For well over a decade, New Orleans chef Tory McPhail has helmed the kitchen at legendary dining institution Commander's Palace, a restaurant which has catapulted chefs such as Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse and Jamie Shannon into renown over its more than an century in operation. And McPhail's relationship with the Brennan family, who own and operate the restaurant, goes back even further to when he was 19 years old and Shannon hired him right out of culinary school. Just last year, McPhail added another accolade to the many that Commander's Palace has racked up over the years: a James Beard Award for Best Chef: South.
In the following interview, McPhail talks about what winning the Beard meant to him, as well as why he believes so strongly in the history and the philosophy that has sustained Commander's Palace since 1880. In the wake of the news that the Brennan family is developing a new culinary school and hospitality program for New Orleans, McPhail also shares his thoughts on the importance of a culinary education, whether you're at the Culinary Institute of America or a community college program.
I like to check in with chefs after they've gotten accolades like a James Beard Award to see how that kind of attention has changed things. But Commander's Palace is pretty unique. Do accolades like that still have any real effect on the restaurant?
Yeah, absolutely. I think there's an effect on several different levels. Certainly it's good for business, but I feel like Commander's is really a local restaurant anyway. If there happen to be a few more folks, all the better. Personally, it is very gratifying for me following in the footsteps of such good friends and mentors like Jamie [Shannon] because he hired me when I was 19 years old in the kitchen. [People] never thought I'd be executive chef of Commander's Palace, and I'm sure they never thought I'd be following him with a Beard award. So it's very gratifying to me as well. So great for business and great personally.
You said that it's a locals restaurant. But it must also be a destination restaurant for visitors. What is the split?
Commander's Palace is New Orleans' restaurant, we just happen to hold the keys.
I don't exactly know what the split is. I always feel like there's just so much history and tradition with New Orleanians. We have a saying that Commander's Palace is New Orleans' restaurant, yet we just happen to hold the keys. So I feel like we're stewards of such a rich, storied restaurant. It's a real privilege whether they're locals or tourists. I feel like Commander's, too, is a place where a guy right around the corner can take his wife and they can have three courses for under $30. Or it could be for the traveling businessman who's on an expense account, they really want to blow it out and do some cool stuff. So a little something for everybody in that regard.
At this point, you've been helming the kitchen at Commander's Palace for well over a decade. Do you still feel the pressure to carry on the legacy?
Yeah definitely. When I walk up to the place in the morning, there's such a foreboding, [it's] such a formidable old mansion. It's glowing blue and white and it's old Victorian architecture. In the morning, I'm like, holy cow, I'm really helping to run one of the best restaurants in America? I almost get goosebumps or chills. And you walk in and everybody's like, "Hey good morning, Chef, how are you?" It's like, all right, cool, let's get after it. It's exciting. Of all the jobs I've had throughout my career, nothing ever gets old. Every day is a new challenge that comes with new passions. It's just an exciting thing. I think the Brennans and how they run the restaurant, just the people they are, I don't think that's ever going to change.
[Photo: Commander's Palace]
Is that something you see, too, when you're hiring young cooks? The excitement of being part of such a storied restaurant?
We pride ourselves in getting people that practice followship.
Yes. That's definitely part of it. One of the questions I ask out of the gate is what do you know about our history, what do you know about our restaurant? You understand a little bit more about how passionate people are and why they're there. I want people to really buy in. We have a difference here. We pride ourselves in getting people that really practice followship. That's when people just buy into histories, buy into what we're talking about, buy into how we operate.
It makes everybody's work a little easier. We don't have the typical stresses that some other restaurants that I've worked for have. I'm really the most easygoing and laid-back kind of guy, but [at] the restaurant, [we] really pride ourselves on doing everything right all the time, whether it's being hospitable or doing a really good staff meal or a great chef's table or taking care of grandma on her birthday. Every single part of the day is done to a higher level. So we just don't have the patience dealing with people screaming or yelling or being impatient. All that stuff just gets in the way of us trying to take care of the guest. I've never known a group of people that hires with the same attitude for excellence. Everything's got to go so right on so many levels. It just makes it a lot easier [to hire this way]. Nobody second-guesses, hey, why am I doing this? Of course, you're doing it for a reason.
