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Chef Ryan Prewitt on the James Beard Awards and Pêche's First Year in NOLA

All Photos: Josh Brasted

It's been a pretty crazy Spring for Pêche chef Ryan Prewitt. Two weeks ago, Pêche — the newest member of Donald Link's restaurant empire — became the first New Orleans restaurant to ever win the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. On the same night, Prewitt tied with fellow New Orleans chef Sue Zemanick for the title of Best Chef: South. Two days later, Pêche had gotten more than 450 reservation requests and had to bring on additional staff in order to deal with the influx of attention.

In the following interview, Prewitt talks about how winning two James Beard Awards in one night has affected Pêche — and who from your past comes out of the woodwork after you win a James Beard Award. Having just celebrated Pêche's one-year anniversary in April, Prewitt also looks back on the year and explains how the frenzy over the restaurant's whole fish offerings "allowed us to become the restaurant that we really wanted to be."

Congratulations on your big wins. How are you doing?
I don't know that it's fully sunk in. The whole thing was just completely surreal. None of us really expected that to happen. I don't think we even mentioned that it was a possibility before we went up there. So to win both of those awards was just incredible.

And that was the first time a New Orleans restaurant had won the Best New Restaurant award at all. What does that mean to you, to represent the city that way?
Well, first and foremost, it's a great honor for the city of New Orleans. It points to what's happening in the world of dining down in New Orleans, and I think it helps us continue to work toward being on the national stage. I think it's very humbling with all the incredible restaurants that are in this town that we got chosen to be the representative of the city in this way. But any time any restaurant in New Orleans wins a major award like this, it's great for the whole dining community. It brings more people to the city to eat and helps all the restaurants that are here in town more actively participate in the national dining scene.

What kind of response have you had from friends and diners back home?

I think I was a little naive about the reach of the Beard Awards.

I have to say that I think I was a little naive about the reach of the Beard Awards. I have always followed them, and, of course, my industry friends follow them. But what I wasn't prepared for was my high school principal, the president of the college that I went to, all of my ex-girlfriends contacting me. People I went to high school with that I haven't talked to in 40 years wrote me letters. People that were my parents' age, my parents' friends contacted me. Just people that I wouldn't think followed an industry award like this. But I'm pleasantly surprised because it's great to hear from all of them. It's shocking to hear from all them at once.

I bet. Out of curiosity, what did you hear from your ex-girlfriends?
Oh, you know, I've been married for a long time, but just sort of, "Hi, congratulations, glad to hear you're doing well."

So very normal.
Yeah. [Laughs] Nothing too scandalous. Unfortunately, I suppose. It would've been nice if I'd gotten one really scandalous one.


I heard that it's been a little bit crazy there since you got back. Have you guys just been deluged for reservations?
Man, absolutely. The award came out on a Monday. Tuesday was kind of a fairly normal day, but ever since then it's just been crazy. We had to hire two additional people just to handle the phones. And whereas we already had someone handling the phones during service hours Thursday through Saturday, now we've had to bring someone in every day during the week just to confirm reservations and talk with people.

Within the first two days afterwards, we had over 450 reservation requests.

The sort of interesting stat is on a typical day prior to the award, we would get maybe a couple dozen email reservations. Within the first two days afterwards, we had over 450 reservation requests come in. Of course, we can't honor all of them. And they're for an extended period of time; it wasn't like everyone was trying to come in the next day. But, still, it points to a dramatic increase in volume. I think a lot of what's happening right now is a lot of people in the New Orleans area that maybe haven't made it over here yet are coming by.

Are you getting more people from outside the area, too?
Yes, it's definitely happening to a greater degree, but to some degree that exists all the time in New Orleans. We have such a vibrant tourist economy that a lot of people are coming from out of town regardless. I think definitely a lot more of them are making reservations at Pêche, though, which is fantastic.

How long would I have to wait for a reservation if I asked for one right now?
I don't know, let me turn around and ask the gentleman taking reservations. Kyle, if I wanted an 8 o'clock reservation, what would be the next available time for Pêche? He's consulting the system. He's looking at me like, "You've got to be kidding." Kyle says it doesn't look good. The people who take reservations have just been getting hammered with phone calls. Everyone wants 7:30 or 8:00. Kyle says you have to wait about a week. But that's 8 o'clock. We have some wonderful reservations at 4:30 or 10:00. That's the spiel I've heard come out of Kyle's mouth dozens of times. [Laughs]

Another thing worth mentioning is a lot of people are coming in during those times, which are really hard spots for restaurants to fill. 4:30 is clearly very early and 10:30 is quite late. But, again, being part of a city with so many tourists, I think that we benefit from time zone differences. And then, of course, the award has brought some more people in. And people are just more willing to come in and have a few things to eat and drink in the afternoon, whereas previously they probably would have just waited until the dinner hour and not swung by.

