NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The James Beard Foundation gives out a regional recognition every year to the chef who sets a high culinary standard and this year New Orleans has a full plate of finalist.
The Foundation looked for the top chefs from Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, and Puerto Rico to select five finalists for the Best Chef South category.
Isaac Toups, of Toups’ Meatery, notches a third trip to the award ceremony with his most recent nomination for Best Chef South; Slade Rushing, of Brennan’s, marks his fifth time as a finalist; and Michael Stoltzfus and Kristen Essig, of Coquette, are heading back to Chicago for another year as finalist in the category.
“First time I made the long list, I mean just the first time I was mentioned in a James Beard I was like, ‘Oh my God, holy hell! do I deserve this?" Toups exclaimed.
Toups is the fast talking, high energy chef, known for his distinctive beard and a craftsman’s affinity for meat.
“If you like to eat meat, come see the Cajun psychopath, I've got you covered,” Toups exclaimed triumphantly.
Toups has built a trust with his guests at his restaurant on Carrollton, creating a foundation from his Acadian roots and combing that with his own personal desire to devour whatever tastes good.
“What do I want to eat? Well I want to take a cracklin and dip it in some chicken liver mousse,” Toups said. “I give [the crackling] recipe away and people still can't repeat it and that's what put the kids through school. No, no, that's not a joke! I sell enough cracklin to put my kids through school."
It’s that devil may care attitude at Toups that keeps the oil hot, the menu vibrant and the guests on their toes.
“It makes my damn day! We keep joking, maybe it’s not a joke, we're gonna make t-shirts that say foie gras in your flip flops because you can totally do that here. You can sit at the bar have a glass of Grand Cru champagne or some beer or some cracklins or some foie gras and some Burgundy wine,” Toups said.
Over in the French Quarter at Brennan’s, Chef Slade Rushing mans the line at the iconic restaurant as he and his team crank out some New Orleans favorites.
He got his start in the kitchen when he was struggling through engineering school at Mississippi State and he and his brother decided to sign up for cooking classes.
“My dad and mom found out. My mom was very upset, my dad said, ‘Calm down a minute, we'll talk some sense into him when he comes back home,’” Rushing said.
But his father, who Rushing credits with instilling a love of cooking at a young age, quickly got on board with his career path.
Now he’s at the helm of one of New Orleans’ most storied restaurants and even putting a spin on some of those classics.
“I mean there is Banana's Fosters the same way it was 70 years ago, but in all seriousness, we like to take some of these old classics and dust them off a little bit,” Rushing said.
He knows it’s the staff that surrounds him that’s helped land his name on the finalist list for the last five years, but he’s quick to tell you, it’s all about the food.
“I'm a humble country boy, I just like to eat, and it shows, but I also like teaching my cooks, I like seeing enthusiasm in their eyes,” Rushing said.
Over on Magazine Street at Coquette, Chefs Michael Stoltzfus and Kristen Essig make up the third New Orleans finalist for Best Chef South.
The couple, who are defining the term power couple when it comes to New Orleans chefs, crank out new and intriguing tastes as often as possible.
“We change our menu a lot and we have a lot of very creative people in the kitchen and we spend a lot of time in the kitchen and we just try to keep it very fresh. We are a completely different restaurant than we were when we opened ten years ago,” Stoltzfus said.
From the smoked short rib, dusted with charred garlic and spring onion tops, to the homemade sausage smoked out back, there’s always something to push the limits.
“This time of year, we're just stoked on vegetables we're getting beautiful asparagus, we just got fava beans in the other day that are local, it's just a really good time to be cooking in New Orleans,” Stoltzfus said.
Essig will point to her staff that keeps Coquette buzzing and the menu fresh.
“This is not a chef nomination, this is a whole restaurant nomination, no matter how you look at it. There is no way just the two of us could do this by ourselves we have a staff of almost 50 people that literally run our restaurant,” Essig said.
Essig and Stoltzfus will join Rushing and Toups in the Windy City to find out who comes out on top, but they know just a chance to represent New Orleans is enough to wet that James Beard Appetite.
“Even if one of the three of us doesn't win, it's still so great to be so well represented. It does so much for our city, people don't come to New Orleans to have one meal, they come, and they have seven, or if they're like us they have 12 meals!" Essig said.
“We're all on the same team, this city, New Orleans has been known for its food for centuries and here we are again, it's an honor for all of us to be there,” Rushing said.
“We're all in it together, we all text each other and congratulate each other, my text message was ‘Let’s go burn down Chicago!” Toups joked.
If New Orleans is lucky, one of those chefs may return home next week, with some extra bling around their neck and reason to keep cooking up the passion in New Orleans restaurants.