Louisiana boy Donald Link has become one of the stalwarts of the New Orleans dining scene over the last ten years, between his restaurants Herbsaint, Cochon and Cochon Butcher. The three restaurants?to which he's also added a private event space called Calcasieu and another Cochon location in Lafayette?have earned the chef high praise and a number of awards, including the 2007 James Beard Award for Best Chef: South. This year, he's been nominated for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef, "the big one," as he put it.
In no small part because of his authentically Cajun Cochon restaurants, Link is one of the most prominent proponents and practitioners of Cajun cooking. Here now, in a phone interview edited for length and for clarity, is the chef and restaurateur on James Beard, the New Orleans dining scene and Cajun culture and cuisine.
Congratulations on the nomination for Outstanding Chef. Must be an honor.
Yeah, definitely. It was not expected, that's for sure.
How do you mean? Does it feel any different from your previous nominations?
Sure. It's the big one, so it feels different. It's very strange. Obviously the others?Best Chef: South, the cookbook?were an honor but this one is different.
What's it like being named in the same breath as chefs like David Chang and the others?
It's very interesting because I know them. Paul Kahan [of Blackbird in Chicago] is one of my favorite chefs around. I don't know Daniel [Humm] but Eleven Madison Park is a really well-regarded restaurant. It's very thrilling to be listed with these chefs.
What are your thoughts on the role of awards like these in the profession?
Trust me, I never set out to win any awards. I was just working and to be recognized for your work is great. And it's great to have an organization that promotes American food and American cooking, and that's what the James Beard Foundation does. People have different opinions on what [the awards] are, but one thing is, they seem to stay?what's the best way to put this??they seem to stay current. It's interesting, if you look at the nominations this year. They have some very fine dining people and then chefs like myself or Nancy [Silverton] with more casual, neighborhood-y places. Obviously I was nominated for Herbsaint, but I'm sure that it was affected by Cochon and Butcher. I think they've done a good job of following that trend.
How would you say the New Orleans dining scene has changed since you opened Herbsaint?
Oh, it's definitely grown. It's always been occupied by a few, but now it's so many. The great thing about New Orleans is that so many restaurants are run by owner-chefs, like Lilette, La Petite Grocery, Bayona, Company Burger. If you look at a lot of other cities, even great eating cities, you don't see that as often [as in New Orleans]. It's great, and gives New Orleans a great character. It's not corporations behind the restaurants, it's actual people.
Are there any folks out there that you could peg as the next generation of owner-chefs keeping that going in New Orleans? Sort of the next generation of Donald Links?
Well I hope I have a couple more years in me!
Of course, of course. I don't mean like taking over for you, but the people who might step up and help the dining scene continue to grow here.
Well, hopefully it'll be people I work with. Steve [Stryjewski] has done a great job here as a partner in Cochon and Butcher. Ryan Prewitt is another one, we're looking for something for him. And in our restaurants we have great staffs, great managers, great chefs. They have so much talent and I hope that they all stay in New Orleans and continue to be a part of it here.
Okay, so totally arbitrary, borderline-ridiculous hypothetical: You have one last meal, and you have to eat it in one of your restaurants. Where are you eating?
Oh man, that's not fair. That's like asking me who my favorite kid is. That's the great thing about here, it all depends on your mood that night. I love going to Butcher, having a glass of wine, getting small plates. If people are in from out of town or just want some really good Southern or Cajun food, go to Cochon. For more fine dining, there's Herbsaint. There's nothing I like more than sitting outside in the afternoon in front of Herbsaint. But to be able to have that variance is really important.
So to a lot of people, especially on the national level, you're pretty much the face of Cajun cuisine. What is Cajun food, Cajun cooking, to you?
Nobody really knows what it is. It's constantly changing. You go out to Lafayette, everyone has their own idea of what it is based on what they know, what they grew up with, what their granny made. It's all so speculative. Look at all the sausage?a lot of that's German not French, so you can't say that Cajun food is just this or that. I think that if you're living here, you're using local ingredients and local flavors, then you've got the soul of that food.
So it's a lot more personal than just saying, this right here is Cajun food?
Yeah. You know, I was so stressed out when we opened in Lafayette. So stressed out. And I remember Stephen [Stryjewski] showing me a quote from a book, I've got it around here somewhere. It's like, "Even if you have a recipe from your French-Canadian exile grandmother and you do it to the letter, someone will still say you did it wrong." It can still be different, but people have very particular ideas of what it should be.
How do you think people outside of Louisiana look at Cajun cuisine?
However you look at it, it's always going to be a unique cuisine. I remember when I was in San Francisco at the tail end of the '80s, I went to a Cajun restaurant and I was like, "What the fuck are you guys doing?" It's just about missing the soul of it. And I think location does have a lot to do with that, with the ingredients that you can get. Like in Spain: You could make the exact same thing here, same recipe and everything, but it's not going to be as good as if you got it in Barcelona. It's the same way with Cajun food and a lot of others.
The flip side of that is that people do seem to be increasingly interested in this very regional cuisine.
Southern food in general is pretty hot right now. Hopefully [that attention] stays, but a fad is a fad.
Do you think that's good for the cuisine and the culture?
Yeah absolutely. Hopefully it stays, not just for Louisiana but the South in general. Because American food is basically just Southern food.
[Photo: Donald Link]