There is something irresistible about this elegant and slightly sinful treat that we typically save for a restaurant visit. But why not make crabcakes at home when Gulf blue crab season is at its peak? It’s easy as 1-2-3: Mounds of fresh sweet crab, a subtle matrix of seasoning that enhance the crab and just the right sauce. Here are two recipes from notable Houston chefs along with professional tips for crafting the ultimate crabcake.
August 20, 2015
NEW ORLEANS — In a city shaped by generations-in-the-making food-ways, Monday is red beans and rice day.
The tradition stems from pre-washing-machine times, when housewives would do laundry by hand while leaving a pot of red beans to cook on the stove all day. Today, smoky red beans still simmer away in kitchens throughout the Big Easy on Mondays.
At the time, Besh had just paid off investors in his elegant Restaurant August in the Central Business District. Though August was spared flooding, the James Beard Award-winning chef couldn’t immediately return there. Still, he wanted to help. So, he and his friends — including culinary star Alon Shaya — set out on flat-bottom boats to do what he does best: feed people. The easiest meal to make was one of the city’s most iconic dishes.
“The first batch of red beans and rice I cooked was in a Walmart parking lot on Tchoupitoulas,” Besh recalls. “It was the first time I ever fed a person who was truly hungry. Oh, I’ve fed hungry people before, but never people who were so hungry and had everything taken away from them. That changed my life.”
He also fed soldiers and relief workers — anyone who showed up. It’s been said Besh fed New Orleans until it could learn to feed itself again.
Besh doesn’t like to dwell Katrina. But when he does, he sees the good it brought out in people. He thinks about the struggle of a city brought to its knees learning to walk again. He thinks about how food helped New Orleans heal.
“I literally saw this city not just reborn but revitalized one little dish at a time. Food and service brought us back.”
Any observation of the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina must consider how crucial the hospitality industry is to New Orleans, a city whose legacy is associated with — and whose economy is greatly affected by — restaurants, jazz clubs and bars.
“In terms of tourism, it’s food, music and attractions,” says Wendy Waren, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Restaurant Association. “But food is always the first thing people say about New Orleans. They’re coming here to eat.”
Even more so now. Before Katrina, the city had about 800 full-service restaurants in its tourism corridors, says J. Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. Today there are more than 1,400. Tourism spending is expected to pump more than $7 billion into the local economy this year, Perry says, up from $4.3 billion in the 12 months prior to the storm.
If restaurants and bars have long played an integral part of the city machine, they assumed an even more vital role in rebuilding the city in the days, months and years after Katrina made landfall along the Louisiana and Mississippi state line on Aug. 29, 2005, as a strong Category 3 hurricane.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency says Katrina was the single-most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history. It resulted in 1,833 deaths in five states, with Louisiana suffering the greatest loss of 1,577 lives. It caused $108 billion in damages and displaced more than 1 million people in the Gulf region.
And it left one of the country’s most beloved tourist destinations in ruins. Storm surges led to levee breaches that resulted in tens of billions of gallons of water spilling into a city of which half lies below sea level. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed and countless businesses devastated. Tens of thousands of people fled. Those who stayed witnessed mayhem and soul-scarring devastation.
But when the sun came out after the storm, so did the will to survive.
Pauline Patterson points to a wall inside Finn McCool’s, which she owns with her husband, Stephen Patterson. A moldy, discolored line — “a scar,” she calls it — serves as a painful reminder of the levee breach that deposited six feet of dirty water in the Irish pub.
The Pattersons returned six weeks after evacuating to find their Mid-City bar in shambles. “It looked like Armageddon, I’m not kidding,” Patterson says. Nothing that wasn’t anchored down was in its former place. Bar wells and refrigerators lay where the waters tossed them. Chairs and tables were strewn about as if a massive bar fight had taken place. The place was broken into and picked clean, divested of its cigarettes and alcohol.
“I would have ransacked it too,” says Patterson, familiar with the desperation at the time.
