Sue Zemanick is having a busy summer. The Gautreau's executive chef has recently made her second appearance on Bravo's highly-addictive Top Chef Masters, competing for the chance to nab the $100,000 charity prize for the Gulf Restoration Network (she had to jump out of a plane and everything). She's also on the verge of opening her new Uptown restaurant Ivy with the help of Gautreau's owners Patrick and Rebecca Singley. The Pennsylvania transplant who escaped the meat grinder of human souls we euphemistically call Manhattan is bringing some of that famous Yankee industriousness to New Orleans while still getting to enjoy all the things she came here for: the music, the indigenous cuisine, and, most importantly, the seafood.
Being from Pennsylvania originally, what drew you down here?
I've always been interested in music as well as food, so one of the main draws for me was all the amazing music we have down here. Also, I was obviously drawn to the unique culinary world down here, especially the seafood. In my cooking, I try to use a lot of seafood, and I thought that New Orleans basically encapsulated everything I wanted: the music scene, the unique indigenous culinary scene (as far as Cajun country and things like that go), and also the seafood.
How did you come to get so involved in championing the preservation of the Gulf Coast and Gulf seafood?
I was always really into seafood?I did my fellowship at the Culinary Institute of America in the fish and seafood department because I knew right away that's what I wanted to do. When I interned in New York, I worked at an all-seafood restaurant, so I'd started out working with seafood even before I came to New Orleans. Moving down here, though, and seeing how bountiful the seafood is?I mean, the city's surrounded by water and there are all these creatures, from crawfish to oysters to crabs?I just really wanted to get involved in preserving all of it. When I had an opportunity to win money for a charity, it was sort of a no-brainer for me to pick the Gulf Restoration Network.
What's your favorite kind of seafood, since we're on the subject?
If I had one thing that I had to pick?wait, you can't ask me that!
I know, it's really unfair...
Oysters, probably. And crawfish.
What was the transition like from the fast-pace of New York to the considerably slower-pace in New Orleans?
Oh, it was a rat race working in New York. Ever since I was a little girl and I knew I wanted to become a chef that I was going to live in New York and that's where I was going to cook and run my own restaurant, but after being there for a while and experiencing how competitive it was, I just realized that I really didn't want that to be my life forever. I wanted to have a better quality of life and get to enjoy the things that everyone else gets to enjoy. I think people living in the South generally have a better quality of life, and one of the main reasons I've stayed here for so long is that it's not as much of a rat race as some other cities. When I was living in New York, I could just barely pay my rent and I wouldn't have any money left over to do any of the things New York has to offer.
There's a lot of stuff happening down here. People get together, go to festivals?there's really a sense of community...I love it. I got sucked in; [laughs] it's a black hole.
A lot of people get the sense?thanks, in part, to writers like Anthony Bourdain?that the professional kitchen is a boys' club. Did you get that sense when you were coming up through the ranks, that you were working in a testosterone-heavy environment?
Yeah, I think that's true. There were many instances?especially before I became a sous-chef and then a chef, when I was still a link cook?when it was clear that the kitchen was definitely a boys' club. And I really find that to be kind of ironic because people talk all the time about their mothers or their grandmothers cooking, but when it came to professional cooking, it was always (and only) men. I was thought that was really funny, but, yeah, there were definitely some instances in New York and even down here where it felt like I couldn't advance past where I was simply because it [the kitchen] was such a tight boys' club. When Patrick promoted me at Gautreau's, I got this great opportunity, more so because I don't think I would have had such a great opportunity at too many other places.
Do you, having such a high profile right now and being so successful, think of yourself as kind of a role model for younger women who are maybe just starting out on a professional cooking career, or aspiring to embark on that career path?
I would hope so. I always try to have women in my kitchen so there can at least be a nice gender balance. I hope that I inspire women to get into cooking, if that's what they want to do. It was women like Susan Spicer who helped pave the way for my generation to break into the industry; you know, they really opened the doors for us. Thanks to them I think it's a lot easier to be a woman chef right now.
I have to ask about Ivy?how close are you to opening the doors?
Well, it's coming along in typical New Orleans fashion?slow. They're working on it right now. We had to renovate the front of the house and, you know, fix the kitchen up a bit. It should be open shortly, in a couple of weeks I would say.
What can people expect? How are you dividing your time between Ivy and Gautreau's?
I'm going to be there a lot; it's really close to Gautreau's and I've already come up with the menu. It's a large menu with lots of small plates, but really just lots of great, fun food for people to enjoy. I will be pretty much at both places at one time, magically.
Ivy and Gautreau's are really close to each other, and where Gautreau's is kind of an earlier dining experience, Ivy will be...I don't want to say late night, but it'll be open until eleven. At Gautreau's, we're usually done by ten. I'll be able to split my time between both places. I'm pretty hands-on as it is, so I'll need to relinquish a little bit of control, but I plan on being heavily involved in both places.