The eagerly anticipated return of Anne Kearney to New Orleans, cooking in Meauxbar's kitchen, was a bolt of positive news in the August heat and endless K10 stories. Kearney's landmark restaurant, Peristyle, although closed for more than ten years (she and husband Tom Sand moved to Dayton, OH in 2004), still held heavy influence on the modern cuisine of New Orleans. And everyone who had been a part of it wanted to return when Kearney, cooking alongside protege Kristen Essig, did.
On Tuesday night, Meauxbar, only a block up N. Rampart from Kearney's Peristyle stood (changes in ownership and management changed the name to Marti's, and is currently empty), was like a high school reunion with former employees and patrons greeting each other (and Kearney and Sand) happily with hugs, kisses, and high pitched excitement.
Even after everyone was seated to enjoy the wine-paired menu of five courses, the electric buzz continued as diners absorbed the growth in Kearney's cooking and her influence on the talented Essig.
The two chefs agreed to take a few minutes out of their dinner preparations that day to sit down with Eater.
Eater: Can you describe your approach to cooking with Peristyle?
Anne Kearney: I wasn't doing Cajun or Creole Louisiana. I was doing Louisiana ingredients in French techniques, that's what's comfortable for me. I like to find obscure sauces from the 1600s and try to bring them back to life. You find a little something to work with and then over time it becomes your own.
Eater: What's it like working together again?
Kristen Essig: I think I have a much deeper knowledge of where Ann was as a chef. I was a lowly line cook. I mean, I loved my job at Peristyle, but I'm in a completely different physical situation as far as leadership goes in my own kitchen, so it's actually more fun. We're having a really good time. I don't think the menu is necessarily inspired by Peristyle, I think everything relates very much back to what you do now and what Peristyle was. My style of cooking is very much like Anne's as far as, we both use locally sourced sustainable seasonal ingredients, and southwest France. We focus more on bistro cuisine here, so it's a little more rustic and casual. Just a good honest meal.
Kearney: I'll be bringing a little bit of Ohio in the the food I'm preparing here, I brought a few things we make at the restaurant [Rue Domaine, in Dayton]. An homage. I just really wanted to take advantage of the opportunity, I wanted to be in the kitchen with Kristen again in a professional capacity. And I walked in, and thought, oh my god, look at this kitchen! It's so clean, it's so tightly organized.
When we came here on our last visit, we were sitting here and Kristen told me that she was thinking about doing a dinner based on the old Peristyle menu and they asked me to come, and I said, I'll eat if you don't want me to cook, because I just wanted to see all these people put something together. So I got a call, it worked out, I said OK, and here we are.
Eater: Anne, you have a reputation for mentoring women chefs like Kristen. Is that something that's a deliberate plan, or is it just how things have worked out?
Kearney: Really? I always just looked for the best talent, and a lot of them turned out to be women.
Essig: In general, and becoming the chef of my own restaurant, one of the things I think is bad for female chefs is, "as a woman..." One of the things that I know is that at Peristyle, I know I didn't get hired because I'm a woman. I got hired because I was a qualified cook that probably needed a lot of work but had a lot of potential. But I had the skill set to be hired and it was a very hard position to get in to. People had to fight to get into Peristyle.
Kearney: There was very low turnover
Essig: There was hardly any! I worked with most of the same people almost the entire time I was there. Everyone all worked in different roles, everyone was expanding into their own different thing, but I think that, in general, it's more about doing the best you can with the best you can get. And that applies to food, that applies to employees, the front of house, back of house, being women or not, it doesn't matter. I want to do the best I can do. I don't want to be the best woman, I want to be the best.
Eater: Do you find it more difficult to be recognized on a national level because of gender?
Essig: The last thing I worry about, when I come into work, is if I'm going to be on a list. I mean, that's great and all, but if that's the reason you're getting up and coming into work every day, move on. You're in the wrong business.
Kearney: You can't open a restaurant with the express goal of being recognized nationally, because you just don't have time to do that, not if you're running a business. You have to be focused on what is going on within your four walls and getting people to try it. And then, before you know it people are dining in your restaurant that do have influence, and they're calling their friends. And you don't know that's happening, and it's better if you don't know.