The flip side of it is the restaurant is fairly large. We have 160 seats and we reserve almost 30 of them for walk-ins only. So there are a lot of people who do just walk into the restaurant. Like every restaurant, we have tables that have to cancel and move around.


You just celebrated your first anniversary. I know Pêche was highly anticipated even before you opened. How were things on your opening day?
Like most opening days, it was both exciting and terrifying. You spend months planning, and we did a couple of dry runs, that went fairly well. And you get the kitchen set up and all the cooks are at their stations and then the doors open and the first few people start to trickle in. And then 100 things that you forgot to plan out immediately come to the forefront. So you spend the first few days just sort of scrambling to fix all the details that you haven't gotten to and get the kinks out of the computer system. Make sure that you want this dish to go onto this plate and that sort of thing.

I think it takes a few weeks until you finally hit your stride.

After we got through that point, we had the benefit of having a reputation from the restaurant group that we're a part of. My partners Donald [Link], Stephen [Stryjewski], and I have all worked together for many years. And so we certainly were able to build off of the reputation that we'd had previously. You start with a concept and then a menu, and a period of time goes by and you start to adapt. I think it takes a few weeks until you finally hit your stride and really figure out exactly what it is you're going to be doing. What we were selling and the way that people were ordering was a little different than what we had planned on before we opened. Once we saw what was happening, we just adapted to it.

What was that?
Well, specifically, we didn't really expect the whole fish to take off in the way that it did. Once that started happening, we started purchasing more and different kinds of whole fish and using that as a standard-bearer for the restaurant. As that was going well, we immediately started buying all of our larger format fish whole, so like all the tunas and wahoos and swordfish and things like that.

We realized really quickly that we were able to both offer a better product by doing that, which may go without saying, but we were also able to offer different cuts of fish. So we could serve the bellies and the collars and the heads and things that you typically kind of have to work to get. We're able to fabricate all this in the restaurant and create a whole new category of dishes to serve. This all happened within a very short period of time, and it really set the stage for what we've been doing for the last 13 months or so.

You said you were able to build off the reputation you had with the existing restaurant group, but was it also a pressure to come out of the gate perfect?
Yes, no doubt about it. The feedback loop is so short now that you feel like you have to open the doors fully formed or risk no one ever coming back. While there may be some truth to that, it's not entirely true. I think a lot of people who want to come and check it out are willing to accept that there's going to be some kinks to work out. But being part of a well-known restaurant group and being sort of the next big restaurant in that group did set the standard very high. We spent a lot of time working to make sure we were able to meet those expectations as best we could right off the bat.


I think, for the most part, we succeeded fairly well. Everything worked about as well as I could have hoped, which is not to say that it was perfect by any stretch. I mean, restaurants are complicated. There's a lot of moving pieces in a 160-seat restaurant. The staff is large, there's a lot of people to train. Even talented servers in other restaurants are going to be coming into a new group with different standards and different expectations. It takes a little time on the floor and in the kitchen to really get it going.

And then you changed, too, listening to what your customers were doing.

We were worried people weren't really going to be interested in eating whole fish.

Yeah we did, we adapted a little bit. For the better. I'm so glad that it worked out that way. It's allowed us to become the restaurant that we really wanted to be. But we were all really concerned that it just wasn't going to happen, that people weren't really going to be interested in eating whole fish. [We worried] everyone's going to send it back and want the filets cut off, and no one's going to want to eat off the bone, and everyone's going to want the heads cut off because they don't want the fish looking at them. We went through these sort of scenarios. There was a little bit of that, but really, I was really pleasantly surprised that there was very little push-back.

And, finally, now that you've got a year behind you, what are you hoping to achieve in your second year? You've already got all the awards.
What I really hope for the second year is that we can develop what we're doing now even further. My goal for the second year is to continue to work on sourcing. I want to continue to develop our oyster program. I want to have a larger selection of Gulf oysters that represent a number of different regions in the Gulf. We've had good success in the first year of working with really small oyster farmers and serving their product that we can tie back to an individual or a small group of individuals. I'd like to continue to develop that in year two.

We've had some good success working with independent fishermen, and I really want that to continue to a greater degree in the second year. There's so much going on in the Gulf of Mexico. There's so much fish and aquatic life that is not really being utilized right now. There are tons of stone crabs for example, but it's very hard to get stone crabs in the restaurant. There are lobsters crawling around out there that no one is bringing in because it's just not part of the traditional systems that are in place.

My real goal for the restaurant for next year is to really expand the breadth of Gulf seafood products we're able to offer. New and interesting things coming into the kitchen and the restaurant keeps restaurants interesting, both for the people that are working in them and the people that are dining in them. So I hope that I can start bringing in better and different stuff, and that we can continue to develop a reputation as being a place where people can come and get good quality Gulf seafood.

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