I was attracted to cooking shows at a young age and would make my mom tape them. She was a single mom, but she always made sure we had home cooked meals, and I was mesmerized by the alchemical witchcraft of turning ordinary items out of the pantry into soul nourishing sustenance. I was also a voracious eater. When I lived in Italy, I asked everyone what my last name meant, and the best they could figure was an old dialect word for “glutton.”
I remember my mom making multiple course breakfasts for me: eggs, bacon, toast with jam, pancakes, and grits—and that was on a school day. Weekends were much more intense. She eventually started dating, and later married a local fire captain. His favorite thing to do, besides work three jobs, was cook for the firehouse. It’s serious bragging rights in the NOFD if you’re a good cook. So the three of us would often prepare dishes we watched on the cooking shows; he even went out and bought a bunch of the little glass condiment bowls that everyone used to use on the old cooking shows like Great Chefs Great Cities.
The first time I cooked dinner for the family, I was probably between eight and ten. Dinner was some kind of glazed pork over cabbage that I had seen on Yan Can Cook (I had a lot of help, and my helpers were very patient with me). The first thing I learned to cook for myself was a bacon egg and cheese breakfast sandwich; I ate so many on Saturday and Sunday mornings that my mom said I had to start making them for myself. The breakfast sandwich is still my favorite thing to make for myself.
Eventually, my mom had to go back to school, and my cooking had become so commonplace that I would often come home to ingredients and a recipe on the counter. I would cook for my brother (now my business partner) and myself. My senior year of high school my brother got me a night job as a line cook at the Planet Hollywood on Decatur street, where he was a server, bouncer, and sometime line cook. I quickly worked my way up to opener/trainer. I decided it was the life for me and signed up for culinary school at the John Folse Culinary Institute in Thibodaux, Louisiana.
My most vivid memory is walking with my brother to work one of those first days after deciding to make this my career and wondering aloud if I could get off early to hang out with my friends that night. He stopped and turned to me and with such gravity said, “You need to understand right now, before you go any further, that you are going to work when everyone else plays; your schedule will be opposite of all of your friends. You will drive yourself and your employers crazy trying to make it any other way.”
My longest stint in any restaurant was at August. I started as the grill cook, after applying multiple times until a position opened. It was the pinnacle restaurant that I wanted to work in. It just felt different in that kitchen. Professionalism was expected, hard work demanded, and excellence strived for every day. I worked my way through every station just hoping to keep my job, never really believing I would be able to advance.
I loved being a line cook. I hungered for the controlled chaos of every service. It was like being an adrenalin junky. The plates were intricate, delicious, and required high levels of technique, and you were going to serve hundreds of them a day. You couldn’t mail it in, you had to be totally present, physically, emotionally, mentally, every day. Before I knew it I was being offered a sous chef position, but I turned it down to travel to Germany. Katrina made her grand entrance while I was overseas, so I immediately came back and assumed a sous position. The hard part was that we had only a handful of cooks, so we were basically sous chefs of ourselves.
A year later the restaurant was back in full swing, and I was asked to be chef de cuisine. Six years I spent at the helm, and I cannot list all of the lessons learned, from hiring, to firing, menu development, executing huge dinners in top level kitchens half way across the country with teams I had met only hours earlier, and being able to witness the daily interactions between titans of the industry as they worked together on collaborative events. The greatest thing I learned was how to treat each person you meet as an individual, to discover what motivates them, and then appeal to their better nature in an attempt to have them bring the best version of themselves to the forefront every day. It was the common thread between all of the great Chefs I had the pleasure of interacting with as Chef Besh’s number two.
When I left August to open MOPHO, I wanted guests to feel relaxed so they can let their guard down and really have fun. We want it to be that place you go to because it’s exciting yet comfortable, gregarious and surprising, but also nourishing. I’d like to think my style is honest, in that I honestly want my staff and my guests to be happy to be in the restaurant. I want the food and drinks to be engaging for the people serving them and the people consuming them. I am constantly asking our team to eat the food they make and to not fall into the common pitfall of today’s hyper-educated cooks of thinking that their oftentimes expensive training is enough to allow them rush the food out or even give them a pass on leaving out an ingredient or over/under cooking, or in the worst case not even tasting it because they believe it will be good enough and that it’s just another plate. If the passion doesn’t come through on the plate the guest can tell. If the servers hate their jobs, the guest can tell. So we strive to listen to our team members, to invest in them and let them know they are important to us. My partners and I basically live at the restaurant, so why not make it a home for everyone?