After chef Carl Schaubhut’s sold-out New Orleans Tricentenary dinner at the James Beard House in New York ended last year, the hosts had a bit of an issue: no one was leaving.
Guests, many of whom had flown from New Orleans and knew each other and Schaubhut, were still standing around chatting an hour after the dinner had ended. The waitstaff started cleaning up around the guests; they just moved aside, sometimes lending a hand. The organizers started flickering the lights like it was last call at a bar. “Bad wiring,” someone said.
“If people hang out at the dinner afterwards and aren’t in a hurry to go home immediately, that’s usually a sign that they had a lot of fun,” Schaubhut said in a 2018 interview with Eater.
Schaubhut, the award-winning chef behind DTB and Bacobar, who died at 37 on September 9 following a five-year battle with gastroesophegeal cancer, often defined success by the community and sense of belonging it created.
For a James Beard House event, Schaubhut’s dinner was bright and sometimes raucous: An organizer had to yell over the crowd to get its attention so that she could explain the courses. At another point, the Who Dat chant rang from the kitchen, something Commander’s Palace executive and James Beard House dinner vet chef Tory McPhail said was definitely a first.
Just days before the dinner, Schaubhut was in Houston at MD Anderson getting a blood transfusion. Doctors suggested that he skip the flight to New York and the night at the Beard House.
Schaubhut responded, “With all due respect, I’m gonna go.” So his doctors kept him until the last minute, pumping him with transfusion blood. Eventually his body started to retain it and his blood count began to go up.
“I just didn’t want this to be one more thing that I wasn’t able to do,” Schaubhut, who was diagnosed in 2014, said. “It was a big deal for my staff, my chefs, my family members, my friends that were coming up there. They were there to support me and us and I didn’t want that to be taken away — one more thing because of this damned disease.”
Anyone who saw him at the dinner wouldn’t have known. Schaubhut was good at keeping it together, especially when he was focused.
Early in his career, after graduating from LSU with a business degree, Schaubhut worked as part of the front of house at Fire restaurant. He wanted to work in the kitchen, so he offered to keep his 40 hours waiting tables and bartending, enroll in culinary school at Delgado, and add 20 hours in the kitchen every week. Hurricane Katrina interrupted his plans for culinary school, but by then he’d proven himself. When Fire moved to Florida’s 30A, Schaubhut moved as the restaurant’s executive chef.
When he returned to New Orleans, Schaubhut secured offers for two executive chef positions, one at the lauded Upperline restaurant and one at what was then a new spot, Vessel. Instead, he took the sous chef position at Commander’s Palace because he felt it was a better learning opportunity.
“Even though you’re a sous chef, you’re really an executive chef of a department because it’s such a big house and there’s so much to learn,” he said. “They involve you in every aspect of the business, too. You see their top line, their bottom line, their food costs, labor costs. Everything from china to glass to silver and how much they spent on freakin’ candles. You’re learning about operations. You’re not just putting your head down and cooking turtle soup all day and expediting hundreds of covers. You’re really, really learning how to operate a business — and the culture is unlike any other in my opinion. I’m glad I took that job.”
By 2013, just a year and a half after Schaubhut started at Commander’s, co-proprietor Ti Martin offered him the executive chef position at the restaurant group’s busy Cafe Adelaide in the Loews Hotel.
It was there that he started having stomach pains, something doctors chalked up to the stressful job. When the pain got worse and he started having trouble swallowing, he went in for a diagnostic procedure. It was April Fool’s Day 2014, just weeks after Schaubhut’s 32nd birthday, when he found out he had an 18-centimeter mass in his gastroesophageal junction.
In its early stages, stomach cancer, which mostly affects much older men, can be treated. But only 10 percent of those affected are diagnosed in the “very treatable phase.” Carl’s cancer was beyond that stage.
Given Carl’s age, doctors moved to treat his cancer aggressively. He worked at Cafe Adelaide through 25 rounds of chemo that reduced the size of the tumor. Then, they removed his esophagus and replaced it with part of his stomach in a 17-hour surgery, reducing the size of his stomach by more than half. He missed nine months of work, during which he was often too ill to eat and too weak to toss his young children in the air. He realized that “this life is shorter than we think.”
