Past the deep mahogany-paneled bar, through the opulent dining room lit with crystal chandeliers and into the slightly cramped, sweltering kitchen, Executive Chef Michael Gulotta pan sears a fillet of sheepshead — a local fish often considered trash.
Guests might wonder how such an item would make its way into the elegant Restaurant August, Chef John Besh’s flagship restaurant in New Orleans’ Central Business District. But Gulotta’s job is to keep the menu interesting, embedding some surprises.
The New Orleans native says this particular fish has picked up a bad reputation for good reasons: It’s ugly. Its name is off-putting. And it’s difficult to clean. While studying at the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute, Gulotta remembers his instructors dumping a hundred pounds of sheepshead on a table for students to practice their filleting skills. Years after graduating from Nicholls, he recalled that fish, with its large spine and tough scales.
“There’s tons of sheepshead in the Gulf — because no one wants to clean it,” he says with a laugh. “It’s been called a fisherman’s fish because that’s the catch they’d get to take home at night and cook for their families. I thought, ‘Why not serve it here?’” To diners, the “trashy” dish certainly does not look or taste low class. The sweet, moist fish sits atop corn custard and succotash with a tomato vinaigrette. Gulotta’s culinary creation is, in fact, indicative of what Restaurant August has become known for — an ambitious, sophisticated menu designed around local, fresh ingredients and clean, delicate flavors.
Behind August’s award-winning menus and much-respected fine dining service are two Chef John Folse Culinary graduates: Gulotta (BS ’03) and his executive sous chef, Jacqueline Blanchard (BS ’06). Under their management, August has been named as one of Gayot’s 2012 Top 40 U.S. Restaurants — the only Louisiana restaurant to make the acclaimed list.
“I am constantly in awe of the creativity and passion displayed by Mike and Jackie,” Besh says. “They learned so much at Nicholls, but I am most impressed by their true understanding of and their commitment to local ingredients that inform each dish they create.
Determined to work for the James Beard award-winning Besh, Gulotta applied at Restaurant August three times before he was hired. Of all the renowned restaurants in New Orleans, what kept him going back to August was Besh’s food philosophy.
“I didn’t know you could cook veal cheeks and pork cheeks and oxtail, but I looked at his menu, heard what he was doing and thought, ‘Man, I want to learn to cook like that,’” says the 31-year-old Gulotta. “John was using every part of the animal, doing all this great butchery, working with local farmers. All before any of this became popular.”
After two 12-hour tryout shifts, Gulotta was hired as a grill cook, but there was one slight problem. In six months, he would be leaving for Europe. After visiting Italy with the art department, Gulotta had worked with culinary faculty to arrange a return trip for a five-month independent study. Besh, a proponent of chefs traveling to Europe, encouraged Gulotta but didn’t make any promises about whether his job would be waiting for him upon his return. In those months leading up to his trip, Gulotta set out to make an impression on Besh. “I think I surprised him in some respects,” Gulotta says. “Nicholls really did prepare me. Chef Randy [Cheramie] challenged us to learn as much as we could about food history, which is what really impresses the good chefs.”
By the end of six months, Gulotta had earned Besh’s respect and job security. He traveled to Italy and came back as August’s tournant, or roundsman, working every station in the kitchen. A year later, Besh sent Gulotta to work for his old mentor Chef Karl Joseph Fuchs in the southern black forest of Germany. There, he learned butchery, charcuterie (curing, smoking and preserving meat) and German country cooking techniques. His intention always was to return to New Orleans, but Hurricane Katrina sped up the process. Upon hearing of the city’s condition and his mom’s flooded Lakeview home, Gulotta flew back immediately and helped Besh reopen August.
“I spent my mornings feeding people in St. Bernard Parish and nights cooking at August,” Gulotta recalls. “By that point, John and I were more like brothers than anything else. Soon after the storm, people started asking for foie gras and the good stuff. By Thanksgiving, we were back to a full menu.”
But it was different. August continued to specialize in European-influenced New Orleans cuisine, but a concerted effort was now made to use ingredients from the Gulf, regional farmlands and local dairies.
