Commander-in-Chef: Tory McPhail

Michelin stars are the goal of every European restaurant and of those select few good enough to earn them, fewer still achieve the adjective “important.” To be important in Europe, a restaurant must be groundbreakingly innovative; your everyday innovations just won’t cut it. Although service, taste and creativity are necessary, the most important attribute of an important establishment is attention to detail. From what flowers do the bees draw the nectar for their honey? Which local fishermen supply the best salmon? Whose organic garden grows the most flavorful chervil?

Since 1880, the Commander’s Palace has been one of America’s most important restaurants. This New Orleans landmark resides in the city’s Garden District, a neighborhood that has played host to everyone from Mark Twain to Aerosmith. But though steeped in tradition, Commander’s Palace is a breeding ground for innovation.

From its inception Commander’s Palace was an important American restaurant but in 1974, it became important by anyone’s standards when it was purchased by the preeminent restaurateurs in North America, the Brennan family. And it has been under the guidance of Dick, Ella, Lally and crew (including cousin Ti Adelaide Martin) that the Palace’s chefs have become household names. The Brennan’s first chef of note was Paul Prudhomme and that collaboration catapulted them to the top of the international restaurant scene. Prudhomme was then followed by Emeril Lagasse. After Lagasse’s departure, they tapped his long-time assistant Jamie Shannon to lead the kitchen.

Under Shannon, the accolades became an avalanche - Chef of the Year from Chefs of America, 1992; Outstanding Service Award, James Beard Foundation, 1993; No. 1 Restaurant in America, Food & Wine magazine, 1995; Most Popular Restaurant, Zagat Survey, New Orleans, 1999; and No.2 Chef in the World, Robb Report, 1999. Just as Shannon’s star was rising, tragedy struck when he was diagnosed with cancer. In November of 2001, Shannon lost his battle at just 40 years of age. At his passing Ti Martin said, “The food in heaven just got a whole lot better.”

Shannon’s former protégé, Tory McPhail agreed to return to New Orleans to assume his friend and mentor’s lofty post. McPhail is a whiz kid of sorts. By age thirty, he had worked at legendary restaurants like The Breakers in Palm Beach, London’s L’Escargot and Picasso Room (two Michelin stars) and Mongoose Restaurant in the Virgin Islands, culminating in his current post as executive chef at what is arguably the most important restaurant in the New World. He was named a James Beard Rising Star Chef Nominee and has been a frequent subject of Food Network cameras on shows like Sara’s Secrets, My Country My Kitchen, Into the Fire and Bobby Flay’s Food Nation.

Recently McPhail has ventured into a new profession, cookbook author. Along with Martin, he has produced a collection of rugged recipes straight from the most famous kitchen in New Orleans. Commander’s Wild Side is a chrestomathy of recipes from “America’s bayous, streams, mountains, and back-country.” According to McPhail, it was developed during the 13 months that Commander’s Palace was closed following Hurricane Katrina.

Not long ago I had a little chef-to-chef with Tory McPhail and chief among my questions was Why wild game?

Well, shoot. Why not?

I think the book really reflects kind of a yester-year when people were forced to go out and hunt and fish and do what they needed to do to survive. I think that over the last five years there’s been a huge push country wide and certainly here in the South to do the whole farm-to-fork movement. In New Orleans and especially at Commander’s we like to take things a couple of steps farther. So instead of just getting it right from the farm, it’s much better to go out and shoot what you want and bring it back to the table.

Later this month you are scheduled to guest chef at Aaron Deal’s Tristan in Charleston. Will you be preparing anything from Wild Side?

Yeah, lots of stuff. We’ve got wild black bear on the menu; we’ve got quail; we’ve got rabbit, turtle soup also. What we’re really trying to do is have fun and teach them how easy it is to enjoy wild caught product.

The tradition of excellence under the Brennan’s is unprecedented on the American culinary scene. From Prudhomme to Lagasse to Shannon to yourself they have been the unifying factor in each stage of the restaurant’s evolution. How have they helped you to become the chef you are today?

I think it’s a little unusual. I think that the unusual thing is that Jamie hired me when I was 19. I was directly out of culinary school. So from my very beginning in the industry, I knew what was happening with the Brennan’s philosophy and how they thought about going about their business. There’s a really good vibe around the kitchen that people are getting much, much, much more than just a paycheck here. They’re getting a tremendous amount of experience at a quick rate.

I tell you we are having a great time jumping in and doing great Creole food.

Jamie Shannon was not just your boss, he was your friend. How has his passing affected you and the entire Commander’s Palace organization?

I could go on and on for about an hour but I tell you what, you grow up in a different town and different cuisine and a guy like that is your chef, it becomes a guiding force in your life. And when those experiences happen at a young age they are a bit more impressionable and they have more of a lasting effect on you.

Jamie was the kind of guy that ran around, was full of life, fun, and as soon as he walked in the room, he just lit it up. He didn’t have to say anything, you just knew there was something special about that guy. I think all of us have grown up since then. There’s been a lot of tough nerves and a lot of hard lessons learned at an early age.

Do you have regular contact with the other former chefs at Commander’s Palace, Lagasse and Prudhomme?

Yeah, Emeril’s a good friend. Paul’s a good friend. I see them, you know, a couple of times a year. We’re all very sociable. We talk about what’s going on in New Orleans and we’re definitely close. It’s a good group of guys.

Earlier this year you taped an episode of my favorite show, After Hours with Daniel. What was it like cooking with Chef Boulud?

It was a moment in time that I’ll always remember. Daniel Boulud walking in your front door, all of us knew he was coming so we prepared for it. This is one of those guys who you look up to, you know I’ve got tons of his cookbooks, and we all aspire to be at that level. Then he walks in and says, “Hey, Tory, how are you? I’m Daniel, let’s do some cooking together.”

It was a huge honor for myself, all of my sous chefs, the whole Brennan family.

Commander’s Wild Side is a new release published by Harper Collins. Suggested retail price is $19.99.

Photo courtesy of Harper Collins.

Originally posted at Paper Palate on October 27, 2008.
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