In the five years after his cancer diagnosis, Schaubhut opened both Oak Street’s DTB (2017) and Covington’s Bacobar (2016), cooked at the James Beard House, tried to “beat Bobby Flay” on the celebrity chef’s show of the same name, became Eat Fit NOLA’s culinary ambassador, won Eater NOLA’s 2017 Chef of the Year award, staged at Alinea with Grant Achatz (the Chicago-based chef who overcame tongue cancer), and kept a notebook of ideas for projects to come. DTB garnered critical praise from Eater, the New York Times, the Times-Picayune, and more.
Just six months after Bacobar opened its doors on the Northshore and just after he’d signed the lease on DTB’s location, doctors found a 3-centimeter mass and told him his cancer had returned. It was metastasized, stage IV, incurable, and inoperable. By October 2017, he’d been given six months to a year to live. His partner Jacob Naquin offered to let the project go. His DTB landlord was a family friend and would have done the same. But Schaubhut wasn’t ready to give up. DTB was his dream restaurant.
“He was probably one of the most driven people I ever met. He always wanted to do the best he could and then do more,” Naquin recently told Eater.
Schaubhut’s ambition, creativity, and love for the culinary profession didn’t deteriorate during his battle with cancer. He did, however, change how he managed his restaurants and staff. Though he had to take a step back and trust his staff more because of necessity, he believes that this was a better way for anyone to run a restaurant.
At one point during chemo, he had neuropathy. “I couldn’t even pick up a knife,” he said. “There were times when I had mouth sores and I couldn’t even taste food. Salt was excruciating. Spice was excruciating. I remember trying our gnocchi dish, one of the best dishes on the [DTB] menu. We make our own hot sausage for it. I tasted it during service. It had red chile flake... I had to go into the walk-in and chug milk out of a cup for like 30 minutes. I’m getting in line and kind of lighting people up like, ‘Why is this so god damn spicy?’ That’s when I realized my palate is just totally fucked...It’s done.”
Whether he was coming up with dishes or cooking current menu items on the line, Schaubhut learned to rely on his staff to taste the food and to execute it.
“As a chef, that’s the hardest thing to do,” he said. “It’s virtually impossible. So it does two things: It makes you trust your staff that much more and it makes them see you as a human being, which I think is a great thing in our industry.”
Schaubhut discovered how much he enjoyed mentoring and fostering other people’s talents. He told his employees that “food’s only a quarter of it. I tell my guys all the time... I’m like, if you can’t learn to get labor under control, food costs under control, and manage a team, you’re just another chef with some talent.”
Schaubhut learned to ask himself where he could be most useful. He also learned the importance of balance, something he hoped to share as culinary ambassador of Eat Fit NOLA. In his own life, he identified what he called “glass balls” that he juggled. He reasoned that three was all he could juggle at once without dropping them: career, family, and his mental and physical health. Other things, like leisure activities, were plastic balls.
Carl’s goal to live fully in his remaining years meant treating his career and the culinary profession as a glass ball, finding ways he could be useful and make a difference.
At the end of the James Beard dinner, the guests finally did make their way outside into the rainy, chilly Manhattan night. There, they lingered a little longer — until the neighbors came out and asked them to leave.
Schaubhut planned his own funeral. His now 9-year old son gave the eulogy, one he wrote two years ago when he thought his father was dying. After the funeral mass, mourners second-lined around the corner to the sounds of a brass band that led them to Il Mercato, a white Spanish-style event space on Magazine Street with a courtyard and outdoor fireplace. Bourbon slushes, one of Schaubhut’s favorite drinks, stood at the entrance. There were open bars and deviled eggs and meatballs and more as the music played on.
His last great dinner party lasted into the early hours of the morning, until guests finally spilled out onto the New Orleans streets and headed to another bar before going home. By his own definition, it was a good party.