“When August first started, we were bringing in a lot of European items, fish you can only get from the Mediterranean or northern Atlantic,” says Gulotta, who was made executive chef in 2007. “After the storm, we wanted to reinvest in south Louisiana so much so that we started doing almost entirely local — like the old great French restaurants that only worked with what they had at hand.”
The restaurant’s signature dishes such as the handmade potato gnocchi and breaded trout are still cornerstones of the menu, but Gulotta regularly adjusts the offerings to be seasonal, unexpected and fun. His creations are inventive — house-cured Gulf Coast lamb bacon and grilled tête de cochon (hog’s head) with grilled peaches, for example. But he’s careful to strike a balance between what he likes to cook and what customers like to eat.
“Too often chefs just want to show off what they know and what they can cook,” he says. “I preach to my staff that even if the guest wants something very simple, we’re going to do it to the best of our ability. If a little kid comes in and wants macaroni and cheese, we’re going to make him the best macaroni and cheese. It’s not about what we think is fun; it’s about what the guests like.”
For Gulotta, pleasing the palates of Restaurant August diners is only part of the job. As Besh’s right-hand man, Gulotta takes on prominent roles — presenting tips for home cooks on The Dr. Oz Show, demonstrating cooking techniques at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, organizing a kickoff event for a Bon Appétit Grub Crawl and catering Will Ferrell’s Bacchus party, to name a few.
His job sounds glamorous. The celebrity chef culture and reality TV food shows certainly make it seem so. But the work is intense and grueling.
Gulotta is in charge of every aspect of August, from procuring ingredients to hiring and firing employees to improving the silverware and kitchen equipment. The past few years have been particularly challenging. As Besh opened several more restaurants, Gulotta helped train their sous chefs and lent August’s cooks until the new eateries were on solid footing.
To keep August running smoothly while he’s away, Gulotta turns to his executive sous chef and fellow Nicholls alum, Jacqueline Blanchard. Hired by Besh three years ago, Blanchard, who had externed at August during her sophomore year, was tasked with elevating the restaurant’s lunch service.
Each day her cooks check in around 7 a.m., just as deliveries of fresh fish, produce and meat begin arriving. The morning becomes a blur of adjusting the menu, itemizing and inventorying ingredients, preparing cooking stations and talking with food purveyors, both locally and across the country. Front-of-the-house staff must taste and familiarize themselves with new menu items, the table linens must be neat, the floors must be clean. The extra attention on lunch has made a difference — the restaurant’s $20.12 three-course prix fixe lunch has become a hit.
“It’s a lot going on, all within a few hours,” Blanchard says. “When I first got here, lunch was sort of a shadow of dinner, and we were understaffed. So it’s been really amazing to see what we’ve been able to do in three years — inspiring other local restaurants to elevate their lunch standards to emulate ours.”
Being a management-level chef is a nonstop lifestyle, but Gulotta and Blanchard have been prepping for this since college. In his junior year at Nicholls, Gulotta piled his plate high with responsibilities: president of Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, president of the Junior American Culinary Federation campus chapter and member of the opening crew for Fremin’s Restaurant in downtown Thibodaux. On evenings and weekends throughout his college career, Gulotta worked in various restaurants, including Chef John Folse’s Lafitte’s Landing at Bittersweet Plantation in Donaldsonville. Fraternity members assigned him the nickname “All work and no play make Mike a dull boy.”
Blanchard’s freshman year was no easier. In addition to taking 18 hours a semester, she joined Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority and played on the Nicholls soccer team. After tearing her ACL, she decided to focus all of her energy on culinary. It certainly paid off. Blanchard’s first jobs after graduating from Nicholls were at the French Laundry and then Bouchon — Napa Valley, Calif., restaurants owned by Thomas Keller, largely considered America’s most influential chef.
“At the time, the French Laundry was regarded as the best restaurant in the world, and I was able to get a job not knowing anybody there or having any references,” Blanchard says. “The experience exposed me to a whole other world, and it shaped me fundamentally and professionally.”
Before returning to Restaurant August in 2009, she worked at Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colo., and at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York.
