There it was standing in the background of a charmless parking lot. A deserted 1970s bookstore sandwiched between a Burger King and a Subway, the bleakness of the image only worsened by the fact that the neighborhood, referred to by local New Orleanians as Mid-City, endured a serious beating when Hurricane Katrina flooded the area in 2005; for years, a for-sale sign sat in the window.
Fast forward to winter 2013. While preparing dinner for 200 guests at the esteemed Restaurant August, Chef Michael Gulotta received a life-changing phone call. The caller was a good friend informing Gulotta he had just discovered the perfect location for a restaurant: an abandoned bookstore in Mid-City. In less than a week, the chef was ready to make an offer. It was exactly what he wanted in a restaurant. A hole-in-the-wall from the outside, yet warm and approachable on the inside. A spot where he could set out quality silverware and linens, seat guests around custom-made wooden tables, and create outdoor patio dining. By the end of January 2014, Michael Gulotta had opened the doors of his first restaurant, MoPho, making his life’s dream a reality.
As for the name, rest assured, everyone asks. “My family told me no. Michael, you cannot do it,” explains Gulotta. “We thought about ‘Farm to Pho,’ but the single word ‘MoPho’ rolled off the tongue easily and it could be pronounced in almost any language.” For a restaurant specializing in Southeast Asian cuisine and serving some of the best noodle broth in town, the “Pho” part of the word makes perfect sense. Gulotta can’t disguise his devilish smile as he elaborates. “Tweens love to say the name of my restaurant and people constantly ask me what it means.” Although pho is prominently placed on the menu, the experience is “more than just pho.” Hence, the abbreviated name, MoPho.
Gulotta developed a passion for Asian cuisine while cooking first at Marisol near the French Quarter and then at Emeril’s Delmonico. In describing the food at his own restaurant, Gulotta calls it “service industry food,” which in his opinion should always include Vietnamese dishes. “We always ate Asian after cooking all day,” says Gulotta. “It was the most authentic. We craved something fresh and warming, and Asian food had the bold flavors.” At MoPho, the food combines the hearty piquancy of southwest Louisiana with the fresh vibrancy of southeast Asia. Gulotta points out the parallels between both cuisines.
“Vietnam was a French colony like Louisiana,” he explains. “We both have identical brackish water seafood and similar growing climates. We also share the same love for the whole hog and the art of butchering.”
Every Saturday, the staff members at MoPho serve up roasted hog on the restaurant’s patio. They start on Friday and by the next morning the meat is ready for picking. The skins are fried and grilled with coconut milk, while the hog is served with housemade pickles, fresh roti baked in the restaurant’s kitchen, and dipping sauce. The driving force behind the idea was to create the type of food local cooks would enjoy, but the end result was a cutting-edge cuisine that introduced new flavors to the traditional Louisiana palate. Think oyster po’ boy with cilantro, pickled vegetables, and shrimp paste as opposed to the traditional dressing of lettuce and mayonnaise.
As for Gulotta’s avante-garde approach, the chef has always been a risk-taker. Imagine landing a coveted position under superstar Chef John Besh and just four months in, asking for a leave of absence. That’s exactly what Michael Gulotta did when he was accepted to cooking school in an area of northwestern Italy, a stone’s throw from France. It was the chance of a lifetime and he could not pass it up. Rather than send him packing, Besh gave him his blessings and kept his job open at Restaurant August. While in Italy, Gulotta learned the process of making a variety of pasta, sauces, cheese, and more than anything, charcuterie.
This past winter, Gulotta capitalized on his experience in Liguria and his Sicilian ancestry by opening a pop-up Italian restaurant called Tana, named after his grandmother from Palermo. “It is totally different from MoPho,” says Gulotta. “It’s a gorgeous and super swanky bar. The food is light and all about the pasta, the oils, and fresh herbs.” In other words, it’s not your classic, red-sauced meatball kind of place, but instead a setup providing the chef an opportunity to introduce a variety of Italian cuisine not typical to the area. Dishes include fondue, grilled octopus, and housemade cornmeal with boudin noir ragout. Rather than being a far cry from Asian cooking, there are many ways the flavors overlap and the ingredients so often used at MoPho find their way seamlessly into Gulotta’s Italian dishes.
Whether he’s running the elite kitchen of Restaurant August or his strip mall restaurant in Mid-City, pulling flavors from Vietnam or Italy, or borrowing traditions from Louisiana and France, there’s one constant in this chef’s ever-evolving repertoire; Michael Gulotta can cook like a, well, you know what.
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- by Hannah Lee Leidy