The first day the couple started picking up the pieces, about two dozen customers showed up to help. She hadn’t asked for the assistance, it just appeared. If she didn’t know it before, she certainly realized it that day in October: Her bar was “a beacon.”
“The thing with New Orleans people is they love to sit around the dinner table and talk about their lives. After Katrina they couldn’t do that. They had no tables, forks or knives,” says Patterson who, like her husband, is from Belfast, Ireland. They came to New Orleans in the 1990s, working as professional bartenders before buying Finn McCool’s in 2002.
The bar finally got its electricity restored on March 1, 2006, which gave the Pattersons time to plan a proper reopening party for St. Patrick’s Day. Countless beers were set out on their new bar top, a length of varnished Pecky Cypress — a gift from one of their most devoted customers, who bought the wood with his FEMA relief money.
Patterson knows her bar served as much more than a place for a pint in her neighborhood’s post-Katrina life. It was a community touchstone for neighbors laboring to get back to normal.”The bitterness took a long time to release,” she says. “But it gave me more love for the people around me. It definitely forged a bond among us. We know we’re strong. I saw what we have in us.”
That determination was evident throughout New Orleans’ tourism corridors. It was clear that in order for the city to get back on its feet, restaurants, bars and hotels had to reopen as quickly as possible.
Two weeks after the storm, the French Quarter had its power restored, recalls restaurateur Ralph Brennan, whose Red Fish Grill was among the first to reopen in the Vieux Carre. “Those areas of the city that weren’t heavily damaged had to come back and come back fast,” Brennan says. “One of the smartest things Mayor (Ray) Nagin did was try to reopen parts of the city that weren’t damaged.”
Those areas included the French Quarter and most of the Central Business District. The Marigny, Bywater and Garden districts also were spared.
“People started coming back,” Brennan says. “Residents started coming back. They’d come to lunch or dinner. There was a lot of hugging and kissing going on. Each of us has a Katrina story, and they’re all different.”
But in some ways they’re all the same. They all share a theme of reconnecting, re-establishing, rebuilding.
“Any place that was open — it didn’t matter what it was and if they were serving one item on paper plates with canned soft drinks — everyone flocked to it,” says Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail, a trade event that focuses on the importance of the drinking culture in New Orleans. “That’s how we communicate here, by eating and drinking.”
Tuennerman is especially proud of the people who have made New Orleans a spirits paradise with new and better bars in the past decade. “Because of them there’s diversity in bars and there’s more opportunity for people to work here. Katrina brought people back to the city they loved and helped rebuild it.”
One of those people was Neal Bodenheimer.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Neal Bodenheimer had spent six pre-Katrina years in New York bartending and wondering how he was going to afford to continue living there. Then the hurricane came. He moved back in 2006, driven by a sense of obligation. “I felt a calling to come back. I felt I needed to be here,” he says. “My place was in New Orleans.”
It was also the perfect time to realize his dream of owning a bar. By 2008 he and his business partner, Matthew Kohnke, had secured a century-old former fire station on Freret Street in Uptown. Before the hurricane, Freret Street was down on its luck. Immediately afterward it was worse: The area suffered moderate to heavy flooding.
“Matt loved Freret Street even before the storm,” Bodenheimer says. “We knew the city wanted to see Freret work. We also knew that in order to get a building up and running there you were really going to have to invest. That’s the story of New Orleans post Katrina: In order to rehab a building, it took so much money. You couldn’t just wing it. We were two young guys without a lot of money. But we wanted to own something.
When their bar, Cure, opened in 2009 it ushered in a new era of craft cocktail expertise in a city that is historically bound to the cocktail. It also sparked the revitalization of Freret Street, now a thriving thoroughfare of hip restaurants, bars, retail and live music.
It’s a great example of how newcomers and returning New Orleaneans brought fresh ideas to a city that had traditionally resisted reinvention.
