When you spend two hours on the phone with Scott Boswell, variations of the phrase "I'm going off on a tangent, so bring me back" pop up with some frequency. The chef of Stella!, regarded by many as the best restaurant in New Orleans, probably has more anecdotes than could fill a book.
It makes sense. Before heading off to the CIA at the ripe age of 31, Boswell tried out dentistry, banking, and owning a pet shop; in his efforts to make up for his late start at cooking, he's traveled extensively and continues to stage at some of the best restaurants in the world; he, and his businesses, survived one of the greatest natural disasters in American history; and in the coming years, he hopes to expand and develop a restaurant of three-star Michelin standards in New Orleans.
One of the things that stands out from the conversations we've had before is how crazy your story is — the jobs you've held, the amount of time it took you to finally dive into culinary school. Take us through that story.
Cooking has always been the common thread in my life. Back in the early 70s I used to cook practically every day after school, and Christmas and Thanksgiving and family reunions were events where I'd practically take control of prepping everything — roasting turkeys and hams for two days straight with no sleep. My family considered me a chef and I found much of doing that beautiful, but I didn't see a lot of glory in being a cook at that time. There wasn't really a food revolution.
So when I graduated high school, I decided I would be a dentist. I don't really know what the thought process behind that was — maybe it was that it seemed like a simple, good path to make a solid living, but it only lasted about one year. I didn't think it was interesting. So I went back to Lake Charles, where I was born. My dad knew someone at the bank there, and he set me up with a desk job. This was a new world for me, with shirts and ties. And it wasn't an entry-level position; they wanted to groom me to move up the ranks, but at the same time the other people at the bank had graduated college, so I realized there was a ceiling on how high I could go. It bothered me to think that maybe I would end up the head of bookkeeping, and then I just hit a wall.
But as the universal stars have tended to do throughout my life, a door opened. Someone gave me a ten gallon fish tank and I became quite amazed with it. Not too long after getting that one, we replaced it with a bigger one, and then again with an even bigger one. It was like having a living canvas which you could manipulate — the lighting, the coral, the fish themselves. Eventually, I was so in love with keeping animals that my dad helped me buy the local pet shop. But that didn't last too long, either: I had a zoo of my own at my house, and I started becoming too attached to the animals and even stereotyping the people that came into the shop to determine if I should sell them an animal.
I ended up selling the store and going to Birmingham, where my mother had moved to become a nurse after she and my father separated; I felt like I needed to travel, and I really hadn't been outside of Louisiana. I interviewed for a job at a bank, since that's what I had experience in, and I got the job. But before I started that, I got a gig at a restaurant, and it was incredible. Just extreme amounts of fun, and getting a paycheck for it. I'd take people's shifts and work all the time, and that was where I became a workaholic. Eventually, my boss there sat me down and said that I needed to go to culinary school, to the CIA specifically. The idea of going to New York was a huge thing for me. It was scary and exciting, and I also doubted myself a fair amount.
But culinary school was the best thing that ever happened to me.
It was beyond my imagination, really. They'd make us write papers, and we needed to have computer skills, and I worked while I studied, and it was just a crucial experience. Add to that the fact that I had to struggle to pay for it — my mom and my stepdad helped me, but I originally didn't want to use their money since they had helped me in other projects that ended up going nowhere. But cooking school was it, it was the key move.
Then you went abroad?
Yes, in France at Pascal Morel's Salon de Provence first. Up until then, I basically was painting only with primary colors, but that militant environment changed me. It was so hard: I had never been out of the US, it was all-French, and they basically broke me down and put me back together. Within six months, I had moved up the ranks in that kitchen. At the end, the chef said to me, "You were a different person when you walked in here." Then I went to Florence, to Enoteca Pinchiorri, the best restaurant in Italy. And that was even more exhausting.
I went from a one star to a three star. I was older than the chef. Good God, it's crazy how hard they work for those three stars. I ended up working the pasta station there, and that's where I first met Masahiko Kobe, Iron Chef Italian, who worked with me there and became a good friend. We'd drink wine together after work and have a great time.
What happened after that?
I went back to New Orleans and cooked at some places, but the pace was so slow that it just didn't do it for me. So I ran some places in New York and had some successes, then to Boston where I had some opportunities with Todd English and Ken Oringer, but they were lower-level than what I had worked in New York, and I was already old, so I couldn't. I almost worked for Michael Schlow, but I ended up going to Montana, God's country, and had a wonderful experience cooking in Big Sky.
How did Stella! come to be?
It was my goal, a big one, to open my own restaurant by the time I was forty. My mom found the space, which was across the street from where she lived — it's now where I live. So I bought the book Business Plan for Dummies, and what a touchdown that was. I busted my ass to get that done, and it ended up being really well received. In the end, with the help of a family affiliated with IBM that I had worked for while at the CIA, we got the money together and opened. Our first big review was three out of five beans for the Times-Picayune, which was devastating. I wanted to achieve more. But we had just started, and even though business was good, we were operating without huge goals. Pretty soon into this, I realized that I needed to see more of the world, so I went back to Japan and spent time with Masahiko Kobe, who I learned had become famous. That opened the door to stages at Hiroyuki Sakai's restaurant, which was life-changing, and then Chen Kinichi's place.
That's the first of many stages you've done since opening Stella! Why do you feel compelled to do so many and so often, especially now when you're established?
I also did stages at Jean-Georges, then later at Alinea and Trotter's, and the year after at Per Se, Tailor, and Daniel.
