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Five Questions with Chef Martha Wiggins of Sylvain

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In this month’s One Quarter Rebel, we shared the food and the culinary force behind NOLA’s popular Sylvain restaurant, as well as mentioned that that force, Chef Alex Harrell, had moved on to open his new place. Now we chat with the new Executive Chef Martha Wiggins, Harrell’s longtime sous chef that is now “[wo]manning” the ship that is Sylvain.

Photo by Rush Jagoe
Chef Alex Harrell + Chef Martha Wiggins / Photo by Rush Jagoe

What did you do first as executive chef?
Well, initially I focused on stabilizing the kitchen staff, because when I started, I didn’t have a sous chef under me. As far as the menu, we’ve made a few menu changes, but we are going to do a larger menu revamp in March.

You’ve cooked in high-end kitchens for a while, but this is your first executive chef gig. How does that position feel?
It’s very enjoyable, but was very overwhelming. At first, without a sous chef, everything had to be done by me, running my brain ragged. I realized how much I have learned but really how much I still have to learn. I have always been bossy with a big mouth [chuckle] but this is about being a real leader, and now I feel that the staff has my back 100 percent. It’s still kind of surreal.

What dish or ingredient is one of your favorites?
I really love beans, love to make them and the whole process they entail, from the soaking to the long cooking times, to seasoning.

Black beans are my jam, but I like red beans, pinto beans, and they can feed you for days. And they’re inexpensive. Hamhocks in split pea soup, that is some of the best.

You’re originally from DC, so what do you enjoy about your adopted city of New Orleans?
I love that it’s not pretentious. People are kind of freaks down here [laughs]. People don’t care about most pop culture, don’t care about trends, and we don’t care whether you are a celebrity. We make our own fashion trends. Some people here dress in costume all the time.

What did you have to eat today?
I haven’t eaten today. I usually don’t eat until later because I have too much to do. I won’t eat until tonight but I’ll probably have an egg sandwich.

Mentioned in this post:
Rush Jagoe, Alex Harrell