NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Donald Link is a giant in the New Orleans restaurant industry, building a small empire of eateries almost all located in one pocket of the Warehouse District, while amassing a full plate of recognition from the James Beard Foundation.
Link was named Best Chef: South for Herbsaint Restaurant in 2007 and won another Beard Award for his cookbook Real Cajun in 2010. Since 2011, the James Beard Foundation has recognized him on a national level, named a finalist for Outstanding Chef six times, including this year.
Still, Link will tell you, he couldn’t achieve near the national accolade without a confident team of chefs manning the lines at his seven different restaurants.
“In the beginning you're in the kitchen all the time, it's your whole life. Eight in the morning to midnight, kitchen, kitchen, kitchen. Then you start to expand your vision and realize with growth, in order to have growth, you really have to put some time into other chefs and other people, while growing the structure and at the same time maintaining the integrity of the food and the quality,” Link said.
Link has had a hand in the growth of several influential New Orleans chefs with an infectious ability to create craveable that all started as a kid when food just wasn’t fancy.
“Food was a different thing. It wasn't a job back then. There wasn't fine dining restaurants we would go to, so I formed a connection at a really young age to cook really honest, home cooking food,” Link said.
Those honest flavors are at work in each bite, like the crowd favorites at Herbsaint, Link’s flagship restaurant.
“The duck confit with dirty rice, I think, has been on [the menu] since the very beginning and the gumbo. Those two are probably the gold standard and over time the spaghetti and the poached egg, kind of our take on Carbonaro,” Link said.
The thoughtfulness behind a dish like the duck confit extends well past the palate. Link has a focus beyond the kitchen, early on creating a process to procure the best ingredients, all while sustaining a broad reach of the industry.
“We have in house ordering systems for own produce. We decide what the farmers grow, we support them almost 100-percent, some of them. I mean the hogs, the chicken, and making our own meats for the sandwiches at Butcher,” Link said.
It’s the type of confidence in his cuisine that spreads as the Link Group opens its seventh restaurant, Gianna, installing Rebecca Wilcomb as executive chef and partner, a chef who previously won the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: South at Herbsaint in 2017.
“Over time we've just kind of grown the business and partnerships, with people that I've thought are extremely talented that we could grow with and open new restaurants. Obviously, I can't cook at every one with seven now,” Link said.
These days, Link loves discovering those talented chefs, who understand the importance of ingredients and their provenance, and watching them create dishes rooted in their experiences that grasp the taste buds of New Orleans.
“I think it’s that commitment, not just to a plate of food, but the overall picture. Where is that food coming from, how are we sustaining our local economy with it, what farmers are we using, how are we affecting the world of food and the world of farming, but also how are we treating our employees, and what do we pay and what are the benefits we provide, because 20 years ago, those things didn’t exist,” Link said.