Few female chefs make it up the ranks in the restaurant industry, but the petite, 5-foot-3-inch Blanchard had been toughening herself up and sharpening her culinary chops for years before even entering college. Putting up with her three brothers gave her fortitude, and taking notes while watching cooking TV shows as a child helped prepare her for culinary school.
“As soon as the show was over, I’d be in the kitchen trying to replicate it,” she recalls. “My mom would get so mad because I’d make a mess. When she would punish me, she’d punish me from cooking.”
Blanchard’s and Gulotta’s success at such a young age doesn’t surprise Chef Randy Cheramie the least bit. Cheramie, executive director of the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute, says that only about 5 percent of culinary graduates ever reach a top management position, but that it was a foregone conclusion for these two. He considers Blanchard, Gulotta and Drake Leonards (BS ’08), a sous chef at Besh’s La Provence, as “three of the best representatives of true craftsmen chefs we’ve put out there.” “They were voracious hunters of anything culinary,” Cheramie says. “If I had an event, they were at my elbow. They just weren’t looking for Friday and a paycheck, and they wouldn’t work for someone whose food philosophy didn’t mesh with theirs.”
Today, nearly 90 percent of August’s ingredients are local — including all of the restaurant’s beef, pork, duck, chicken, herbs, butter and berries. And what’s available locally o!en dictates what’s on the menu.
“Literally, we just go and look at the trucks showing up with all the local produce and see what’s in season, what’s at the peak of freshness,” Gulotta says. “We sit down and share a pot of coffee and talk about food. We throw ideas around, cook together, taste them, and sooner or later they’re on the menu.”
Fresh, local and seasonal have become buzzwords in the American culinary scene. But to Gulotta and Blanchard, it’s more than a trend. It’s who they are at their core. Taking over Gulotta’s backyard are various vegetable plants; kumquat, fig, satsuma and peach trees; a muscadine grape vine; and blackberry and blueberry bushes. On a Sunday summer night, he might put some pork steaks on his backyard grill and make a vinaigrette using his own blueberries and blackberries. Or, before going to work, he might cook chicken in red curry using freshly picked sweet kumquats for his wife, Melissa. Gulotta looks forward to cooking for his twin 1-year-old boys and already buys heirloom vegetables to cook and puree for them. He attributes his style to his great-grandmother, an “old Italian lady who grew up on a farm and always cooked with her own vegetables.”
Likewise, as soon as Blanchard has a couple of days off, she’s planning a pig roast or crawfish boil in her backyard. Influenced by her grandmother’s farm-inspired cooking, Blanchard, whom Cheramie describes as a “hippie at heart,” built her career by seeking out chefs and restaurants specializing in similar cuisine. She even worked a stint at Chez Panisse under Chef Alice Waters, who is considered the “mother of American food” and one of the most prominent organic food movement supporters.
“Growing up, I was always tugging at my grandmother’s apron, dying for her to let me chop or peel something,” Blanchard says. “She lived on a farm, so we were always picking pecans from the backyard trees to make pecan pies, wringing the necks of chickens and plucking their feathers, killing a hog and finding uses for all of its parts. Fresh and local are hip and in vogue today, but to me that’s just how it always was.”
It’s that intense need to make people happy through their food — even on their days off — that sets Gulotta and Blanchard apart. It’s what keeps them going through long shifts and demanding schedules. When the stress begins to get to Gulotta, he thinks back to the night when a woman arrived at the restaurant to celebrate a special occasion. August has an open-kitchen policy, so she was invited to peek inside. As she walked through the door, the kitchen staff clapped, as they usually do, but much to their surprise, the woman started crying and walked around to hug each person.
“She said, ‘This meal is to celebrate me being cancer-free. I’m never going to forget this.’ She still comes back each year on the anniversary of that date,” Gulotta says. “That’s one of the stories I bring up when we’ve had a rough week and I pull my cooks together for a powwow. It makes you feel better about serving food to people every day, wondering whether or not they’re just forgetting about it, going home and going to bed — or whether they’re remembering the meal for the rest of their life.”
— Written by Stephanie Detillier, publications coordinator
This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Voilà! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.