And then when that happens, you realize that now you need to excel on a different level. At first, it's like, ok, you need to excel at this level. Then Wine Spectator came out, and now you're at a different level. (laughs) Wine Spectator put the kitchen phone number in their article. This was in 1998, before we had fancy phone systems that transferred. Oh, no. I was working in the kitchen, the phone would ring, and I'd pick up and say, "thank you for calling Peristyle! This is Anne, and I'm terribly sorry, but the phone number in the magazine was incorrect, you have to call this [other] number for reservations."
Eater: What's something you miss the most about New Orleans?
Kearney: I mean, you can't go anywhere without running into someone you know, or who knows someone you know. And it's wonderful to see all these different styles of food, there's so much diversity that you don't see on other cities, diversity in cuisine and characters.
I bought my first house, my first car, my first restaurant here. I got married at St. Louis Cathedral, who does that? I got to do that. I never thought in a million years I would have the life that I had. I was just a hard worker.
Essig: I love it here. My original goal when I moved to New Orleans from Charleston, where I went to culinary school, my original goal was, two years in New Orleans, two years in San Francisco, two years in New York, go to Europe, come back, take over the world. But you know. I fell in love, kinda. Got a dog, bought a house. It's one of those things that's so cliche to say, because everyone says it, but once New Orleans is in your heart, you miss it. I have a hard to seeing myself leaving - I don't know that I'll be here forever, but for right now, she's my main squeeze.
Eater: What do you miss about Peristyle?
Kearney: The smell of the bread baking in the morning when I come in, the demi glace - we had demi glace on every freaking day. But that's the first thing I think of, unlocking that back door.
People would come to Peristyle because they'd read about us in the national press, they'd drive, like all the way from Canada to eat there and bring the magazines with them. People still bring magazines into Rue Dumaine from like 1999.
Essig: The thing I miss the most is the people that I worked with during that time. I think we were all really fortunate to have made the most of our time. We had so much fun. We worked with so many great people, and literally you'd walk through the door and every day was better, you worked harder every day. And that's one of the things I've tried to pass on here. Every day should be a little better. Like, every day, you should strive for that onion dice to be just a little bit better. In the grand scheme of things, I know that it doesn't really matter...
Kearney: But that's a skill you have, you get to carry that with you.
Essig: I tell everyone this, there is not a day that goes by that I don't think or say or do teach something that I learned in Anne's kitchen. From Anne, from someone else that I worked with. It was literally the space that molded everything I do and am. It set the caliber for the high expectations that I will always continue to have for myself. And it just really makes you want to bring it. Every single day. And Anne was in the kitchen every day. And the days that she wasn't, she was pained to not be there. But I remember going to the farmers market with you every once in a while and you'd get these big boxes of kale,
Kearney: I mean, who doesn't love kale?
Essig: Please don't start Kalegate again.
Essig: Another thing that I brought here was the organization. I didn't realize it at the time, but when I started at Peristyle, it was in ‘99 and I was there a week and a half, went on Thanksgiving vacation, the place burned down. I was like, "Are you kidding me?!?!" I'd been wanting and waiting to work there since I got to New Orleans, and the place burns down. I couldn't believe it. I remember going to the restaurant the next day, really early, and we just dumped water out of everything, and I remember thinking to myself, "I will never ever store anything right side up." So that when the place burns down, and you have to go in a clean up the mess, you don't have to dump water out of everything.
But we came back and it was so, so organized. She redid the whole back kitchen.
Kearney: Yeah, I had to redo that pantry, that dry storage space, where you'd step over the rotting floorboard, then go inside, feel for the light bulb, screw it in...
Essig: We had a beautiful wine rail, we had an employee bathroom, I mean, it was beautiful. I remember the opening party we had, and I was working the grill station, and we were playing the Grease soundtrack. I don't remember why, but everyone in the kitchen was singing, everyone was happy, and it was just one of those things... I remember people being so sad [in the aftermath of the fire], we were emptying everything, and taking the curtains down that your mom had made from the front windows, and hoping we could save them.
Kearney: But we got through it.