“We had a lot of ideas coming from outside intermingling with native ideas. Katrina moved the needle to progress,” Bodenheimer says. “The city needed to look to the future in order to survive. New Orleans as a city could not have become a better city without that destruction. It basically shook up the establishment. And that’s always a good thing.”
Change is inevitable, says Elizabeth Pearce, a local cocktail historian, writer and tourist guide. “Change sometimes screws people over, and change can also benefit people. But New Orleans is a city that historically doesn’t like change.”
Indeed, the city cheered major comebacks of beloved institutions crippled by Katrina, Pearce says. Lines went down the block when Café Du Monde reopened in the French Quarter. When Angelo Brocato’s Ice Cream & Confectionary reopened in Mid-City after being severely damaged, it was a cause for celebration. Ditto the opening of other Mid-City businesses like Mandina’s, Liuzza’s Restaurant & Bar and Parkway Bakery & Tavern.
But as much as people wanted New Orleans to get back to normal, it was also clear the city would never be the same again.
“People went back to their favorite restaurants because for two hours they could forget about the Sheetrock, the mold and the insurance,” Pearce says. “You could recall your life before and believe you could re-create it again. It gave you hope.”
But, she adds, “You couldn’t really re-create. You could only create something new.”
And it’s the new that most excites Ti Adelaide Martin, co-owner with her cousin Lally Brennan of the historical Commander’s Palace restaurant. After Katrina, Martin says, the city saw incredible changes. They came from outside: Volunteers, entrepreneurs, business speculators and a generation of young people made their way to New Orleans. “Instead of a brain drain, we had a brain gain,” says the restaurateur who, along with her brother Alex Brennan-Martin and cousin Lally, also ownsBrennan’s of Houston. “My favorite thing of all is what’s happened with entrepreneurship. This town is a hotbed of entrepreneurship. It’s unbelievable.”
Change also came from inside, from the very people who were left and determined to pick up the pieces. “We turned this city around,” Martin says. “It’s a better city today. And we did it ourselves. We fixed it all.”
If not all, New Orleans certainly has fixed much of it, especially the all-important cogs of hospitality and tourism. Ten years after Katrina, the city’s hospitality industry hasn’t just rebounded, it’s surpassed pre-hurricane days.
In addition to the new restaurants, hotels are on the upswing. The metropolitan area now has more than 38,000 hotel rooms, about 850 more than before Katrina. More are in the works, including a 234-room Ace Hotel scheduled to debut in the Warehouse District mid-2016, and a 350-room Four Seasons in the former World Trade Center building at the foot of Canal Street, pegged for a 2018.
“It’s a rather astonishing economic recovery story that illustrates the power of travel and tourism, especially in a city like New Orleans where the economy is very much based on the culture, travel, events and conventions,” says Perry, the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s president. “There’s no question that the economics of New Orleans and the re-creation of the tax base was all driven by the hospitality industry.”
And Houston is fueling that economic turnaround. “Our number one tourism feeder base in the entire nation is Houston, Texas,” Martin says. “I’ve said this often: While the government didn’t come help so much, particularly at the beginning, American citizens came, especially Houstonians. No city has been better than Houston was to New Orleans. Houston came and helped, took people in. Never has one city in the history of the world been better to another. And I promise you, New Orleaneans know.”
While Houston provided a good shoulder for New Orleans to lean on, it was the city’s own collective gumption that got it going again. “We felt like it was the mission of our lives. How often do you have a major American city completely wrecked like the way we were?” Perry says. “For all of us that were part of this coming back, it was a work of incredible love. For us, it was the work of a lifetime.”
Perry says he recently visited with the legendary Ella Brennan, considered the queen of New Orleans cuisine, and mentioned what he called the good old days before Katrina. “She said, ‘Let me tell you something. The good old days are right now,’ ” he recalls.
She’s probably right, he says. “We’ll look back at now as the golden period. All that New Orleans is most associated with — jazz clubs, restaurants, bars — all of that came roaring back. It not only brought the tourism economy back, it gave faith to the locals that the city’s soul and core were still intact.”
