We met in the kitchen of a restaurant called Gerard’s Downtown in New Orleans. It was the fall of 2000, we were both cooks and we fell in love. Six months later, we purchased two one-way tickets to New York City on the City of New Orleans train and away we went. We each landed jobs and rented a tiny one-room basement apartment in Brooklyn complete with a patch of dirt in the back. We planted a garden and felt like the two luckiest people on Earth.
Working in New York was more mentally and physically exhausting than we had imagined, but our Southern stubbornness prevented us from giving up. We also had our little Brooklyn refuge, where on late nights after work (Slade was at March and I was at Ducasse), wine revived our tired bodies, and we created dishes and wrote menus sprinkled with comforting memories from home. Funny how soon those ideas would come in handy. After only a few years in New York, we became head chefs of a tiny restaurant in the East Village called Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar.
Finding ourselves at Jack’s was serendipitous to say the least. At the time, Slade was chef de cuisine at a little French restaurant in the Flatiron District called Fleur de Sel, and I had just left Ducasse to take a break from the stress and plan our wedding. I applied for a job as a barista at the recently opened Blue Goose Café, armed with a ridiculous résumé that included all of my restaurant experience from the last ten years—starting with Kenny Roger’s Roasters in Coral Springs, Florida, and ending with Alain Ducasse. Jack Lamb, the owner of the Blue Goose, checked out my résumé and said he wanted to hire me as the chef of a new restaurant he was opening. I was a bit taken aback, but saying no was never my strong suit. I said yes, but told him I was getting married in August—to which he replied, “Then we will open the restaurant in September.” I immediately called Slade to tell him I had gotten a job, but as a chef. He asked me if I had lost my mind.
On the opening night of Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar (which was also my twenty-eighth birthday), Slade took the night off from Fleur de Sel to cook by my side. A few months later, on Valentine’s Day of 2004, he joined me as the co-chef at Jack’s. There, our menus were riffs on classic New Orleans dishes, mingled with French-inspired soul food. Customers walked through the kitchen to get into the upstairs dining room, while we scrubbed our own pots and pans in a little sink after we served each table. Our tiny seven by seven-foot kitchen with a Sub-Zero fridge and four-burner stove was about as far away from a commercial restaurant kitchen as you could get. There was no walk-in cooler and no real prep space to speak of, so we packed the small fridge every day before service and emptied it out before the end of the night. The spiral staircase in the middle of the kitchen became our cooling rack. It was a job no chef in their right mind would agree to take on, but lucky for us we did and we made it work. Pretty soon the customers walking through the unconventional kitchen were chefs like David Bouley, Jeremiah Towers, Alain Ducasse, Eric Ripert, François Payard, and many others. Lines formed outside to wait for tables. We realized that something special was going on.
But too quickly, it all got much bigger than us. The media attention was constant and hugely flattering—and, well, tricky. All of the positive press resulted in customers’ increasing expectations, plus our egos grew, things became complicated with our boss, and the honeymoon was definitely over for our brand-new marriage. We decided to get the hell out of town. The article in the New York Times read “Two Rising Stars Opt Out of Manhattan.” What a way to go.
We unpacked our bags in Abita Springs, right outside of New Orleans, three months before the most disastrous hurricane ever hit this area. Our family had bought us an amazing, dreamy property, which would become our first restaurant, Longbranch. We had the “we made it in New York, we can make it anywhere” attitude. And then all hell broke loose. A week before the restaurant was set to open, we packed up our truck to evacuate before Katrina hit. We took a couple of changes of clothes, beer, foie gras and sweetbreads that we didn’t want to go bad, and two dogs that weren’t ours. We headed to Tylertown, Mississippi, and didn’t return home for over a week. Even in Mississippi we were not completely out of Katrina’s path, and the power was not restored there until after we had headed back home. Luckily, Slade’s sister Kim had a natural spring well in her backyard, so we rigged up a shower where we could also wash dishes and clothes. To keep ourselves busy, we raided all the freezers on our street and then cooked friends, family, and neighbors three meals a day on a gas grill.
