New Orleans chef Tory Mcphail preps for his Georgia beach wedding with a Southern seafood boil
The air, already thick with humidity, grows denser still as a nearly opaque seafood-scented plume rises from the long communal table set up in the backyard of the beach rental. From steaming, industrialized pots a seemingly never-ending bounty of shrimp, crawfish, lobster, corn, and potatoes is poured over the newspaper-covered eating surface. A celebratory shout from one of the fellas manning the pots (“Let’s eat!”) is all it takes for the bulk of the eighty or so guests to cram up to the feast. Elbows jostle as fingers quickly become sticky with remnants of peeled shellfish, and the din noticeably dips as mouths fill with the flavors of this traditional Southern seafood boil.
The occasion for this party, while similar to seafood boils happening all over the South in the summer, is actually an impending wedding. This casual outdoor get-together is one of several precursors to the main event, happening on Tybee Island, Georgia, in just a couple of days. While it is true that the celebration is not disparate from others due to both season and geography, this summertime seafood boil is deliciously unique in that it is being thrown by one of the South’s most celebrated chefs, a two-time James Beard Foundation award winner (Rising Star and Best Chef: South), television personality, and the man responsible for such “wow-I-will-remember-this-forever” dishes like tasso and shrimp with pickled okra, hot sauce, and pepper jelly. You’ll find this luminary at New Orleans’ stalwart Commander’s Palace, where he has presided over the kitchen as executive chef since 2002. And now, adding to his illustrious list of accomplishments is the fact that chef Tory McPhail also happens to be the groom.
Prepping the day’s feast with Mcphail are several chef pals—all current and former colleagues at Commander’s. Commander’s cohorts Chris Barbato and Juan Carlos Gonzalez quietly make things happen as the extroverted Tom Robey, a Commander’s chef of twenty-two years and known to all simply as Robey, holds jovial court with seemingly every group of guests at once, while also finding time to assist in food preparations and top off everyone’s glass. Watching the dynamics, you get a sense of being behind the scenes on the line in New Orleans. Meanwhile, two Commander’s Palace alums are dismantling the lobsters flown in from Maine for today’s boil and for the wedding. Tommy Finch, now a sous chef at Broussard’s, and Mike Johnson, who has gone on to become a chocolatier in Pensacola (Cloud 9 Chocolates), personify the fact that this family-owned restaurant fosters bonds that transcend space and time; the group’s easy banter offers obvious evidence of close friendship. Also no longer at the Palace, former beverage director Mike Brewer still brings a royal touch to the boil—as owner of New Orleans po’boy shop The Sammich, he was recently crowned King of Louisiana Seafood. “Tory and these guys, we’re all best friends,” Brewer says. “When we’re thinking about the food we all make, it’s so great to be able to bounce ideas off one another.” Indeed his earning of the seafood crown just may have been due to such collaboration: The Sammich’s wildly popular fried shrimp po’boy was heavily inspired by McPhail’s oh-so-memorable shrimp and tasso dish. As Brewer scrolls through his phone, showing pictures of him sporting the ill-fitting crown (he has a self-described “huge head”) to guests delighted to view the induction, a slight commotion stirs near the impressively stocked tiki bar. Heather Ivey, a dear pal of the couple who works with The Chef’s Garden (an Ohio-based business whose mission is to connect farmed food directly with chefs), has arrived. Rolling in with Ivey is the keg of Fullsteam’s Summer Basil Beer she has secured for the occasion, a rare commodity as the Durham-based brewery can barely keep their best-selling seasonal brew on the shelves. Knowing that the couple loves it, she made a side-of-the-highway transaction with Fullsteam’s owner, Sean Lilly Wilson, and the group that immediately gathers for a taste is illustrative of how much this thirsty crowd approves of her efforts. The other hard-to-secure beverage on-hand is Blackberry Farm’s Saison, which is being appreciatively sipped by the many beer connoisseurs in attendance, while the less choosy are kept plenty wet with the plethora of more typical beers spilling from coolers, “Tory’s Berry Boozey Boat” (a cocktail served from hollowed-out watermelons), and lemonade for the rare teetotalers. This is a New Orleans crew after all, a place where happy hours have been known to start at eight…in the morning. Of course wine and Champagne flow as well, varietals of significantly higher caliber than normally expected at such a casual affair. Not all that surprising in this case, however, given that the bride is a fine wines sales rep.
Speaking of the lady of the hour, Britt Nelson darts inside and out, a casually welcoming hostess—hugging guests, holding the hand of her best friend’s ten-year-old daughter, and giving everyone the lowdown on the wall of pictures featuring the betrothed in such varied get-ups that their life is seemingly one continuous Halloween party. She starts by pointing to the two of them submerged in scuba gear: “This was in Australia, right after I said yes. This was Halloween, this was Mardi Gras.” She hesitates for effect at the image of them wearing what can only be described as metallic silver space suits. “Don’t ask. And this was Hogs for the Cause.” She pauses at the image of herself, Tory, and a group of others dressed in prison jumpsuits, unlikely garb for BBQ enthusiasts competing in a fundraiser. But explanation comes: “Our BBQ team is called Silence of the Hams.” She snorts with laughter at an image of her fake smooching a larger-than-life Tory transposed onto what looks like a street sign. “I pass this on my way to work every day, and it is just funny and weird. This one was pre-Katrina. I like that one.” She stops again, the image of them dressed in formal wear and happily embracing causes her to become suddenly wistful. They have been together for over ten years now, not a small feat given the rigorous schedule maintained by any chef, and particularly that required by today’s perpetually in-demand celebrity chefs. But on that note, Britt is matter-of-fact: “He’s on chef time, and that is not for everyone. At night, he says he’ll be home by nine, and then it’s midnight and…nope. You just have to be ready for it. I love it.” And with that, she flashes a glowing bride-to-be smile and bounds outside where her groom is waiting, elbow deep in seafood, rosy-cheeked from sun, cooking, and alcohol, and visibly happy to be just where he is: on a beach in the South, surrounded by dear friends and family, eating great food, and kissing his bride to be. It seems this party cannot be billed as a typical Southern seafood boil after all.
Bring the Boil Home!
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