Elvis Byrd, is part of that core. A bus driver for the New Orleans Airport Shuttle, is one of the first local faces tourists see when they land in the Big Easy.
It’s his duty, he said, to make a good first impression. Not for him, for New Orleans. “It’s all about the people coming here and enjoying the city, eating the very special food, and having a good time,” he says.
He considers himself fortunate because his house didn’t flood. But Katrina shuttered his employer, forcing him to move to Oklahoma for eight months to find work. When he came back he was part of the city’s economic and emotional recovery. He’s proud of that.
“This city is better than it was before,” Byrd says. “If you drive around the city you see a lot of construction and a lot of new buildings and houses being put up.”
He calls New Orleans a city of survivors: “We have resiliency.”
His voice is among the choir singing about a new New Orleans.
It’s the voice of returning son Neal Bodenheimer: “We’ve been able to show the world what a special city it is. My goal is to make New Orleans a better city, and it will be until my last breath.”
It’s the voice of Louisiana native John Besh: “When I look back at 10 years, there’s something to celebrate. It’s something that should inspire any other American city that has been hit by tragedy. It’s a lesson on how passion can overcome something so devastating.”
And it’s the voice of émigré Pauline Patterson, whose Finn McCool’s bar bounced back so well that she and her husband were able to buy another bar, Treo. They’re planning “a massive” party to mark the Katrina anniversary, she says. No disrespect for the death and destruction, the party will celebrate life — the blood, sweat and tears it took to rebuild.
That scar on the wall she couldn’t stand? In the back of the bar toward the kitchen, she placed a long shelf on the wall at the exact height of the water line.
“So if it ever happens again,” she says, “we’ll have a place to put our beer.”
Looking for a new game day favorite? Try Chef Danny Trace’s Dirty Duck Chili recipe this coming football season. It’ll be a winner no matter which team you’re cheering for!
Dirty Duck Hunters Chili
2 lbs ground or hand diced duck meat
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1 large sweet onion, diced
2 tablespoons crushed garlic
1 large green bell pepper, diced
1 tablespoon instant coffee (optional)
2 ribs celery, diced
1 lb of red kidney beans
28 ounces canned stewed tomatoes
4 tablespoons chili powder
6 bay leaves
12 oz beer, your favorite
1/4 teaspoon cayenne (or to taste)
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 cups low sodium beef or chicken stock
1 jalapeno, diced
1 poblano, diced
3 tablespoons Worcestershire
1 tablespoon Louisiana hot sauce
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1/2 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons Kosher salt (or to taste)
1/2 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper (or to taste)
green onion, chopped (optional garnish)
cheddar cheese, grated (optional garnish)
In a large cast iron stew pot on medium high heat, add grapeseed oil and duck meat. Once browned, remove from the pot and reserve.
To the pot, add garlic, onions, bell pepper, celery, poblano and jalapeno. Cook until wilted. Add tomatoes and caramelize.
Once tomatoes are caramelized, add reserved duck meat to the pot.
Stir in chili powder, cumin, beans and bay leaves. Deglaze with beer, add stock, sugar, Worcestershire, hot sauce and coffee. Bring to a boil and reduce to a slow simmer.
Cook until the beans are tender and you have a reached a chili consistency, approximately 2 hours. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne. Stir in cilantro.
Served crowned with green onions and your favorite cheddar cheese.
However, that doesn’t mean people don’t also enjoy visiting classic spots that have been around a decade or more. After all, these restaurants set the stage for the city’s current dining boom, and their continued prosperity demonstrates an ability to capture diners’ attention even as the city has changed.
What better time to visit one of these establishments than during Houston Restaurant Weeks. After all, it’s a time when restaurants typically put their best foot forward to attract new diners, and most of the establishments below are serving dinner at the more economical $35 level. Everyone likes helping raise money for the Houston Food Bank, but getting a good deal never hurt.