How do you cultivate that?
We have a rare opportunity [to talk to] every single member of the staff every day twice a day. I'm sure a lot of great businesses would love to have the opportunity to talk to each individual employee and make a game plan for how their shift is going to go. How much different would the Post Office be? How much different would the service of airlines be if the president or the CEO were touching base with every single employee, talking about excellence and hospitality and making sure everybody feels warm? Those people would just die at the opportunity.
But, for us, we just built all that into the culture. We provide a very good family meal an hour and a half before service starts. We have everybody sit down side-by-side for about 20 minutes or half an hour. It's a good bonding time and I make it a point to sit down with new employees that maybe I don't have a relationship yet and just let them know I'm a real person. I feel passion for what it's really all about. An hour before service, we say, "Hey, these are VIPs who are coming in today. We have a private event, this is what's going on with it, these are the expectations, these are the menu changes." So every single employee is on the same page. So there's no surprises. When people know what's coming up, there's no need to freak out about it. This helps keep our stress level down, helps keep the employee engaged. They're happier, which in turn pays off in better guest experience.
Right. And when it comes to big menu changes, how do you introduce that at a restaurant that's been running so smoothly for so long? Is that harder?
I've got such great tenure there. I've worked at Commander's now in that building more than 20 years over three different stands. I've been the chef now for a little more than 12 years. When you develop a relationship with ownership and they trust what you're talking about, they trust your food, they trust your flavor, they basically say, "Look Tory, this is your restaurant. You run it how you see fit." When you do that, it just gives empowerment to myself and, in turn, I pass that down to the sous chefs. We're all very similar in the way we think about food. I don't keep any of the glory for myself. It's very gratifying singling out a younger sous chef and saying let me teach you how to cook Creole food. Getting their ideas in collaboration with mine onto the menu, they take ownership of that dish, they're excited about it. It's a lot easier to introduce new food to the menu all the time.
[Photo: Commander's Palace]
Switching topics a bit, I've read that your culinary school instructors told you that you only had two career options: New York or New Orleans to learn about food roots. Can you tell me why you picked New Orleans and if that's still solid advice?
I think other cities are really coming to the forefront. I graduated culinary school 21 years ago, back in 1993. New York City will be and always has been a top destination for people who really like to dine. There's just such a density of great restaurants there in Manhattan, it's crazy. But these days, there's so many great restaurants in Chicago. San Francisco's always a top destination. LA is coming around. Miami is great, it's very unique.
My instructor said, "If you really want to understand essence of flavor and great food, go to New Orleans."
My chef-instructor said, "You really need to immerse yourself in a culture of excellence just so you understand on so many levels." Same theory of immersing yourself into Spain if you want to study Spanish cuisine, right? You're better to do that in the real deal versus just trying to work in a New Orleans restaurant in Seattle. He said, "New York City is always tops, but if you really want to learn how to cook, if you really want to understand essence of flavor and great food, go to New Orleans because it's America's original and most unique regional food." So I took that advice to heart.
Growing up on a farm in Washington State, I really felt like I knew how to cook. I felt like I knew what Pacific Northwest flavor was: fresh ingredients like salmon and very simple [preparation] like garlic and wine and fresh herbs. That's fine, but take that same idea and apply it to Louisiana oysters. People down here just take that to a whole 'nother level. Really it's just the volume of seasoning, the passion for balance of flavor, you don't get that anywhere else.
You went to Seattle Community College, right?
Yeah that's it.
Can you tell me about community college programs as an alternative to a school like the Culinary Institute of America? Is that still a choice you would make today or advise aspiring cooks to make?
