Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Talking with Talbot

Jeffrey Talbot grew up in Venton, Louisiana, just outside of Lake Charles. From there, he worked in high end  kitchens in Florida, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Europe and California. But he left all that behind a few years ago to focus on a side job that became a passion: pizza. Quiet and monkish, Talbot is well-versed in the profanity laced patois of the kitchen. Let's put twentyish questions on the clock and get to know the pizza monk who tends the oven at Ancora. All photos courtesy of the new staff photog here, Renee "Peanut" Bienvenu.

Cooking is the only thing I can do. After high school I moved to Florida for a few months where my cousin was running a restaurant. Worked there for a few months and then went to Philadelphia to work with Tony Clark.

I worked for John Besh at Artesia, then he sent me to Europe for a year and three months. Came back and opened August. Always had in my mind that I wanted to work in three star Michelin type places. So left for California, where I worked at Cyrus. While I was at Cyrus, we started a bread program. That is when I began my starter, which is now six year's old. Was there for three months and became sous chef.

I kind of fell out of love with cooking. My mom had had a few strokes and so I moved back home and built a pizza oven in the backyard.

The pizza obsession is one of those things that my family didn't really understand. I first ate really great pizza when I was out in California and it was done perfectly. That pizza was an emotional experience. I wanted to take the craft I had learned in great restaurants and put that style of food into pizza. In a way you become more creative by limiting what it is you are doing.

I love making bread. We do three things here: cured meats, bread, and pizza. To me pizza is bread. But the actual bread we do here is pretty fun to make. Bread making is a very meditative process that requires focus to get the shape and texture we want. We don't use any commercial yeast. On some days there is high humidity, so you have to account for that. Other days, lower humidity. Sourdough is a whole different ballgame than using commercial yeast.

I don't know if I have a least favorite kitchen task. As a cook you take the good with the bad. What I hated doing five years ago, I love now. I even like cleaning, who the fuck likes to clean?

We cooks talk about memorable meals all the time. I have two. Cooks are always poor. I've been married for nine years now and my wife and I always make it a point to go and have one really nice meal a year. One year we went to The French Laundry and had the private dining room all to ourselves. I remember the maitre'd came in and said, "the other people who were to join you, have canceled. You have the room all night." That meal was great because we were treated so specially. Other meal was at Manresa. We ordered the entire tasting menu and the entire a la carte menu. We were there for five and a half hours and did twenty-one courses. It was fucking insane. Ohh, and we did all the wine pairings as well. At one point, my wife said, "Fuck, we are still on white wine. We have a long way to go." I think Manresa is serving the best food of any restaurant in America.

I like cooking for my family the most. As a cook we are constantly trying to justify our craft to our families. We arent ought saving the world, we aren't curing cancer, we just cook food for people to eat. So there is still that drive to make your family very proud of what you do. And cooking for them let's us do that. I'd love to cook for Douglas Keane. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him because I worked for him for so long.

I remember the first time I saw an ingredient you find on candy bars in a high end restaurant kitchen. Soy leciethen was the ingredient. I hate that high end restaurants are using that shit and charging people a fortune for that. You aren't a chef if you can't make great plates from food that grows in the dirt, swims in the ocean, or grazes in the fields plus a little salt and pepper. Technique is what great cooking is built on. I want a potato to taste like a fucking potato. Cryovacs and immersion circulators in my mind are no different than microwaves.

Fucking texting. I hate people texting in my kitchen. When you show up to work, work. Text when you get home.

What we do here is so simple. We don't get any produce delivered. We go to the market and what we find there is what we cook with. So you won't see anymore Creoles soon and we aren't going to serve Cauliflower in summer. That forces us to be creative.

Within three months, we had moved to New Orleans, had a baby, and opened a restaurant. We put up the lights, finished the floor, built this space. So there is an emotional attachment to this restaurant fueled by those hardships. After we opened, we discovered people have a preconceived notion of what pizza is supposed to be. We fight that everyday.

I put my hands on every single pizza that a customer eats. If they don't like it, it means they don't like what I did. And that is humbling.

Wood, sea salt, and Double O flour are my essential kitchen tools. Most of what we do, that is all we need to do it. All of our breads are just flour, sea salt, and water. Those are the most important ingredients.

After a long day, I like to eat cheese and bread and drink beer. I really love St. James which is one of my favorite places to go. Even coming from Bay Area, where there is a cheese shop on nearly every corner, St. James stands out.  It is the best cheese shop I've ever been in. I love everything about it, especially the smell.

The biggest influence in my career was traveling in Europe. Not neccessarily working in the kitchens, because all high end kitchens are pretty much the same. But being able to drive an hour and eat at a place like Auberge du Lac which has had 3 Michelin stars for like 50 years.

From My Grandmother's Kitchen. Marco Pierre White's White Heat is very motivational, but I have never cooked anything out of it. I just love the way he talks about food in that book. Flavors of Tuscanny. I read that book cover to cover. No chefs buy cookbooks for the recipes. You buy it to put you in a frame of mind. So when you are wanting to "Be Italian" or "Be Rustic" you read a book that takes you there and shows you the thought process of how to prepare food in that manner.

Probably the cooking of Northern Italy is my favorite Italian cuisine. The further north you go in Italy, the more it falls in line with the cuisines that surround it. As you go south, even into Tuscanny, you start finding poor man's food where they aren't relying on eggs and butter as much.

No shit, I ended up in New Orleans because of a Mano. We went there like five times before even partnered with Adolfo. I just love what they do there. Then of course, we are eagerly awaiting the reopening of Casamentos. And I love Hansen's, before we opened I went there everyday. My favorite flavor is The Thai Trifecta - ginger, limeade and cream of coconut.

I'd start with the cured meat plate definitely, the affetati misti. My favorite pizza here is the marinara. Two years go I loved the margerita, but now I see less as more. When you start putting too much stuff on pizza, it suffers. Our marinara is just dough, wild oregano, shaved garlic and the best possible tomatoes we can find. That is it. For dessert, I'd have the daily sweetbread. Again, simplicity it is just sourdough with dried fruits, nuts, marscapone cheese, and honey.

Never liquor with pizza. Beer or wine. Beer with some things, wine with others. But as I get older, I find myself drinking more beer.

I used to work on a fishing boat so I would be bringing fishing shit with me to a deserted island. If I wasn't doing pizza, I'd be cooking fish. I'd bring some seeds so I could grow stuff I needed to cook. Something to take salt out of the water which would also leave me with a huge supply of sea salt. Pepper. And I'd bring my knives. Be pretty set with all of that. Ohh, can I add something unfucking practical like ice cream just because?