TWO CHEFS CHALLENGE SOUTHERN CULINARY NORMS
Imagine the pleasure of inviting two free-spirited Southern chefs to play a game designed exclusively by this magazine. Not a network television cook-off but rather an artistic exhibition. The rules are simple. Each chef is asked to cook four dishes using two of his own chosen ingredients and two ingredients selected by the other chef. The end game: to create eight visual and culinary masterpieces.
Finding the two participants was a piece of cake since no two chefs at the moment embrace the artistry of food better than Steven Greene of Herons and Ãn in Cary, North Carolina, and Phillip Lopez of Root and Square Root in New Orleans. To say that these two mavericks are on fire right now would be an understatement. In essence, they are revolutionizing traditional Southern food as we know it. At the same time, they are challenging our established tastes with modern interpretations.
I remember my first art history class, spending an eternity discussing Picasso’s transformative Cubist painting Demoiselles d’Avignon. The piece confronted the very early twentieth-century European art world in much the same way that Lopez and Greene are now doing with the Southern palate. The two inventive chefs have broken new ground, something good ol’ boys down here don’t take lightly.
Meeting with both chefs on their own turf offered a glimpse into their two personalities: Lopez, impetuous and whimsical. Greene, controlled and soothing.
Their respective restaurant surroundings reflect their diverse temperaments. For example, take Lopez’s latest incarnation, Square Root. You enter a sleek room large enough to accommodate an extended food bar where patrons sit to watch food prepared before their eyes. Located inside a century-old warehouse on trendy Magazine Street, the interior space evokes a contemporary rustic feel with old cypress panels accented by diverse treatments from pickling to “charring,” an ancient Japanese technique used to retard fire.
In contrast, Herons, located inside The Umstead, North Carolina’s only five-star hotel, embraces modern formality. Crisp Frette linens, contemporary art, and plush carpet enhance the architectural splendor of the honey-hued restaurant. Guests are treated to a festival of color as the ambient dining room lighting bounces off fine crystal and local pottery.
Despite the aesthetic differences of their “galleries,” both Greene and Lopez share the aim of providing their customers with a visual as well as a culinary feast. “If the first plate of food does not look good, your first thought is that it won’t taste good,” Lopez tells me. “The biggest misconception of modern cuisine is that it’s scientific. We’re here to cook from the heart, and guests are meant to interact, have fun, and take pictures.”Experiencing Lopez and Greene in action is like boarding a state-of-the-art thrill ride. The minute you take your seat, you know you are in for something mind-blowing. For the game at hand, both cooks are presented with four main ingredients: white asparagus, lamb, English peas, and duck hearts.
Chef Steven Greene begins the edible journey with a white asparagus soup containing an exquisite combination of caviar, almonds, lemon, and (hold onto your safety bar) white chocolate. The mélange of flavors is indeed a tour de force. The Border Springs lamb is a bow to early summer in the South with its covering of honey-magnolia lacquer while the duck heart torchon integrates a taste of Asia into the mix with cherry umeboshi and Sakura blossom tea. Greene takes a simple pea into the stratosphere by floating dumplings over a spring pea broth infused with rhubarb, green almond, elderflower, and mint.
Back in New Orleans, Lopez rocks the palate by pouring his Louisiana smoked caviar and warm white asparagus vichyssoise over crispy artichokes and truffle-pickled peaches. His English peas are transformed, as if by magic, into a coriander mousse using acidulated lime yogurt, apple sorbet, tarragon meringue, and nasturtium. Lopez then creates a “ciabatta bruciata” with the duck hearts, further enhancing them with panisse purée, pepper jelly vinaigrette, blood orange, and grilled rapini. And, just when you think you cannot take any more, out comes herb-encrusted lamb loin and charred chicory accompanied by orgeat barley black pudding, smoked blueberry bordelaise, hay ash, and a toasted oat croquant. Whew! Not exactly your everyday meat-and-potatoes dinner.
I must reflect on the sad fact that these two men have yet to try each other’s creations. Not only do they have a lot in common, but think of the concoctions they could create together. Both started in the culinary world as teenagers washing dishes and then working every prep station, literally learning the business from the bottom up. They tell similar stories of tough love from tyrannical chefs. “I’ve never seen knife skills like those of Chef Pascal,” says Greene of Pascal Hurtebize, under whom he worked at Pascal’s Cafe and Grill in Greenwood, South Carolina. “The sauce work was amazing. He taught me to transform a boring portabello mushroom by caramelizing the top and creating a pan sauce with Madeira, shallots, and cream. Simple but delicious.” Greene worked at McCrady’s in Charleston for two years before opening his own place in Greenville, South Carolina, called Deveraux’s (his middle name). After staging with Thomas Keller and Joël Robuchon, he received a call from the Umstead Hotel to work a two-week stint. And he never left.
Lopez spent his rebellious teenage years at Coastal Grill in Virginia Beach working for an ex-military drill sergeant named Jerry Bryan. “He wore a stopwatch and would kick you if you were not fast enough,” Lopez informs me, much to my horror. “You’re twenty hours a day inside a hot kitchen answering, ‘Yes, Chef, No, Chef,’ and it’s a tight bond, sometimes more powerful than a marriage,” Lopez explains.
Believing there was more to food than just “beach cuisine,” Lopez moved to New Orleans to live with his brother Johnny and find a job with the best chef in the city. When Johnny advised him to work with John Besh, he remembers asking, “Who’s he?” At the time, the famous name was barely recognizable. Just months after finding his dream job at Besh’s tony Restaurant August, Hurricane Katrina scuttled him to Washington, DC, where he landed a job with DC’s most famous chef at the time, Michel Richard of Citronelle. The stay was short-lived because in his heart Lopez knew he belonged back in New Orleans. Hurricane repair efforts were under way, and he wanted to be a part of it. He spent over a year assisting Besh as he provided food to relief workers and opened up new restaurants until Lopez decided the time was right to start his own place.
I could not resist asking these two gastronomic geniuses about memorable meals outside of their own establishments. Both have globetrotted to some of the finest restaurants in the world. For his thirtieth birthday, Greene traveled to Chicago to meet superstar Chef Grant Achatz. “The thirty-seven-course meal at Alinea exceeded my expectations,” says Greene. “It’s been my best dining experience to date.”
As for Phillip Lopez, one of the finest meals of his life took place at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain. As Lopez remarks, “The restaurant began as a small mom-and-pop cantina until the owners’ children decided to take what their parents started and make it amazing. Now they are considered at the top of the restaurant lists.”
Speaking of top of the lists, these two modern masters deserve the glowing accolades they’re receiving today. Expecting celebrity-style arrogance, I was blown away by their humility and how both credit their teams for their success.
“As a chef with his own restaurant you’re priest, husband, contractor, and therapist. It’s how you work with your team that makes you who you are,” explains Lopez.
With a fearless drive to revitalize Southern tradition along with rampant creativity, it feels like these two chefs, whether they like it or not, are on the fast track to stardom. Passengers, hold on tight because this thrill ride is just getting started. And as for the winner of this magazine game, I think that is obvious: me.