Arcodoro Ristorante Italiano
This restaurant at the corner of Westheimer and Post Oak has been serving rigorously authentic Sardinian cuisine for almost 20 years. For HRW, it’s offering four different, four-course menus: meat, seafood, vegetarian and Sardinian ($45).
While both the meat and seafood menus have their temptations in the form of osso bucco and grilled octopus, one does not simply walk into Arcodoro without ordering the Sardinia fare. Highlights include seared tuna topped with bottarga and seafood soup in a saffron broth that’s reminiscent of bouillabaisse. Optional wine pairings are an eminently reasonable $28 and feature vintages grown by owner Efisio Farris’ family.
Brennan’s of Houston
At almost 50 years old, this upscale Creole restaurant has served as a training ground for generations of Houston chefs, but that doesn’t mean it’s resting on its laurels. Brennan’s mixes classics like turtle soup and bananas Foster with updated fare like blueberry-glazed quail and seared salmon over maque choux on its $35, three-course dinner menu. Feeling really indulgent? Add shrimp, oysters or crab to any entree for an additional $10.
Damian’s Cucina Italiana
Look for classic Italian-American comfort fare at this 30-year old Midtown staple that’s serving a three-course, $35 dinner menu. Start with a classic Caesar salad or sweet potato ravioli. Entree choices include lasagna bolognese and a six-ounce, mushroom-topped filet mignon. Dessert options include bread pudding and gelato. Gluten free diners also have options with every course.
For almost 30 years, this westside favorite has earned raves from diners for its upscale atmosphere and attention to detail. Lynn’s stands out among other HRW steakhouses by a dry-aged New York strip, rather than a filet, on its three-course, $35 menu. That sort of frugality allows diners a little extra cash to indulge in a selection from the restaurant’s 11,000 bottle wine cellar.
Southern food may be trendy now, but Ouisie’s has been serving up Southern comforts for over 40 years. The restaurant’s three-course, $35 sadly doesn’t feature its signature chicken fried steak, but saltine and herb-crusted chicken and garlic and pepper-crusted prime rib are tempting alternatives. Just save room for peach cobbler.
The Heights may be 2015’s hottest culinary destination, but chef Claire Smith was something of a pioneer when she opened Shade 12 years ago. The restaurant’s three-course, $35 offers up the well-executed comfort food that’s made it so successful. Options include steamed mussels, heirloom tomato salad, duck leg confit and a grilled flat iron steak served with blue cheese Yorkshire pudding. Don’t worry — a no membership fee private club helps imbibers get around the neighborhood’s dry status.
By Richard Middleton
Snow Leopard vodka was founded by Stephen Sparrow with the aim to raise awareness of the snow leopard’s plight. 15% of it’s profits go to conservation projects of the Snow Leopard’s habitat in Mongolia, China, India and Kyrgyzstan.
Handcrafted and distilled six times in small batches in Poland from the finest spelt grains. Spelt grain imparts a nutty flavor to the end product and is grown without the use of pesticides or fertilizers. The vodka is a favorite of Princes William, Prince Harry, Vivienne Westwood and Stella MacCartney. Try it on the rocks or in one of our featured cocktails at The Courtyard Bar.
By: Richard Middleton
George Orwell, famed author of 1984 & Animal Farm fame, once said that getting to the Isle of Jura was “extremely urget-at-able.” During Orwell’s stay on Jura, he wrote 1984 introducing the world to the ominous specter of “Big Brother is watching.”
The expression is a 1984 vintage single malt whisky that been matured for 20 years in American oak ex-bourbon barrels. It is then finished in Gonzalez Byass Matusalem Sherry Amoroso & Apostoles Oloroso Sherry butts.
It has notes of burnt toffee, mulled wine, coffee, banana cake & morello cherries.
Whyte & Mackay has bottled an extremely limited expression of 1,984 bottles of Jura 1984 vintage for global markets. Only 100 bottles have been allocated to the United States.
Brennan’s of Houston is delighted to offer is “extremely unget-able” single malt at The Courtyard Bar.
