The award-winning chef behind Commander’s Palace chats with Leigh Crandall about how the Big Easy inspires his cooking, why the Southern city is the place to be these days, and where he likes to chow down when he’s not in the kitchen
Chef Tory McPhail vividly remembers one of his last days at culinary school in Seattle. “I asked my instructor for advice on where I should move to become a great chef,” he says. “He told me that if I really wanted to understand great flavor and cuisine, the only place I needed to go was New Orleans.” McPhail heeded this advice and nine years later, at just 28-years-old, found himself at the helm of one of the country’s most iconic restaurants, Commander’s Palace.
Located in the city’s Garden District since 1880, Commander’s Palace rose to prominence as one of the first restaurants in the city to combine the influences of Cajun and Creole cuisine. Chefs including Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse have made their names in its kitchen and in 2013 McPhail earned a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South for his work here. Under his leadership, Commander’s has incorporated more modern cooking and plating techniques, while continuing to rely on the region’s farms, fish houses and bayous for the restaurant’s ingredients.
The concept of sourcing produce locally is nothing new in Louisiana, where some of the greatest geographical diversity in the country yields a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, fish and game, making farm-to-table cooking the standard practice for hundreds of years. “The goal is, if you kidnapped and blindfolded somebody, and then fed them a meal you’d want them to say ‘Hey, I must be in New Orleans.’ And you can’t do that if you’re buying produce from other places,” says McPhail.
This season, one of his favorite dishes at Commander’s is the Chicory Coffee Lacquered Quail, stuffed with spicy rice sausage and fire-roasted with a sauce made from fresh sugar cane syrup, French Market chicory coffee and whiskey. The resulting lacquer “is so deep and shiny, it looks like the coat of a 1969 Camaro,” he laughs.
McPhail points to the rejuvenated spirit of New Orleans as one of his greatest inspirations in the kitchen. Since Hurricane Katrina’s devastating hit in 2005, “there are almost double the amount of restaurants there was nine years ago,” he says. “There’s a real groundswell of talent moving in, not just with restaurants, but other young professionals who have regenerated the city into the best version of itself. It’s an exciting time to be here.”
FOR CLASSIC NEW ORLEANS FARE: Bon Ton Café
“Bon Ton Café was one of the first spots to serve Cajun food in the city,” says McPhail. Housed in the historical 1840’s Natchez building on Magazine Street, the must-try house specialties include their Rum Ramsey cocktail adapted from a recipe from the early 1900’s, and the bread pudding with whiskey sauce and butter pecan ice cream. “They also do great versions of New Orleans classics like jambalaya and étouffée.”
FOR LUNCH: The Sammich
Commander’s Palace alum Mike Brewer opened The Sammich shop on Maple Street specializing in NOLA’s traditional sandwich, the po’boy. McPhail likes to order “a riff on a dish we do at the restaurant called shrimp and tasso,” with fried shrimp tossed in Crystal hot sauce beurre blanc with fried tasso ham, pickled okra and five pepper jelly piled on French bread. Save room for their small plates, which include heart-stoppers like duck fat fries and flash-fried escargot.
FOR DINNER: La Boca
“La Boca has a hip and buzzy vibe, and a beautiful list of red wines,” McPhail says about this Argentinian steakhouse in the Warehouse District. Start with the “Gaucho Plate” of house made chorizo, beef skewers, sweetbreads and empanadas, and save room for their panqueques de dulce de leche—crepes filled with caramelized condensed milk.
FOR DESSERT: Noodle & Pie
“Noodle and Pie does a fusion of Creole and Asian cooking and their daily desserts are fantastic,” says McPhail. Follow their homemade ramen topped with BBQ pork with a slice of bacon-bourbon apple pie, washed down with a glass of NOLA Hopitoulas IPA.
FOR DRINKS & LIVE MUSIC: The Spotted Cat & d.b.a.
“I don’t care how crowded it is, if you’re down on Frenchmen Street you have to go to the Spotted Cat,” says McPhail. “It’s like being in a time machine. Bands like the New Orleans Jazz Vipers dress in period costume, and people swing dance and spill into the street. It’s the quintessential New Orleans experience.” Next door at d.b.a., “you never know who is going to walk up on stage. I’ve seen Jimmy Buffet jump up and play a few songs, then go and drink at the bar with everyone else.”