Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Michael Stoltzfus came to New Orleans from Maryland to work at John Besh's August. Not long after,  he and then girlfriend now fiancee, Lillian Hubbard opened Coquette on the corner of Washington and Magazine in December of 2008. Within a few months they had Four Beans from the Times Pic and the restaurant was well on its way to joining the roster of restaurants one has to eat at in New Orleans. In December, Stoltzfus will open his second eatery, Sweet Olive in The Saint Hotel. Let's put twentyish questions on the clock and get to know Michael Stoltzfus.

I was about to go to college and my mom opened a bakery. She said, "why don't you work here for a few weeks before school starts?" I never left for college. Started cooking breakfast and lunch in the back of the bakery. Got an Alain Ducasse book and just taught myself from there.

While I was working at my mom's in the morning, I was spending nights working at a fine dining restaurant in Chestertown, Maryland. Then I went to work at Julia's, probably the best restaurant at that time in Maryland. At Julia's I worked every position in restaurant- waiter, cook, manager- save bartender. After that, I went to work at August. Stayed there for a year and a half before this opportunity fell in our laps.

Losing all my money (laughs). Actually the thing I was most afraid of was not being able to cook. When you work for someone else, there is always a way to do things. Their vision, their recipe are what you use. I was afraid that I wasn't going to be able to cook food that was any good. When we opened, we had no idea what was going on with national economy. Luckily, Louisiana was pretty recession proof at that time. We were steady for the first five months, and then Brett Anderson reviewed us, and we took off from there. We had no idea he had been in, no idea we were on anyone's radar, and then the Times Picayune called to do a photo shoot for a review. We were shocked.

My approach to food has changed a lot. When we first opened, I was trying to emulate the cooking of the people I had learned from and so there was a heavy Besh presence to my food. In a way this was detrimental to my growth as a chef. A few years ago, something switched and my cooks and I started focusing our menu on what we would like to eat. How would we like to eat this ingredient. My cooks create more than I do now and in the last year we really started to focus on local products and purveyors. I'd say right now we get 80% of our produce locally and hopefully with Sweet Olive we will get that number to 100%.

I've become much more laid back recently. My biggest kitchen pet peeve is probably watching a cook turn a burner on high and try to cook something. The only time a burner should ever be on high in a kitchen is when you are trying to boil water. One of the most important aspects to cooking is controlling your heat and you can't do that on high. Also, I need a really clean kitchen. But all chefs are like that.

I love making bread. Making bread everyday for the restaurant can be monotonous, but there is nothing more rewarding than baking bread. What is funny is that at my mom's bakery, I never baked anything. Now I bake 60-70 loaves a day. Pulling a loaf of bread out of the oven is super rewarding. It is just flour, water, and yeast, but what comes out is so much more.

Hardest part of opening the restaurant was that neither Lillian nor I had any business background whatsoever. We had no idea of what we were getting ourselves into. I learned I was halfway decent at business things.

The French Laundry Cookbook- It is sort of the template of most cooks for the last 10 years or so, but I really love that book. Bread Baker's Apprentice. The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock's. And I really like the NOMA cookbook, because it is so different and revolutionary. His emphasis on foraging and cooking ingredients I've never heard of is so different, it is really cool.

These days my favorite kitchen tool is my Sharpie. But always the knife. I use an 8 inch Misono chef's knife for just about everything.

Had a cook on maybe his third day. Right before service on a busy Friday night there was a huge stock pot on a table by the dishwasher's station. The leg of the table gave out and the cook rushed over to save the stock. 15 gallons of near boiling hot stock went everywhere including all over him. That was a pretty gruesome thing to see.

The food at Sweet Olive is going to be updated versions of New Orleans and Southern food classics. We are going to take a similar approach there that we do at Coquette and have a good time with the food. I've been obsessed with collard greens lately. One idea has us cooking whole leaf collards sous vide, then treating it like a grape leaf and wrapping it around boudin. We are also going to do bar food for the bar, a really great Continental breakfast, and maybe a tiki bar themed rooftop bar. We've got 3-4 months to put together the menu; when we opened Coquette we did not have that luxury.

I get really nervous cooking for people, especially chefs. Cooks all have different approaches to foods, so I am always nervous when I serve a chef he is thinking, "This is not what I would have done." I'd probably just want to cook for friends and family mostly. I love when people come in and I can cook on the fly, just make new things with the ingredients we have in our kitchen. If I spend weeks on a new menu, it is invariably crap. But if I just throw something together it is always great. Desperation plays a critical role in this kitchen.

When not in my restaurant, I like to eat. I eat out a lot. When we first opened, we ate out whenever we could, in order to scope out the competition. But now we do it because we love to eat.

Most memorable meal was at Babbo. We had gone to New York to eat. One night we ate at Corton, Paul Liebrandt's restaurant. While the food was good, it was nothing special. You could tell that a lot of time had been put into each dish, but it was just lacking. Plus it was a very expensive meal. The next night we went to Babbo and did the pasta tasting for like $60. Everything was so simple, but so well done. The sommelier waited on us and halfway through switched pairings to grappa, there was rock music in the background, just a great meal.

Mike Gulotta of August, probably. He taught me how to make food taste good and how to run a kitchen.

Truffle oil, but thankfully that is going away anyway. I can't stand the stuff and will never use it here. That is disgusting stuff. And of course, I wish restaurants would get away from commodity meats and the like. I am not preachy about it, don't plaster farms all over the menu, but that is really important to me. As cooks we have a duty to our customers to give them healthy food- not just for their bodies but for the environment also.

Right now, I am really being influenced by Spanish and Vietnamese flavors and cooking. One of my cook's is from Miami and so he has a huge love of Spanish cooking. Another one of my cooks is absolutely obsessed with all things Vietnamese. Eventually I'd like to have a really casual spot that just serves awesome food without worrying about plating or dining rooms. I cook to make people happy and casual food does that better than anything else.

Usually the last thing I want to do when I get home is cook. Lillian is an excellent cook, so usually she has something ready. If not, I like to grill. The other day picked up some boudin stuffed quail from Butcher and threw those on the grill. If nothing to grill, Lillian hasn't cooked anything, and nothing in fridge, I just eat almonds.

La Boca is my favorite restaurant in the city. There is absolutely no pretension there. I love that they can serve me an appetizer that is just a piece of sausage and an entree that is just a piece of meat. Lillian is an occasional vegan, but even she loves La Boca. Adolfo thinks I am stalking him because I go to a lot of his restaurants and he is always there. Nine Roses, we go here pretty much every Sunday night in the winter. Horinoya is the only good sushi I've found in the city and their service is incredible. And Butcher, that place is an anomaly. Every time I go in there, it gets better and better. I love Butcher.

On a deserted island, I would need sparkling water. I go through 3 liters of the stuff a day. Something to dip ranch into, along with ranch dressing. Marconna almonds and crispy pig ear. We fry it up to order at the restaurant, and there is always a few bits for me to snack on. I figure I eat pig ear all night. Probably not healthy but hey it is good.


Robert said...

Great piece, Rene. I love that dude, and I need to get to Coquette again soon. It's been too long.

Becky said...

I think this was my favorite interview so far. Makes me feel like he's someone I'd like to know. Hear Hear on the truffle oil.

Anonymous said...

"Had a cook on maybe his third day."

ok, and this is the answer to what question? c'mon man.

Anonymous said...

rooftop tiki bar -- DO THIS!!

Rene said...

Anon 1,

C'mon Man, that was the easiest one. The answer discusses a pretty gruesome injury that Stoltzfus witnessed.