits with Tongue Salad
The first taste of this dish is, believe it or not, mint. Flags of mint wave you in and remind you that at Cochon they don't believe in having that useless parsley dressing up a plate. Anything that could be considered a garnish is part of the dish itself. This was light and fresh with melt-in-your-mouth grits.
Deviled Crab with Butter Crackers
Crab dip tends to be too sweet or takes an unpleasant swim in too much mayonnaise. This is light with an intense crab flavor. You only taste the shellfish and the thin, crackly butter crackers that can easily scoop the goodness up.
Oven-roasted Gulf Fish "fisherman's style"
The menu states "Gulf fish" without specification in order for Link to use the freshest, most seasonal fruits of Louisiana waters. This day it was red fish. Dusted with spices and roasted in that famous oven, it was more than enough for one person's dinner. Fisherman's style means the fish is filleted with skins and scales left on to cook in its own juices to have a more intense flavor. The result is a pure fish flavor without being overwhelming and being able to appreciate the flesh much more.
The Pineapple Upside-Down Cake is TDF (to die for).
Fried Rabbit Livers with Pepper Jelly Toast
A bit of toast topped with rabbit livers and a spicy, fruity pepper jelly blend together beautifully. Most people think of poultry livers when they say they don't like liver, which tend to be commercially farmed, gritty and small. These livers are large and have a more airy taste. Paired with the pepper jelly it was exquisite.
Icebox Lime Pie
This isn't your grandmother's icebox pie. This has cashews roasted with a bit of kosher salt, more sweet than savory, on top of 1.5 or so inches of white mousse, which lies on top of the limey core. Snappy graham cracker crust finishes it off.
Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
This dessert is ingenious. It's a cavalcade of flavors marching over your tongue but doesn't make you feel as if your blood sugar will spike. The cake is made of sweetened cornmeal cake and prepared dulche de leche style. Bits of pineapple are on one side of it while a coconut lime sorbet hangs out on the other. It's a deconstructed version of a pineapple upside down cake and it is unbelievable.
So why will Cochon work in Lafayette? How is it a city this size with more locally owned restaurants than corporate, with one of the highest restaurants-to-residents per capita ratios in the country, will welcome Cochon?
"It's an interesting dynamic going on - he's from this area and has been working in New Orleans for a long time, and now he's going to kind of serve us our food, a mirror image kind of thing," says Jeremy Conner, chef de cuisine at Village Café in River Ranch. Conner, like Jolie's Augello, also recently spent a day in Link's New Orleans kitchen, as Link and his staff are well-known to open their doors to both seasoned and up-and-coming chefs.
Link emphasizes casual dining at Cochon.
Another answer lies in Link's feelings about the land that raised him: "The bottom line is, I like Lafayette. I like the people in Lafayette. When I get off [the bridge] after the Atchafalaya something happens to me every time I drive there like I'm home. I'm back where I came from; I'm back where I belong. I've got lots of family out there to put it mildly. I just feel good there. I like the people, I like the way they eat and drink, I like the culture that they have about food, I like that they go out to eat to have a good time."