Executive Sous Chef Javier U. Lopez shares a spiked version of his family’s Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream recipe for National Ice Cream Month.
Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream
- 2 cups heavy whipping cream
- 1 cup milk
- 1/4 cup cocoa powder
- 4 ounces sweet chocolate
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- Pinch salt
- Pinch cayenne
- pinch cloves, ground
- 1 tablespoon espresso coffee
- 6 ea egg yolks, lightly beaten
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3 tablespoons Tequila (optional)
- Heat one cup of cream in a small saucepan (1 qt). Whisk in cocoa powder. Bring to a simmer. Whisk until cocoa powder is well incorporated. Remove pot from heat. Stir in chocolate until completely incorporate.
- Put mixture into a metal bowl and add the remaining cup of cream. Set that bowl over a larger bowl half-filled with ice water to help cool it down. Place a mesh sieve over the bowl with the chocolate mixture.
- Put one cup of milk, the sugar, cinnamon, salt, cayenne, espresso powder (or instant coffee) into a saucepan and heat until steamy (not boiling), stirring to incorporate the spices and dissolve the sugar. Place egg yolks in a medium sized bowl. Slowly pour the heated milk and mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly so that the egg yolks are tempered by the heated milk, but not cooked by it. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the warmed egg yolks back into the saucepan.
- Stir the milk egg mixture constantly over medium heat with a wooden spoon, scraping the bottom as you stir, until the mixture thickens and coats the spoon so that you can run your finger across the coating and have the coating not run. This can take anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes, depending on how hot your burner is. If the custard base doesn’t coat the back of the spoon, it’s not ready. The custard base coats the back of the spoon.
- As soon as the mixture coats the spoon, remove it from the heat and immediately pour it over the mesh sieve into the bowl of the chocolate cream mixture. (The sieve is there to catch any curdled bits.) Stir into the cream mixture.
- Add a teaspoon of vanilla. Let the mixture cool a bit in the ice bath and then chill in the refrigerator until completely chilled, a couple hours or overnight. Right before churning, add 3 Tbsp of tequila to the mix. This is an optional step, but it will help keep the ice cream from getting too icy if it is stored beyond a day. If you are planning on eating the ice cream the same day you make it, you can skip this step.
- Churn the mixture in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Would you rather try the ice cream along with other spiked treats? Join us on Thursday, July 23rd at Yellow Rose Distilling for an upcoming event Spiked by the Scoop.
For tickets, visit the event page here >>>
Is there anything better than a cold glass of sangria on a hot, Texas summer day? Whether you’re prepping for a party or simply making an afternoon sipper, Wine Guy John Ramos shares his favorite recipe.
1 Bottle of red wine (John Ramos suggests Honoro Vera Carnacha)
1/2 cup rum
1 lemon, sliced
1 orange, sliced
1 lime, sliced
1 pint strawberries, hulled and sliced
1 red apple, cored and sliced
9 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1 liter lemon / lime flavored carbonated beverages
Push cloves into apple slices.
Combine all ingredients in a large container.
Cover container and set in the refrigerator for 4 hours.
When the weather is hot, adding a some bubbles in your cocktail is a sure way to lighten up any drink. For our June Spirit Roundtable, Richard Middleton and Ronnie Stidvent showcased a few. Make some or all this summer and let us know how you like it. Enjoy!
Flight with a Bite:
1.5 oz Avion Reposado Tequila
3 oz. Agave Quinine Water
Wedge of Lime
Method: Build in an ice filled double rocks glass. Garnish with a lime wedge & black lava sea salt
2 oz. Snow Leopard Vodka
0.25 oz. Kumquat Gran Gala Syrup
2 oz. Ginger Ale
Method: Build in an ice filled shaker & serve up. Garnish with a Kumquat slice
The Classic Bellini
1 oz. Peach Nectar
1 oz. Peach Schnapps
4 oz. Brut Champagne
Method: Served in a flute. Garnish with a peach slice.