Upon returning to Abita Springs, we hadn’t a clue what would be waiting for us. We had given friends in town who did not evacuate the key to the restaurant in case the worse happened. They had cleaned out the walk-in cooler of food to sustain themselves and their neighbors for the week, so thankfully we didn’t have to deal with rotten, moldy food. We found that most of the trees on the property had fallen, and the cottage we were living in was in very bad shape. The restaurant building, however, looked mostly unscathed. The energy company was there to turn back on the electricity, so we began cleaning up. Longbranch quietly opened one week later.
For dinner, we served the same food that garnered us attention at Jack’s. Our Sunday brunches were an instant success, and we even had a two-piece jazz band come play. (They had lost their steady gig at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, which had not yet reopened after the storm.) We hoped what we were offering at Longbranch would give our recently scarred customers a momentary escape away from it all. But a fine diningrestaurant with no history in the area and very high overhead eventually got the better of us. We closed the doors after a turbulent year-and-a-half-long run.
Before we closed Longbranch, a customer, Frank Zumbo, asked if we would be interested in opening a restaurant in a Marriott hotel in New Orleans. MiLa—named for our respective home states, Mississippi and Louisiana—was born in November of 2007 in the Renaissance Pere Marquette. We are still serving our Southern-flecked cuisine, although the menu is considerably bigger than that first menu at Jack’s (which had one entrée and one dessert). The dishes we created back then, such as Oysters Rockefeller “Deconstructed” and New Orleans–Style Barbecue Lobster, have traveled with us from Jack’s to Longbranch, then to MiLa, and now to this book. For simplicity’s sake, in the book we have broken down a lot of the dishes we serve at the restaurant into separate components. We’ve also sprinkled some favorite childhood recipes in between. We hope the food in this book represents who we are, where we are from, and the places we have been.
Five years after opening MiLa, life is sweet again. We have four beautiful bloodhounds, an old fishing boat with lots of character, a home where we can lay down some roots, and a brand new baby girl. The delicate balance of work and play has become a reality. And the food tastes better, too.
Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Pecans and Brown Butter
Admittedly, we will try to incorporate sweet potato into just about any recipe. It is such a versatile vegetable, and one of the most healthy and inexpensive available. Even though they are potatoes, they do not have the starch content of russets, therefore you need both kinds for this recipe. The aroma of the brown butter and toasted pecans from this dish will mingle perfectly on a table with your other holiday sides.
3/4 cup kosher salt
3/4 pound russet potatoes (about 3)
1/2 pound sweet potato (about 1 large)
11/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1 large egg yolk
3/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
11/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup pecan halves, chopped
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Spread the kosher salt on a baking sheet. Set all of the potatoes (russet and sweet potato) on the salt and bake until tender, about 1 hour. Let cool and discard the salt.
To make the dough, peel the baked potatoes. Work them through a potato ricer, or press through a flour sifter, into a large bowl. Mix in 1 teaspoon of the sea salt, the egg yolks, and the flour. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead it gently 3 or 4 times, adding more flour if necessary to keep the dough from sticking. Cut the dough into six equal pieces and cover with a clean, barely damp kitchen towel.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Fill a bowl with ice water and have ready.
Lightly flour a baking sheet and also flour a dinner fork. To form the gnocchi, working with one piece at a time, roll the gnocchi dough on a lightly floured work surface into a 3/4-inch-thick rope. Cut the rope into 1/2-inch pieces. To form each gnocchi, using your thumb, roll each piece along the back of the tines of the fork to make indentations, then gently roll the dough off the fork. Transfer the gnocchi to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat until all the gnocchi are formed.
To cook the gnocchi, salt the boiling water. Once it reaches a boil, decrease the heat to a strong simmer. Add half of the gnocchi and stir gently until they begin to rise to the surface, about 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the gnocchi to the ice water to cool down, then drain well on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining gnocchi.
To finish the dish, in a large bowl, toss the gnocchi with the olive oil, and spread them out on a large baking sheet.
In a very large skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Cook the butter over moderate heat until it begins to brown, about 1 minute. Add one-third of the pecans and cook, stirring, until the nuts are toasted, about 2 minutes. Add half of the gnocchi and cook until they are golden brown and warmed through, about 2 minutes. Season with one-third of the remaining sea salt and transfer the gnocchi to a bowl. Repeat with the remaining butter, pecans, and gnocchi.
Excerpted from Southern Comfort by Allison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing. Copyright © 2012 by Allison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.