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Donald Link on New Orleans and Homestyle Cooking

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Donald Link is one of the most celebrated chefs in New Orleans. His restaurants Herbsaint and Cochon, which emphasize French and Cajun cooking, respectively, are rooted in simple, satisfying, but deep European country traditions. His focus as a chef is not surprising: you can draw a direct line from the feasts he'd have growing up on both sides of his family to the cooking that ended up earning him a James Beard Award in 2007. In the following interview, Link explains it all and talks about his beloved city.

Let's revisit something you've talked about a bunch: what makes Herbsaint and Cochon.
The principal root of the food is the same, but each restaurant has a different emphasis.

What is the root?
I definitely think that the root is the country style of cooking — French countryside, simple Italian food. The latter elements really resonate with Cajun food. I've been to the countryside of France and Italy, and I think that there are a lot of similarities. You know, you could call a chicken sauce piquant a chicken fricassee in France. The processes are very similar, and what tends to change are the accompanying ingredients.

I've read about your family and how you grew up in strong food culture, but I didn't know you had gone to Europe.
My first trip to France was six years ago, which is fairly recent. My mom's father was from Alabama, so they made Southern food, and the other side did most of the German and Cajun stuff. The family in Alabama had a farm — an acre of land — where they grew corn, eggplant, peppers, and even peanuts. When we'd go to to his house, there'd be huge feasts. What was significant was that it was all local. It's funny to hear all of those terms now, because that was just how we ate back then. My dad and I used to go shrimping, and the only fish we'd eat was the fish we caught. I don't think we've ever bought fish from a store.

So I built Herbsaint on the premise of the southwestern French cooking — the cassoulets, the Italian pasta, the German sausage making. It's honest, simple, country food. I remember when I went to France the first time, I saw my first farmers market in Chablis. It was amazing. I got a little choked up, to be honest. It wasn't a yuppy or trendy thing. I couldn't wait to wake up every morning to go to the market. I'd pick out all the ingredients and cook for the group we were with while on vacation. The food is fresh and people buy what they cook — they get everything from there. It reminded me of how I grew up, because that's your source. Everything is there.

And how do you go from having that strong foundation and appreciation for food to actually opening a restaurant?
I went to California and worked out there for a bit. I got re-introduced to great produce and the idea of letting the ingredients do the work, which pulled me back into the cooking that I love. I remember being in culinary school basically breaking the credit card so I could eat at places like La Folie and Masa's. My first meal at La Folie was $375, I think. I thought I had just committed some horrible sin to pay that much money for dinner. It was great and it was wonderful, but I felt that I had a different niche: something affordable, something I grew up with, which wasn't popular at that time. It's homestyle country cooking, but done in a way that's a bit different.

How so?
One of the things we always try to do with Cajun food at Cochon, for example, is think about how we can keep something alive without making it ridiculously heavy. We try to make the traditional dishes more reflective of the seasons, as well. That's a lot easier now, since there are more markets and farmers than there used to be in New Orleans. After that, you start melding the German, the French, the Cajun, and the Italian.

What are some examples?
You'll take a country ham and mix it with gnocchi, for example, or some dirty rice and put it with duck confit and citrus glaze. You take components of different regions that look, at least to me, that they've always gone together.

Can you explain how you lighten things up? That's something that a lot of Southern chefs like John Currence and Hugh Acheson talk about.
I grew up eating Southern and Cajun food in the purest, simplest form. You could probably count on one hand how many dishes there are. If you break down what Cajun food is — even though I hate the question "What is Cajun food?" because everyone has a different answer. But growing up, it was a few things: crawfish étouffée, smothered pork, smothered chicken, dirty rice, jambalaya, and gumbo. Everything else was basically an adaptation of those basic dishes. It's like the five mother sauces. A crawfish bisque is basically a gumbo, a chicken sauce piquant is basically a chicken fricassee with peppers and tomatoes in it.

If you think about the Southern food I grew up with, it's just a reading of a bunch of clichés: fried cornbread, creamed corn, pigs feet, dumplings, collard greens, black-eyed peas, fried chicken.

Pork belly is a good example: if you smother and stew down a pork belly, it's delicious. I do pork belly like my granny used to do smothered pork shoulder: a brown gravy with onions, simmered and cooked slowly. You could take that concept of the pork belly and say roast it instead of braising it, serve a little bit less, and throw in some mint and cucumbers. There's a big Vietnamese population, and you see those tricks in that cooking. It's a great counterpoint.

But you're not necessarily making healthy food?
That's a very good question. I don't mean to say that I'm cooking low calorie food at all. I'm just saying that it won't make you want to take a nap as much. It's just not as rich or heavy. You eat my granddad's chicken and dumplings with creamed corn and some fried cornbread and you are hitting the couch.

Let's talk about your city.
I lived in San Francisco for six years and have eaten all over New York, but I think New Orleans has something different. The food to me is set apart, but that's not to say it's better, of course.

What sets it apart, in your view?
First off, it has more salt. Where I grew up, everything had three times more salt than anything I've had anywhere else in the world. I wouldn't say that the food is spicier, but I would say that it is more seasoned. I don't really find it spicy at all. I remember the jolting contrast when I first went to visit California: "You guys eat this stuff? It tastes like paper!"

I think the food in New Orleans jumps out. It's bold. I think the shrimp here tastes better and that the products are awesome. There is a serious depth to these traditions, and just enough heat to wake everything up. I'll eat clean, delicious dishes elsewhere, but personally, I find it mild. That's not to say I eat Cajun food every day. I definitely, definitely don't.

How do you think Katrina changed the restaurant industry?
The easy answer is that it made everything local more important.

In what sense?
When you have everything stripped away, I think it puts things in perspective. There's the guy I've bought my shrimp from for ten years. That man would not have gotten back to work if I had not reopened the restaurant. It's one thing to say that if you don't buy from the guy he's going to find business elsewhere. But I was all he had.

It gave everyone a purpose and showed us how we relate to each other. If I need to buy produce, I'm seeing on a very close level how the economy works. I am helping someone in the community make a living.

Has the restaurant scene fully recovered?
It depends on how you look at it. A lot of new — and different kinds — of restaurants have opened up here. We didn't used to have a burger culture, but now we do, for instance. But the thing that I love about New Orleans is that we have a chef-owner culture. It feels like you're going to someone's house to dinner as opposed to just a restaurant.

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701 Saint Charles Avenue New Orleans, LA 70130