Reviving Cajun Cuisine
Born and raised in Cajun country, James Beard award-winning chef/restaurateur Donald Link knows a thing or two about Louisiana cuisine. In New Orleans’ Warehouse District, his much-lauded Cochon is a tribute to the food he grew up eating and it’s one of the best restaurants in the city (and probably one of the hardest reservations), while the adjacent Cochon Butcher churns out housemade Louisiana-style artisanal charcuterie to die-hard fans. It all started with his flagship white-tablecloth Herbsaint, a French-inspired bistro with a laundry list of accolades, including a mention in Gourmet’s “Top 50 Restaurants in America.” We chat with Donald about his upcoming seafood-centric Peche, Nola’s unique and evolving food scene and what Cajun means to him.
AndrewZimmern.com: Has food always played a major role in your life? When did you know you wanted to become a chef?
Donald Link: I watched my grandparents cook growing up and helped my granddad by shucking bags of black-eyed peas and corn by his side. I was 15 years old when I had my first restaurant job, but it wasn’t until I was 23, after 5 years as a finance major, that I decided I wanted to cook forever. I still remember that day and that moment.
AZ.com: How would you describe your different dining concepts in New Orleans? What’s your favorite thing to eat at each restaurant?
DL: The restaurants all provide something unique and different, Herbsaint is a French inspired New Orleans Bistro with a French wine list. Cochon is rooted more in my southern and Cajun roots and is more casual, where Butcher is the rock and roll salumeria, deli, and bar with small plates, home made charcuterie etc.
- Herbsaint: Duck Confit and Dirty Rice
- Cochon: Rabbit and Dumplings or Catfish Courtbouillon
- Butcher: tough one, but probably the muffaletta
AZ.com: A lot of people associate you with being a pork/charcuterie guy, but word on the street is you’re opening a seafood restaurant. We want to know more.
DL: I’ve heard that too. Basically I want to bring the sensibilities of the other restaurants into a New Orleans seafood restaurant. Having a traditional oyster bar but also serving crudos and ceviche at the raw bar. The main feature here will be the South American and Spanish-style fire hearth and grill. The fish and other meats will be cooked over coals made from burning oak and pecan logs. You can look for a lot of fun small plates, a great raw bar section and a lot of fresh local seafood. You won’t find much fried stuff (but maybe a little bit).
AZ.com: And since we’re on the subject, what’s the word on Gulf Coast seafood?
DL: It’s the best. Oysters, amazing shrimp, flounders, redfish, red snappers, great crabs, cobia, and even tuna.
AZ.com: What’s unique about New Orleans’ food culture?
DL: Food here has layers and depth that I don’t find in other places, it has its own very unique soul. It’s a little more salt, a little more heat, and just a little more all around.
AZ.com: How has the food scene evolved since you opened Herbsaint?
DL: I’d say the main thing is more of a devotion to using local ingredients and more influences from other parts of the world. It has broken away from being tied so strongly to the classic Creole dishes, even though they are great and you can still find great versions of it here. There will always be a place for that in New Orleans.
AZ.com: Cajun cuisine is open to interpretation. What exactly does Cajun food mean to you?
DL: Well, no one will agree on that, but it means boudin, gumbo, granny’s smothered pork with rice, my cousin’s smoked sausage, and lots of boiled crawfish. After that everything becomes an interpretation. I think Cajun food is rustic and real in it’s preperation and has amazing depth of flavor coaxed by slow cooking, and a lot of the cook’s soul and heart.
AZ.com: What makes for a good crawfish boil?
DL: Get rice field crawfish. Leave them in clean water overnight. Bring to a boil in plain or salted water, transfer to an ice chest, season with your favorite spice and close lid for 10 to 15 minutes. And good friends, and plenty of beer.
AZ.com: Favorite restaurants in New Orleans?
DL: Depends on my mood, there’s a lot to choose from here. Lillette, Bayona, LaBoca, and Domenica usually top the list. Off the path it’s Tony Angelos and Pho Tau Bay.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
DL: Burris market jams, my pickles and mustard, usually some salsa that I made at some point, dinner left overs that I eat when I get home late from work, eggs, good cheese, and mayonnaise, and usually some salami. Generally I get what I need to cook and it’s gone. The pantry’s another story.
Inspired by the Cajun and Southern cooking of his grandparents, Louisiana native Chef Donald Link began his professional cooking career at 15 years old. Recognized as one of New Orleans’ preeminent chefs, Chef Link has peppered the streets of the Warehouse District of New Orleans with several restaurants over the course of 10 years. Herbsaint, Link’s contemporary take on the French-American “bistro” was Link’s first restaurant. Cochon, opened with chef-partner Stephen Stryjewski, is where Link offers true Cajun and Southern cooking featuring the foods and cooking techniques he grew up preparing and eating. Cochon Butcher is a tribute to Old World butcher and charcuterie shops which also serves a bar menu, sandwiches, wine and creative cocktails. Calcasieu is Chef Link’s private event facility that takes its name from one of the parishes in the Acadiana region of southwest Louisiana. In the spring of 2013, Chef Link looks forward to the opening of Peche Seafood Grill in New Orleans.
Link’s flagship restaurant Herbsaint earned him a James Beard award in 2007 for Best Chef South. The same year Cochon was nominated for Best New Restaurant; and in 2012, Link was nominated by the James Beard Foundation for the prestigious award of Outstanding Chef. The James Beard Foundation also honored Link’s first cookbook– Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link’s Louisiana (Clarkson Potter) with their top award for Best American Cookbook. Released in 2009, Real Cajun is a collection of family recipes that Link has honed and perfected while honoring the authenticity of the Cajun people.
Gourmet Magazine listed Herbsaint as one of the top 50 restaurants in America, and was inducted into the Nations Restaurant News Hall of Fame. Cochon was also listed in The New York Times as “one of the top 3 restaurants that count.” For his commitment to the industry, the Louisiana Restaurant Association honored Link by naming him Restaurateur of the Year in 2012.
For more information please visit: www.DonaldLink.com