Wednesday, December 7, 2011

An interview with DONALD LINK, latest ragin' Cajun to bring local and sustainable to town

James Beard Award-winning Chef Donald Link was inspired by his grandfather to start cooking at a very young age. His path led through San Francisco kitchens and a stint as sous chef for Susan Spicer’s Bayona to establishing a group of innovative, acclaimed restaurants in downtown New Orleans including Herbsaint, Cochon, Calcasieu and Cochon Butcher. Cochon had been a lifelong dream for Chef Link, who seeks to keep true to his roots in the Cajun prairie west of Lafayette. Cochon features the foods and cooking techniques he grew up preparing and eating. Link has won many awards including Gourmet’s “America’s Top 50 Restaurants” and two from the James Beard FoundationBest Chef: South and Best New Restaurant (for Cochon). He opened a second Cochon in Lafayette in September. His cookbook is the real thing: Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link's Louisiana.

Q: The Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford MS gives a Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award to people who, like Memphis pitmaster JC Hardaway, have spent a lifetime pursuing their culinary specialty. You’re a bit young for that yet but that seems to be the spirit behind your work: keeping the flame burning. Tell us about your roots in Cajun country and some of the traditions you are keeping alive in your restaurants.

A: My dad’s family emigrated from Germany in 1881 bringing their sausage traditions with them. To this day they still hold communal sausage making days where several members of the community come together to make large batches of smoked sausage to split amongst themselves. They were also very instrumental in developing the rice business that Louisiana has today. My mom’s family was from southern Alabama. I had the privilege of growing up with my Grandparents’ cooking as they lived a half mile from each other. So I grew up with Cajun food from Granny and Southern food from Granddad. I watched how they grew their own food, hunted, and fished, and turn all that into amazing family meals. What most people talk about today as sustainable, local and all the other catch phrases being thrown around, is simply how I ate growing up. It was the only way. Those traditions of southern and Cajun home-cooked meals made with real local food is what we do at our restaurants now, it has always stayed with me that this style of cooking is real.

Q: Herbsaint is a Creole restaurant and Cochon a Cajun restaurant. Can you explain the difference for us? And, btw, for the non-locals, can you explain those names, Herbsaint and Cochon? 

A: I like to think of Herbsaint as a Louisiana restaurant with country French and Italian roots, or a country French style with Louisiana roots, either way. Herbsaint is named after the liquor Herbsaint which, before the turn of the century, was Absinthe. We chose this name for the era of New Orleans that it represents, a place where all walks of life came for the excitement of what New Orleans was. Cochon is more rooted in deep southern and Cajun traditions but not straight versions of them. Cochon (French for pig) uses old world techniques like whole hog butchery, smokers, wood burning oven, and of course all using local products.

Q: You're just opened a Cajun restaurant in Lafayette. Coals to Newcastle? Are there major differences between Lafayette cuisine and Lake Charles (the city between Lafayette and Houston)? And since everyone prefers the way their momma or grandmomma, dad or granddad, parrain (godfather) or marraine (godmother) made gumbo or sauce piquante, how do you plan to overcome that built-in resistance?

A: Lake Charles leans a little more toward Texas style when it comes to cooking, but still has plenty Cajun dishes: boudin, crawfish and gumbo. Lafayette is considered the heart of Cajun country. I think the best way to overcome any resistance is to create dishes their mom didn’t make. I by no means think I can compete with someone’s grandmother. No matter how good I make something, someone is going to have their way of doing it that they like. We are serving a smoked boudin that I think is phenomenal. I personally like the idea that there are so many different versions of boudin and gumbo. It would get boring real quick if they were all the same.

Q: Tell us about the new restaurant. Pretty setting, I hear.

A: The new place is in River Ranch area of Lafayette on the bank of the Vermillion River. We have lots of outdoor deck seating overlooking the river, and a terrace lined with salad greens and citrus trees. Inside we have high ceilings and lots of windows. And a very large bar. 

Q: You seem to be having a lot of fun on your internet project, Taste of Place, which takes you all over the country to hang out with pig farmers, fishermen, foragers and chefs. Something tells me this project, with all the other stuff you’ve got going on, helps keep you fresh and sane. For you, what’s the best part of doing Taste of Place

A: The best thing about doing the show is the people I get to meet. I’ve learned more about food in the last year than in the last 10. I’ve been able to incorporate a lot of what I have learned into our menus and what we have our farmers here grow. I’ve even gone so far as to start my own hog breeding. We have seeded 4 farms with Mangalitsa-Berkshire crosses and plan by early to mid next year to have a permanent supply of hogs for all the restaurants. All pork we sell will come from our hogs. On Taste of Place I’ve been able to eat the best of the best, from salmon in Seattle, to black sow hogs in Virginia, to fresh American Red snappers off the coast of Florida.

Q: Winner of the 2011 James Beard Foundations "Best Chef South," Stephen Stryjewski is the Chef and co-owner at Cochon. How did you meet? When did you realize, and how did he prove to you, that a New Jersey boy could carry on the South Louisiana traditions so important to you? 

A: Stephen brings to southern food what a southerner can’t, which is a new perspective. He really understands the soul of southern and Cajun without making replicas. Steve started out as a grill cook at Herbsaint, then on to sous chef. I knew right away that Steve had a special talent, so we started to look for locations to go into a restaurant together and eventually opened Cochon.

Q: You’ve been a big supporter of the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans at the Samuel J. Green school. Tell us about your involvement and experience there.

A: The best thing about the project is it teaches kids where their food comes from, something I think is lost for most children. I had the benefit of parents and grandparents who had gardens and I ate very well growing up. Most kids only know what they see in the grocery store. We all know that nutrition in this county has gone down significantly. Getting our next generation to be aware of what real food is and how to respect that will increase the well-being of everyone. Food is a powerful thing. Good food makes people happy, it’s one of the only common threads that everyone in the world shares.