The way I see it, I'm barely a ten-year old chef. This is a third career. The more exposure I can get to people that have been doing this their whole lives, and to see how their mechanisms work and how the internal parts function, it's amazing. I have to absorb from the masters of the craft the things that would take me a lifetime to learn. The more data that's in my mind, the more I can do with the creative tendencies I know are in me. When I worked in Morimoto's kitchen, I saw a restaurant that was doing five-hundred people a night that was one of the most organized machines I had ever witnessed. That organizational system is now in place at Stella!. When I came back from Sakai's stage, I was really frustrated because I had seen a lot but I didn't really know what I had seen because of the language barrier. But then I started seeing the brushstrokes of my plate change a little bit, to see Sakai coming into my cooking. The beautiful thing about doing all of these over time is to see my style come to be.
You don't consider yourself a master?
Humility is probably one of the most important things. I'd like to consider myself a master, but like I said, I basically just graduated culinary school. I came from nothing, so it's hard to sometimes accept the nice things that come my way. I find myself asking "Why me?" often. I don't know where all of this came from, but something sure clicked along the way. I was talking to the industrial psychologist we hired for the management group about this, and he at one point compared me to Thomas Edison. I was like, "Come on, dude!" The whole point is to strive to be a master.
Can you describe your style, beyond the general "global-modern with Louisiana roots" listed on your website.
No, it's constantly changing. It's never complete. It'll be a work in progress until the day I die. The journey is the most exciting part of it. I'm always trying to fine tune, but also to reinvent.
Do you consider what you cook "New Orleans food"?
I can't tell you. I live on planet earth. New Orleans happens to be where I live, eat, sleep, and am rooted. But I certainly hope to spread out a little bit and get things going all over the world. That's one of my big dreams now.
But you're still connected to the city?
Oh God, yes. At the beginning I couldn't wait to travel and see the world, but now when I go away, I can't wait to go home. I really love it here. For the first time I feel soulfully, truthfully connected to this place. These aren't short roots, because I'm digging in deep. This is where I'm from. Everything I do from now on, whether it's building food production factories in China or Thailand, it's all based here.
How do you see Stella! now? Where do you want to take it?
In 2009, after picking up lots of steam — and withstanding a hurricane in between — a big thing happened. I'm taking my wife for her birthday to the French Laundry. The morning I wake up for her birthday, I see that my phone has blown up. There were so many messages — we had been awarded the five bean review. They rated us the number one restaurant in New Orleans. That was my "holy shit" moment.
Now, at Stella! we're discussing moving toward a new menu format. When we started, it was pretty basic, and then we had the hurricane, which is a very long, devastating story that made us fight for our lives for a few years. But now we're in the position to move forward, to turn off whatever auto-pilot function may have been on during survival mode.
What does "moving forward" mean in this case?
Over ten years, you get one signature dish, then another, and then another. It's like when a painter paints a masterpiece — I'm not saying my dishes are masterpieces, but when a dish is great a dish, it's a great dish. And people come back for them. So what we're thinking is to have an à la carte with all the favorites or archived dishes, and then a tasting where there is variety and an opportunity for me to express myself. We've always had a tasting menu, but it hasn't changed much. For a long time, even though we were putting out excellent food, we were sort of hanging by a thread. Katrina was hard.
The trend over the years has been to make the restaurant smaller and smaller in order to make things more exciting — better. We started out with very simple plates and utensils, and now we have a collection from around the world that I'm really proud of; those are the canvases. We somewhat recently redid the dining room for a Bocuse d'Or dinner with Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Jerome Bocuse. And I'm now invested in fostering dialogue and developing ideas with all the staff, instead of just spearheading everything.
Can you talk about some of the upcoming projects you have down in New Orleans?
I met Dr. Laney Chouest, a guy who likes to drive fast, and we've become very good friends. He's building a sixty million dollar racetrack twenty minutes south of New Orleans. He's done it quietly, and people are just starting to find out about it. But he wants great food for the place. So right now we are building two Stanleys out there. We are also developing a high end restaurant, about 40 seats. I'm also building a production facility that will allow us to have a consistent mise en place for all of the places. We're also looking at other markets to scale up and either produce for them or set up other facilities.
I also have the opportunity to expand the Stanley model, the casual restaurant we have on Jackson Square.
Where do you want to take it?
All over the world. I'd love to take it to New York. It would kill it. I'd love to put it in Singapore, China, everywhere. But there is a bit of fine tuning to do on the concept before we start that.
But back to the 40-seat restaurant. What's your vision for it?
That's something I need to do. It needs to have the best technology, so we'll have a lab. We'll also have a farm, where we will be raising pigs and chickens. We'll have our own feed for the different animals to have some control over the nutritional value — and flavor — of the products. I think that in the future world of aquaculture and farming and all the things we were talking about at MAD Foodcamp, people will not only want to buy from places with good products, but from people who have an interesting, effective, and unique approach to all aspects of production and growing. Honestly, I think it makes all the sense in the world to have a three-star Michelin restaurant out there. It needs to be very forward-thinking.
From your description, it seems like Copenhagen really rubbed off on you.
Totally. Trips like that are incredible. Without exaggerating, you come back and are a different person. It's almost indescribable, but the energy is such that that's why I seek out those things so often. In these ten years, those experience have helped me and my staff overcome one of the worst disasters in the history of the United States and come out with a restaurant that we work to make the best in the city and another in Jackson Square that's doing 1000 people a day in the middle of the summer. But there's still so much to do.