For me, growing up I just didn't have the means to travel out of state and enroll in one of the best culinary schools in America. So what I chose to do is, with the help of my grandparents, they said, "Let's get you into an American Culinary Foundation certified school so at least you have a similar structure in learning." The education should be similar to understand what a braise is whether it's in Washington State or Hyde Park, New York. Now, in New York, you're going to have the best of the best, 20 different examples of the most modern technology. But, still, a braise is a braise. So we said, "Let's go to the best school we possibly can with an ACF certification. Let's study our tails off, get in great with all the instructors, understand the nuance and details of great cooking, try to get a good mentor, and work for the best people you possibly can."
You need to have a game plan of how to execute what you learned in culinary school.
So when it comes to education, culinary school is a good 18 months of your life. You really need to follow that up with people that you trust, then a solid work ethic. You need to have a game plan of how to execute what you learned in school. It doesn't do you any good or you're not going to do that much better if you spend $80,000 on school and then you come home to work in your uncle's catering facility. It's a waste of money doing that. You're better off going to a local vocational school. However, if somebody has the means to go to a big school like Johnson & Wales, then for goodness sake, get out there and travel and make use of that.
[Photo: Commander's Palace]
Do you think it's an advantage to go to schools like that? Or a disadvantage to go to a community college or lesser-known program?
I think it really depends on the student. We're not all created equal. You can liken it to sports, too. You can be a really good basketball player coming out of high school, but if you have the opportunity to match your personal talent with an amazing education or [the] chance to play for Duke basketball with the best players for the best coach, your natural talents are going to soar. However, there's just natural talent you might have in your bones. Regardless of what school you go to, you're going to be a star. I think it really comes down to the kid. I would just say understand the student, understand what their goals are and what level of education might suit them the best. I'm always a bigger fan of going to culinary school regardless of the level. The smarter you can be, the more educated you are, [it] is just so valuable.
Finally, what else is coming up for you this year? Do you have any other big projects in the works?
I think the big thing for us is trying to improve the infrastructure in New Orleans. I want Commander's Palace to be a chef-maker, trying to build the best cooks we possibly can. Just this past week, we took possession of a culinary school. This is called NOCHI, New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute. It's slated to open probably somewhere in late 2015. And this will be coupled with Delgado Community College, which is the closest culinary school to New Orleans, but also coupled up with Loyola and Tulane University. So you have a real opportunity to get a great four-year education and culinary degree at the same time. And it's not just from culinary professionals, but top restaurateurs and top chefs in the United States.
I think the big question is how do we teach Southern hospitality for generations to come?
Since Katrina we have more than 400 brand new restaurant addresses. It's really this huge groundswell of all these young chefs that have a chance to buy their own restaurants and really push New Orleans' culinary scene to the fullest. We just need really good cooks. Everybody in the city is scrambling to teach people how to cook good Creole cuisine, how to become a bartender, and how to wait on tables. I think that'll be the big question is how do we teach what's going on in Southern hospitality for generations to come? Having this culinary and hospitality school will help us ensure that for our future.
How will you personally be involved in it? Will you be teaching or setting the curriculum?
We'll have to see exactly what the structure looks like. I'm just excited to help out in any way I can since I'm really passionate about what I do. And I feel like at this point in my life, I want to try to give back to the community as much as possible. We're heavily involved with any charities we can get our hands on. Just taking a kid from the neighborhood and teaching him skills that he'll have forever. That just changes peoples' lives. That, to me, is better than a paycheck. It's something you can really feel good about.
How big is the program going to be?
I don't know exactly what the enrollment is going to be. I think the current plan is the Delgado campus will move their culinary [program] over to this facility, which is in the ArtWorks building in the heart of the central business district. It's right on the streetcar line. It just makes so much sense on so many different levels. It's such a home run to help New Orleans ramp up our hospitality city-wide. New Orleans these days isn't just about iconic restaurants. There's so many great places out there. We have the Idea Village, which helps us launch so many start-ups. The entrepreneurial spirit is rubbing off on so many levels. New Orleans is going through a renaissance on so many levels. I feel like restaurants and hospitality just happen to be at the leading edge of that.