May 28, 2013
I found myself standing on a stage in front of 300 people at 10:45am. I’m a little groggy, perhaps a touch too much bourbon the night before. I wasn’t supposed to be on this stage, with this particular group of food fans. They were looking forward to a fantastical cooking demo led by, ahem, a famous and very charismatic chef, who, due to extenuating circumstances, could not appear on said stage. So instead they got me, and my cohort, Chef Brian Landry. He was actually supposed to be there, but at this moment looked equally queasy and a little flustered. We weren’t ready.
I had no idea what we were preparing, or even what the demo was supposed to be about, and we had to fill sixty minutes of possible silence. As I felt the terror rising inside me, wondering why on earth I agreed to this, a good friend had the presence of mind snap me back into place. “Mike, here, you look like you need this, and remember we have two cases.”
Ahhh, tequila. A plan forms. I turn to Chef Landry, “Brian just get the first dish together and start cooking, I’m gonna stall them till you’re ready to speak.” I took another shot, shook off the daze and just opened my mouth hoping for the best.
I’m not exactly sure how we did it over the next hour, but we succeeded in getting the crowd to help us polish off the two cases. I spent a good portion preaching the good news of being a born-and-raised New Orleanian who spent his summers on the Gulf coast fishing and crabbing. The rest was spent heckling poor Chef Brian as he tried to actually be a professional, lead a cooking class and show people true technique. Something must have gone right, because by the end, the crowd was cheering and clapping as we handed out servings of oyster pasta and roasted pompano.
As I came down off the stage, and down off the surge of alcohol and charged adrenaline brought on from standing in front of a rapt audience for what ended up being eighty minutes, I realized I still had a long day and night ahead of me. There was only one way – gotta keep it going. Pulling from years of experience waking up at 7am to get to the Mardi Gras day parades with my family, starting with mimosas, fried eggs and grits, moving on to King Cakes and hard liquor around noon and finishing at 2am with duck and oyster gumbo with beer, I knew I could do it. I stashed the last bottle of tequila in my knife-bag; it was already time for us to get across town to start prepping for our New Orleans themed dinner.
The next four hours were spent in close company with an amazing team: Chefs John Currence, Kelly Fields, Brian Landry and Alon Shaya. Alon had missed the demo so we spent most of the time trying to catch him up with shots. Chef Currence, for one reason or another, was already pretty well liquored, but gladly jumped in round for round. I sliced nearly 400 paper thin discs of slow-cooked calves head roulade on a deli slicer. I still have all my fingers – don’t know how I accomplished that.
Alcohol, when consumed over the course of a day, has a tendency to speed up time. Before long the guests were arriving and we were sending out platter after platter of hors d’oeuvres. The next moment, I am standing in front of a group of diners waxing nostalgic about how I grew up eating hogs-head cheese on triscuits, and how it inspired the dish I prepared for them.
Flash forward two courses as Alon runs to me, visibly shaken, “Mike, we’re in trouble!” 30-second pause, evidently time has not sped up, I have slowed down. I stare questioningly. “Someone shut off all the equipment and the entrees are fired!” It’s an open kitchen, all of this is happening in front of the guests, and I’m sure we are speaking louder than we intend. “Just start talking about the dish!” I said and dashed into the storeroom to grab two large braising pans, I crank the heat and start pouring in olive oil. As Chef Shaya is presenting his course I have taken these beautiful slow-cooked short rib roulades, lovingly stuffed with slow poached eggs and Parmesan, and begun deep-frying them in extra virgin olive oil. As Alon goes in to grab the first roulade so he can start slicing the oil reaches flash point and flames jump up. We didn’t realize till the next day that his eyebrows were mostly gone. He slices, perfect, the eggs are just cooked through, the yolks like custard. A sigh of relief as the entrees go out, and we’re almost there.
Six Stella Artois glasses arrive filled with a dark amber liquid. “This is delicious!” I exclaim. “Of course it is, “ says Chef Currence, as he stares at me incredulously and says, “it’s 20yr Pappy.” “What the hell is it doing served in a beer glass, what’s the matter with you people!” “Look Mike, if you’re gonna get all bent outta shape go ask Mr. Julian, he poured it himself.” My eyes grew wide. “He’s here?!”
A slow pan across the room. It is at this moment that the faces and names of all the Southern food stars sitting in the room, people we had just served, came into focus. I had no idea, in the rush it had all gone unnoticed. And to think I had been up in front of them pontificating about my views and feelings of coming up as a Gulf Coast kid immersed in the surrounding food culture, at multiple times throughout the night. I can only guess that Chef recognized my sudden silence for what it was – awe. “Come on Mike, I’ll introduce you.”
It’s funny that I started the day terrified at the idea of teaching 300 people how to cook a few dishes. As I think about it now, that terror was justified; nothing would be more boring than listening to someone drone on about how to exactly replicate a particular dish. That is certainly not how I cook.
To us Southerners, it is our culture, our way of life, which makes our food entertaining. The stories we share while we cook, the coming together around a pot of gumbo, a platter of fried seafood, or a whole roast pig. It was the same stories I’ve shared with my friends and family that I was now sharing with all of these guests in Atlanta. Not so much a class on cooking but instead an energized revelry of Southern roots and how that affects each person’s view of food. More fights have been started amongst the closest of friends over who boils the best crawfish and who needs to just mind their damn business. To then carry that energy into a dinner surrounded by my peers and betters, mostly betters, to have them graciously lend me their ears while I shared those personal stories, made it so much more than just stressfully trying to get picture perfect plates out of a kitchen. It once again became a communion of friends celebrating the things we’ve come to cherish and what the festival celebrates. And, apparently it must have all tasted okay – because Atlanta Food & Wine has invited me back!
-Chef Michael Gulotta (chef de cuisine, August, New Orleans)