Staying the Course

Megan Bickford (BS ’08) says the only mistake her parents made was telling her she could be whatever she wanted.

“So, I became a chef,” she says with a laugh. “They could have told (my brother and I) to be doctors or lawyers, but they didn’t.”

Whether or not her parents made a mistake is up for debate. In January 2021, their daughter became the first female executive chef in the 126 year history of Commander’s Palace.

Speaking from the chef’s table in the kitchen of Commander’s, Chef Bickford says she has idolized this New Orleans institution since the first time she ate there. Even now, she says, she still gets tingles when she sees the building buzzing.

“I get so excited walking into this building,” Chef Bickford says. “Walking up the sidewalk in the morning, and the smell of bread pudding just gets my juices flowing. As soon as you walk in the door, the excitement just hits you. “Everybody is here and they’re all running around, but they all so synced. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. It’s such a great way to start the day.”

Chef Bickford has worked in the Commander’s Family of Restaurants since she left Nicholls, thanks to culinary department head Chef John Kozar slipping her resume to Commander’s co-owner Ti Martin.

“I got this call out of nowhere and that was really exciting, and humbling to know that my chef instructor thought so much of me to do that,” she says. “Never in my mind did I think I would be offered the job; I just did the interview for practice. But they offered me and I’m still here.”

In that time, she has risen up the ranks from sous chef to executive chef at Cafe Adelaide to her current position. Along the way, she says she picked up a lot of mentors. Her parents instilled in her a strong work ethic. Ella Brennan impressed on her the value of hospitality. Martin showed her how important it is for someone to have your back. And Chef Tory McPhail taught her to believe in herself.

“Chef Tory was a fantastic mentor to me. He was just constantly pushing me, and when I didn’t believe in myself, he pushed me anyway. He forced me to be the best I could possibly be,” she says. “I’m thankful for him, because without him I don’t know that I would be here today.”

“I get so excited walking into this building. The smell of bread pudding just gets my juices flowing. As soon as you walk in the door, the excitement just hits you.” – Chef Meg Bickford

And she could not have imagined starting her journey anywhere other than the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute. It was there, she says, that Chef Don Kasten taught her to appreciate the front of the house, Chef Kozar boosted her confidence and Chef Randy Cheramie instilled in her professionalism and a realistic outlook on life as a chef.

Chef Kozar says her talent was evident even
as a student.

“Chef Meg has always pushed herself to be better,” Chef Kozar says. “She had no particular passion for doing pastries, yet took several advanced pastry courses and stands out as having produced some of the best products during my years of teaching. I am very proud that a CJFCI alum has earned her way to such a prestigious position. The sky’s the limit for her.”

In reaching this peak, Chef Bickford has also reached the status of local celebrity, something she admits has taken some time to adjust to. The four chefs before her are South Louisiana culinary icons and media personalities, Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme, and James Beard Award Winners Jamie Shannon and McPhail. Asked what separates her from others, and Chef Bickford says she does not want to know.

“What matters is that I have an amazing team here,” she says. “We have a very collaborative workspace that fosters great ideas. We take input from a lot of people, which creates a lot of investment and that just makes for this magical machine that really works very well.

“I may not know what separates me, but what I do know is that I’m not alone, and I am very proud of that.”

And Chef Bickford is all about people. For example, her comfort food is boiled crawfish and it’s less about the crawfish and more about the ceremony.

“To me, it’s the whole ordeal of it. You rarely sit down to eat them. Everybody is standing around, filthy with crawfish fat fingerprints on their beer koozie, and they’re just having a great time talking and being around each other,” she says. “It’s the food that made that happen. That’s what I want. I want anything that crowds a bunch of people around the table and shares that energy and that fantastic feeling.”

Being the first woman executive chef at such a historic New Orleans landmark is groundbreaking, and such an accomplishment does not go unnoticed by Chef Bickford.

“There have been an amazing group of women before me in New Orleans who are incredible,” she says. “This restaurant alone has been heavily influenced by women such as Ella Brennan, Dottie Brennan and now Ti (Martin) and Lally (Brennan). Those women have always been at the forefront of Creole cuisine, and to be a member of that group is incredibly powerful.”

Chef Cheramie was “over the moon” when he heard about her position. Asked what he says is her future, and he says that is up to her.

“She just ascended to one of the top executive chef positions in one of the country’s best restaurants. I think she can do whatever she wants.”

And while she may not be comfortable
saying so, it is clear that what separates Chef Bickford will be her hard work, and her love of people. – Jacob Batte