James Cullen, executive chef at the Mid City bar and restaurant Treo, describes himself as a Grandma-style cook - albeit, "a grandma that went to culinary school." He points to his personal culinary style as focused on "good ingredients, good oils, cooked properly, with good bread on the side," which he attributes to his Sicilian grandmother's influence, but which also informs the Spanish tapas-style of the menu he has created at Treo.
Cullen says he chose to focus on Spanish food to honor the place that Spain held in the development of New Orleans. Spain was also an influential trading partner with the Irish, he says, citing the Spanish Arch in Galway as an example of the two countries' historic relationship. Since the owners of Treo, Pauline and Stephen Patterson originally hail from Ireland, incorporating their story is important to the food that Cullen produces.
Cullen describes his food as "Spanish tapas with Louisiana flair," with a sprinkling of English/Irish pub grub. He describes it as a small menu, which rotates daily, so he can make everything fresh from locally available ingredients. All the dishes are less that $12, which is an important consideration for Cullen, who says he's proud that his customers can come in and try a bunch of different plates of what he calls "bar food for grown-ups" without breaking the bank.
Sharing his food at Treo is a long time coming. Cullen, formerly Executive Sous Chef at Cafe Reconcile and Executive Chef at Saint Lawrence, says that he was a regular at the Pattersons' other bar, Finn McCool's on Banks Street. "I think that was my primary merit," he laughs. The Pattersons offered him the job without even trying his food first. He quickly remedied that.
He came on board in January, but due to construction and inspection issues, the kitchen was not licensed for food until May 1, although the bar had been open since early February. "It was nerve-wracking for a while," Cullen says. "Food is so integral to what they [the Pattersons] wanted to do, that it felt incomplete without it."
But now that the kitchen is open for business, things are going well. Cullen says that he and his kitchen staff are busy every night and that the feedback has been positive. He hopes to roll out some new dishes in the coming weeks, including desserts.
Above all else, he says, he loves Treo's commitment to being a New Orleans-centric establishment and a place where the community can gather to enjoy good food, cocktails, and each other.