Thursday, August 29, 2013

Maras the Magnificient

A few years ago, I started hearing rumors about a kitchen of the late nineties early 2000s which served as a graduate school of sorts for today's best chefs in New Orleans. This is the story of that kitchen, as well as a broader story of the importance of one man's arrival in New Orleans about 30 years ago. This story runs in this month's offBeat Magazine

The most important chef in New Orleans history is sitting across from me. He is lithe and his silver hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail. A former cook of his describes him best as a “skinny Willie Nelson.” He is slated to teach a class to mainly tourists later in the afternoon at the New Orleans Culinary Experience. When the weather cools, he will head down to Lafitte and cook for duck hunters at the Little Lake Club. He has no restaurant and hasn’t for almost a decade. He is the primary reason New Orleans is once again the home of sought after reservations and chef driven restaurants. His name is Gerard Maras.

Gerard Maras boasts some impressive branches stemming from the trunk of his cooking tree. You can find his mark at Lilette in a luncheon sandwich of porchetta with pickled cucumber and pickled red onion. His influence is on the menu at Borgne where the heady aroma of crab butter flavors fish en pappillote. Maras touch is on crab cakes at del Porto and is responsible for the charcuterie offerings at Patois. The chicken liver pate at Sylvain’s grandfather is a duck liver pate from Gerard’s Downtown, the restaurant he ran in the Central Business District from 1998-2002. A quick list of chefs who trained under him reads like a James Beard wish list: John Harris, Corbin Evans, Slade and Allison Rushing, Aaron Burgau, David and Torre Solazzo, Anton Schulte, Ann Weatherford, Paul Williams, Brian Landry and Alex Harrell, just to name a few.

Now remember, although this was only within recent memory, culinary concepts like farm-to-table and charcuterie were relative unknowns in the American dining landscape. The nexus point of seasonal driven food in New Orleans’ restaurants can be traced back to Commander’s Palace and Paul Prudhomme, Ella Brennan, Emeril Lagasse, and Maras, who was a then new to town sous chef. “Ella hired me as a sous chef at Commander’s and about a month later Emeril joined. Three months later, I left Commander’s to open Mr. B’s,” Maras says.

At Mr. B’s, Maras would develop recipes which they are still using today for dishes like BBQ shrimp and pasta jambalaya. The BBQ shrimp, he explains, were the result of trying to isolate the flavors of the dish and highlight them with French technique. “When I first tasted BBQ shrimp, Ella presented it to me like it was some delicacy. Quite frankly, the shrimp were overcooked, the butter had separated, and the seasoning had fallen to the bottom of the pan. It was not very impressive,” he says.

He would stay at Mr. B’s until 1995 and then he “wandered” for the next few years before opening Gerard’s Downtown in 1998. But he was doing something else at this time, something that later would win chef’s tv deals, Beard awards, and lucrative Vegas restaurants. Maras began to farm to source things like pea shoots and microgreens he couldn’t get anywhere else. Back in the early 1980’s, he began driving up to Mississippi to meet with farmers like Dan Crutchfield who were growing peppers, black radishes, pink eye peas and raising small pigs and rabbits. Soon he had his own plot of land and was farming his own produce. When he had a surplus of produce, he taught his cooks how to pickle, preserve, and can. A movement which is now all but ubiquitous in any new restaurant. In 1999, it was revolutionary.

Gerard’s Downtown was a graduate school for some of today’s most talented chefs. John Harris had racked up a accolades at Gautreau’s, but before he opened Lilette he spent close to a year running lunch service at Gerard’s Downtown. While Harris had been dubbed a Food and Wine Best New Chef before working for Maras, he still learned a lot from Maras. “One thing Gerard taught me was to always try and be overly generous with your staff. So maybe I only need one or two cooks for a shift, but if I have one more and pay them a little more, that breeds loyalty. And gives them a more steady paycheck,” Harris explains.

Aaron Burgau joined the brigade at Gerard’s Downtown in January of 2000. After a few months, he still recalls being a bit shocked to be tasked with training Harris. “Shortly before Harris started, Slade Rushing joined the line. In walked Allison Vines a few months later. All the cooks tried their hardest to hit on Allison, but Slade won out,” Burgau explains. A few years later, Allison and Slade would strike out for New York, where they would marry and run Jack’s Oyster Bar before returning to Louisiana.

                About the Rushings, Maras is quick to point out that they are first and foremost “master technicians.” That description applies to most of the cooks he trained. For instance, witness the craftsmanship that Alex Harrell at Sylvain puts into elevated bar food in dishes like his handmade pastas. Harrell would spend about six years with Maras, first at Gerard’s Downtown, then later at Ralph’s on the Park, and finally at Table One, Maras’ last stop. Maras’ kitchen demeanor rubbed off on Harrell, “It was Gerard’s manner to be a teacher. He loved working with people who maybe didn’t have the knowledge, but had the desire to cook. As long as you were willing to learn, he would tolerate a mistake. He had an incredibly calm presence in the kitchen and I never saw him raise his voice,” says Harrell.

                Even on his first day in the kitchen, when Harrell dumped an entire steam kettle of mussel soup down the drain accidentally. Harrell, Burgau, and Maras would all recount this story to me with various accoutrements. Burgau explains it best, “I worked with Alex at Bayona and got him a job at Gerard’s Downtown. First day, I tell him to strain this mussel soup base. It was a veloute of mussels and saffron, just a beautiful soup and we finished it a la minute with mussels. The base sat in this steam kettle and it’s the middle of service. I turn around and Alex had poured most of the broth down the drain accidentally. Gerard walked over and gave me a look that said, ‘Where the fuck did you get this kid?’”

                Dave and Torre Solazzo moved to her native New Orleans after a few years in the Bay Area and Napa Valley where farm to table was an established dining trend. They returned to New Orleans in early 2000 and felt like they entered a time warp. “There was very little seasonal cooking, no real farmer’s markets, nothing like we were used to,” Torre says. They would soon join the team at Gerard’s and found themselves poking fun at its simplicity. Roast chicken with aioli, herb crusted lamb racks, terrines and bisques dominated his menus. “The thing was it was all really simple, Gerard just did it really really well,” says Torre.

                David Solazzo recalls how Gerard was the first chef who taught him how to elevate something simple like a pierogi to fine dining fare. “He stuffed them with cabbage and currants, boiled them, and sautéed them in some butter so their edges would crisp up. He’d then serve them with roasted pork loin. He really did them up,” David recalls.

                Does Maras see his teaching on menus around town? “I see techniques more than recipes. The way for instance, all of the chefs who cooked for me all cook pork the same way. First you dry brine it, so the flavors penetrate the meat. Then you sear it. Next, you put it in a very hot oven for a few moments. Finally you pull it off the heat and wrap it in double layer of foil for about 15-20 minutes. What results is a perfectly juicy, just pink in the center cut of pork. They all do that,” Maras says.

                Maras is quick to add that this new generation of chefs and what they have accomplished is incredible. “I always used to tell all my cooks when I ran a kitchen, my sous needed to be better than everyone else in the kitchen. And that I needed to the best chef in the kitchen. I think they are all living up to that. You go into these kitchens and those guys are working the line,” Maras adds.

                There is a quote I’ve long since lost the attribution for and it goes like this. “Judge a person not by what they do, but by what they leave to grow.” I ask Maras one final question, “Does he have any desire to run a kitchen again?”

                “When I work in a restaurant, I am there 12-14 hours a day on my feet, it’s a tough life. Its time to leave all of that to the young,” Maras says.

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