It's been nearly six months since Emeril's and Peristyle vet Kristen Essig took over at Sainte Marie, the star-crossed CBD restaurant that was in the process of revamping itself when its young chef, Ngoc Nguyen, died quite suddenly in January of a heart attack. Essig, whose career as a professional chef has had such unexpected pit-stops at Susan Spicer's kitchen and a sprawling home in Montana where she served as a family's private chef, has infused the Sainte Marie menu with her own locavore sensibilities (she used to manage some of the Crescent City Farmers Markets, too). Although her personal life has all but vanished since she became Sainte Marie's executive chef, she's happy to once again be part of a kitchen team, and back full-time in New Orleans.
Where are you from originally, and what brought you to New Orleans?
I can't believe you're gonna make me tell everyone! So, I'm originally from Florida, and, yes, there are people from Florida. I came to New Orleans by way of Charleston, where I went to school. That's where I met Emeril?at a chef's benefit, actually, and he offered me a job that very night. He was like, "I'm not really sure if this is going to happen, but we're doing this new TV show"?this was 1997 or '98?"and I'd like you to be a part of it." Of course, he was talking about "Emeril Live," and not taking that job was probably the biggest mistake of my life [laughs].
I told him that my mom would kill me if I didn't finish school, but he gave me his card and told me to call him if I ever needed a job in New Orleans. When I graduated, I called him right away, on a whim, basically, not really sure if it was going to work, and it did, so I got in my car and drove to New Orleans. I left so suddenly that I only told my family once I was in the car, on my way down.
Emeril's was life-changing for me. I worked there for about 10-11 months, and it was the biggest restaurant I'd ever worked in. I'd only worked in small fine dining restaurants before where a crazy night was 130 people. At Emeril's, we were cooking sometimes for almost 800 people. I remember the first time I walked into the kitchen, there was this big board, and it had a number with a big slash through it, then another number. I saw these crazy numbers, like 482 and 756, and when I asked what the numbers meant, someone told me that the number that was crossed out was the number they had in the books, and the other number was the number of people they actually expected to serve. I was like, "Oh! Wow, okay, we're gonna make this work, no problem." It was just one of those eye-opening moments. I'd dropped myself into this culinary scene at 20-years-old and I realized there was just so much for me to learn, but also that I had so many windows open to me at that moment.
What's the biggest difference between working Charleston versus working New Orleans?
It's just a completely different beast. Charleston is almost too refined. It's a like a postcard. New Orleans is sort of like this dirty little letter someone wrote on the wall of a bathroom. Neither one of them are objectively better, but I can't imagine going back and living in Charleston after living here. Charleston's too vanilla.
You were here for a while before Katrina. What's the biggest difference you've noticed between the culinary scene pre- and post-hurricane?
First, the sheer volume now is so much greater, just in terms of the amount of restaurants that have opened here. The amount of really talented people, too, has increased. There are just so many talented people in this city right now, and so many young entrepreneurs, people who are willing to risk it all in an effort to become wildly successful. You really see it in all these great pop ups, which I love visiting just to participate in this fun, easy thing. I mean, it all looks really effortless, but I know how much work goes into it. A lot of people are working really hard to carve out a space for themselves. There's a new thing every time you visit a pop up, and they're just killing it.
As someone who has to hire people now, I'm just amazed at how transient cooks are. People are moving around, trying to work for the big names, and the talent is definitely here. I feel like it's a lot more competitive now, which is better for the industry as a whole. I'm also part of a pretty close-knit community. I've been able to reach out to people, people have reached out to me, and I always feel like if I have a question or I need to work on something, I can always call someone like Chef Alon [Shaya] at Domenica and get some advice. The chefs down here share a lot, and that's remained pretty consistent the whole time I've been living down here. I'm just so happy to be a part of it that even the negative stuff is really easy to ignore. It's like new love.
Who has influenced you the most in this city?
I worked for Anne Kearney, who I think of as my mentor. I feel like I owe her so much, but really, I owe a lot to each person I've worked for. I always wish that I'd given my stint at Bayona more energy. The way I ended up there was that we had a fire at Peristyle, where I had been working for exactly one week. That was the job I had been waiting for?one of my friends had just left Emeril's, and she had gone over to Peristyle. It was a really competitive place to work; everyone wanted to go there. My friend eventually told me about an opening, so I came in, interviewed, got the job, and a week and a half later, there was a fire.
Susan Spicer was amazing?she reached out to Anne and offered her people work while Peristyle was being rebuilt. Going to Bayona was an amazing experience, but at the same time, I feel like I didn't give Susan enough because I was disappointed about not being at Peristyle. I still think about that, and Susan influenced me so much in just the short time I was there. I'd never been to an Asian grocery store before I worked for her.
I worked for Greg Sonnier for a little bit. He had a really great team of people, and between that and Peristyle, I got used to having a real close-knit, family feeling in the kitchens I was part of.
You worked as a private chef for a while. How has that influenced what you're doing now as an executive chef in a fairly high-volume restaurant?
It made me really appreciate cool weather. I got the job [cooking for a family] in Montana by working at Peristyle. Anne's brother Patrick had done this job a few years earlier, and when he decided to change his career path, he asked if I wanted the job. I had no idea what to expect working for someone who owns this huge tract of land in Montana, I thought maybe I'd have to be very formal and wear my chef's hat everyday, but it turned out to be the exact opposite. The people I worked for were very wecloming?I sat down to dinner with them every night. I would cook for anywhere between four people and 40, and I would do big dinners for a nature conservatory that they were big supporters of.
It was a good experience. It gave me a clear idea of how to pace things, and a clear idea of how to run my own kitchen, since I hadn't done that before.
What are some of the trade-offs between running your own place as opposed to working in someone else's kitchen?
My personal life as a whole has pretty much diminished. For me, this situation is fairly new, and I'm still in this mindset where I don't want to let anyone down. I don't actually feel like anyone's waiting for me to fall on my face, but I don't want to give anyone the satisfaction. I'm just trying to stay on top of everything. I really work a lot. I mean, I have friends I get to see sometimes, and I go see some music, but my social life is pretty much gone.
You managed some of the Crescent City Farmers Markets, so you were sort of at the beginning of this push for locally-sourced produce.
I always feel like people roll their eyes now when I say, "It's really important to me that things are locally-sourced," but I'm so proud of the fact that everyone does that. I'm sure I didn't have anything to do with it, but working at those markets was a great way to meet the people on the other side of food preparation. As a line cook, you develop a relationship with vendors as they come in the back door, but actually working with the vendors at the market was a totally different thing. You're working, really, with 20 small businesses, and they're all trying to make certain quotas, and they all have certain amounts of product that they have to move. You develop strong relationships with these people?you learn that they have bills to pay, whose kid needs braces, etc.
It really personalizes your relationship with food. I know the guy who's responsible for bringing me this specific vegetable. That's the kind of stuff I think is really great about locally-sourcing. Yes, the food is better, but the best part of our relationship with food is our relationship with the people who make it.
Do you feel at all like you're part of this new generation of chefs currently changing the culinary landscape in this city?
I hope I am. I still have a really hard time accepting the mantle of authority. I know I'm a chef, but I don't make anyone really call me "Chef Kristen." I have a hard time sometimes thinking that I'm actually here. I never really knew if it would happen or not, and I feel really fortunate just to have the opportunity to be here and be doing what I'm doing.