Colleen Quarls began her cooking career making sandwiches at an Ohio outlet of Panera Bread when she was 16 years old. Nearly a dozen years later, having graduated from culinary school in Louisiana and crushed it on the line in upscale New Orleans restaurants, she has full-circled back to spending her days layering ingredients on sliced bread. This time, though, the sandwiches have a certain Americana mad-genius bent to them, and their subversive brilliance is fomenting local and national buzz.
Mason Hereford and Lauren Holton opened Turkey and the Wolf last August on an otherwise calm block between the city’s Lower Garden District and Irish Channel neighborhoods. Hereford runs the kitchen; Quarls is Hereford’s chef de cuisine. In nearly every interview with Hereford he mentions Quarls as indispensible; his favorite phrase to describe her is “bad-ass.” The restaurant’s high-on-life Instagram account has an official hashtag for Quarls: #chefdecolleen. She is Turkey and the Wolf’s kitchen general — a short-order cook (by nature of the restaurant) long on talent, and a chief conspirator in the uniquely quirky menu.
We’re talking constructs like fried bologna on white, blazed with hot mustard and crowned with a handful of potato chips; or a collard-green melt electroshocked with pepper dressing and pickled cherries; or a monster meatloaf sandwich dizzying with gravy mayo, pepper jelly, dill pickles, and molten American cheese. They sound wacky, but their meticulous assembly (the Quarls touch) reveals an uncanny elegance. And the zigzagging flavors come together in remarkable ways.
New Orleans is a town that has long appreciated a bombastic sandwich (overstuffed muffulettas, po' boys brimming with fried seafood or gravy-soaked roast beef), and it’s where Quarls felt destined to thrive. Both her parents are Bayou State natives. Though she was born in Florida and the family drifted to South Carolina and Ohio during her childhood, she headed to Louisiana right after finishing high school. “This place was home to me,” she says. “I always felt misplaced growing up.”
Quarls completed her studies at the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, moving to NOLA when she was 22. She quickly landed a job at Coquette, a modern American restaurant whose menu slyly incorporates the city’s defining cuisines: Creole and Cajun, of course, but also Sicilian and Vietnamese. In three years Quarls worked through the kitchen’s stations to become sous chef. This was where she met Hereford, who was Coquette’s chef de cuisine.
For lunch service specials he would sometimes tinker with dishes that eventually became signatures at Turkey and the Wolf, and Quarls would engineer them flawlessly. She remembers him one day watching her methodically smearing mayonnaise on bread slices, every molecule spread evenly across the surface. “He said, ‘You know I’m going to open a sandwich shop, right?’ recalls Quarls. “And I said, ‘You know I’m really good at making sandwiches, right?’”
She left Coquette, her long-term loyalties already decided. When she would interview at other high-profile restaurants (in what is, after all, a small town), she’d say to managers, “I’m going to work for Mason when his place is ready. I will give it my all but there will be an end date.” She ended up at Cochon, Donald Link’s Cajun powerhouse — “a beautiful, fascinating beast of a restaurant,” says Quarls. Cochon’s insane volume helped prepare her for the pace of Turkey and the Wolf’s instant, astonishing success.
I ask Quarls about her Big Dream, what she’d most like to create for herself. “I have no fucking idea,” she says. “I’m scared shitless to open my own restaurant. Mason has a very clear vision; I’m great at helping him realize it.” Perhaps paradoxically, this is exactly why Quarls is an ideal Eater Young Gun. So many culinary aspirants jump into cooking these days with expectations of stardom. Quarls is at her best perfecting her craft daily and ensuring that the restaurant’s systems meet ever-growing demands. She embodies the true lifeblood of the food industry.
Still, when prodded, she has ideas about the next venture she’d want to run with Hereford. “A dive bar,” she says. “Maybe where we brew our own beer in-house, with pizza and drinking snacks. Not a gastropub, but the place where you come after you’ve been raging but you don’t want to go to some shitty fast food place. We’d take care of you.”