When Alex Brennan-Martin attending school as a young man in France, he had the opportunity to work with Master Chef Roger Vergé. He toured the U.S. while Alex worked for him and even went to New Orleans during his trip. When he returned, he asked Alex to make gumbo which ended up on the menu at Moulin de Mougin for a short while. A Great Man.
Roger Vergé, one of France’s most respected and beloved master chefs and a pioneer of la nouvelle cuisine, has died at his home in Mougins at the age of 85 from complications of diabetes. With his jaunty mustache and white hair, Vergé was the epitome of the modern French chef when he came on the scene in the 1960s, at a time when chefs were barely acknowledged for their efforts and the Michelin Guide gave stars to the restaurant, never the chef.
Along with Paul Bocuse, Michel Guèrard, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, and Alain Chapel, Vergé forged a new style of French cooking whose hallmarks were a respect for the best ingredients, a simplification of cooking and presentation, and a call for creativity in the kitchen without ever abandoning the classic body of knowledge and technique that made innovation possible. That the cooking was often lighter than traditional haute cuisine was an aspect that garnered too much attention, as if it were supposed to be health food.
Vergé disdained the wayla nouvelle cuisine was appropriated by young, publicity-seeking cooks who took creativity to mean gimmicky license of a kind Vergé characterized as “a joke. It is nothing serious. Now it looks Japanese: large dishes, small portions, no taste, but very expensive.”
What distinguished Vergé’s cooking at his restaurant, Moulins de Mougins, which he opened with his wife, Denise, in 1969, was a distillation of all he knew of classic French cuisine with the flavors of Provence and the Mediterranean.
Having cooked in North Africa and Kenya, he developed an avid appreciation for the taste of fruits, citrus and sweetness, which he amalgamated into haute cuisine with rigorous French techniques. Vinegars and olive oil were used liberally, the aromatics of flowers gave a freshness to the dishes, and the presentation, on Villeroy Boch china, was fanciful.
He’d use ingredients long banned from haute cuisine kitchens, like pig’s trotter, even pasta, and called it the Cuisine of the Sun (the title of his cookbook ), served up in an enchantingly sunny dining room with patio. The first menus, which included lobster, were fixed price at 28 francs; guests felt as well treated wearing casual holiday clothes as jackets and ties. In 1972 he won the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France award and two years later earned a third Michelin star.
Vergé said he “liked to take risks” and a had a “dread of sameness,” which translated to a glamorous lifestyle that often took him away from Mougins, even to opening a restaurant at Disneyworld in Orlando, FL, with Bocuse and Gaston Lenôtre, as well as promoting products. It was all a far cry from the stultified stereotype of the chef who never leaves his kitchen and has no life beyond it, including no knowledge of other cuisines but his own.
I still have my index card notes from my one and only meal I had at Moulins de Mougins, on May 6, 1982, remarking on the lovely atmosphere of what had once been a mill and on the young staff that seemed such a contrast to those in stiff, formal dining rooms to the north. The wine list was superb, with as many wines of Provence as of Bordeaux and Burgundy. And my wife and I still recall just how amazed we were by dishes that would fit impeccably onto menus today: a warm mousse of salmon and scallops with lemon sauce; zucchini flowers with truffles and another rendering with a forcemeat of mullet; a lobster salad with grapefruit, mayonnaise and snow peas; turbot in cream with morels; duck confit with pears; apple soufflé with Calvados ice cream; and more. It was all unforgettable, as much for its fine taste as for its personality, which was purely Vergé’s.
Unlike many of his contemporaries and a generation of chefs to follow–who, like Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon, built empires on their names and connections–and except for the profitable foray into Orlando and a failed restaurant consultancy in NYC, Verge never expanded beyond Provence, where he was happy. Which was what Vergé wanted his guests to be after dining so beautifully at his restaurant. Life is too short to spend it in a dark dining room conversing in whispers, and Roger Vergé broke that mold with personal élan and a touch of welcome Gallic whimsy.