On Friday, November 26, opening day for his latest restaurant, New Orleans chef Donald Link radiated an almost preternatural calm. After 38 years in the business, it comes, in part, from feeling he has nothing left to prove. He’s won the awards, traveled the charity and festival circuits, started a foundation, and grown a company that sustained itself during the toughest of times. “What I really care about now is just making good food. The creativity, the sport of it. That’s what matters to me,” Link says.
That distillation of purpose drives his new restaurant Chemin à la Mer, French for “pathway to the sea.” Boasting dramatic front-row views of the Mississippi River, the restaurant is on the fifth floor of the 34-story Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans, the long-awaited luxury hotel that debuted in August. Partnering with the world-renowned hotel brand marks Link’s first affiliation outside of his Link Restaurant Group (LRG), which is behind New Orleans’s Herbsaint, Cochon, Cochon Butcher, Pêche, La Boulangerie, and the two-year-old Gianna.
“I’ve been approached many times in the past, but something always stopped me,” says the chef, whose flagship restaurant Herbsaint earned him a 2007 James Beard award for Best Chef South. Link and his business partner Stephen Stryjewski have developed a reputation for collaborative management and promoting from within — most of the restaurant group’s lead chefs and managers have come up through the company. Collaboration was also key to the Four Seasons deal; once he met general manager Mali Carow and her team, Link says he was sold. “There is so much professional talent behind this restaurant. They trusted me, which really means a lot.”
The restaurant’s design takes inspiration from the Mississippi River’s natural landscape, from the geological striations on the marble bar and the wallpaper mirroring the river’s current to artist John Alexander’s stunning portraits of the purple grackles, herons, and roseate spoonbills that feed along its shores. A wall of windows assures that every table has a view of the Mississippi, with outdoor seating along the wraparound terrace offering a view of ships navigating the white-knuckle curve along the river’s famous crescent.
Everything about Chemin à la Mer is personal, most notably the menu drawn from Link’s food-driven travels tracing the roots and pathways of Creole cuisine through the Caribbean and Europe. Forever influenced by the Cajun and Southern cooking of his grandparents, the Louisiana native treats the foods of his childhood — seafood gumbo, peel-and-eat shrimp, white beans, grits — with French techniques and presentations fit for a five-star restaurant.
He deliberated over the menu description for his gumbo, rich with Gulf seafood. “I’ve been making gumbo my whole life,” Link says, but, “This one is thickened by slow-roasted okra instead of the usual roux.” It’s inspired by a gumbo made by Miss Alzina Toups, a legendary (now retired) Cajun cook from Galliano, Louisiana on Bayou Lafourche. “It blows people’s minds that there’s no roux, there’s so much flavor,” he says. In the end, it’s listed on the menu as simply seafood gumbo, with crab, shrimp, oysters, okra, and Louisiana rice.
There’s plenty of seafood on the menu; much of it — but not all — sourced from the Gulf. “I love West Coast oysters too, so I didn’t want to limit where we sourced our seafood,” says the chef. Currently, oysters from Murder Point and Dauphin Island in Alabama are featured at the raw bar, but the list changes regularly. Link’s take on a West Indies crab salad is bright and fresh, spiked with fresh mint, cilantro, and thinly sliced jalapenos, and dressed with a piquant chile vinegar from Guadalupe. Pan-seared jumbo shrimp sit on top of white beans in a rich pistou sauce, combining two of his childhood staples.
For the steak offerings, Link and his team took inspiration from the Clover Grill in Paris, a French steakhouse from chef Jean Francoise Piege. “It’s a great French restaurant with a few amazing steaks,” Link says. “That’s our vision, too.” Served a la carte, the beef offerings at Chemin include a Kobe strip steak, pan-roasted filet mignon, seared sirloin coulette, and cote de boeuf — a bone-in, cap-on ribeye sliced at the table, which at $180 for four offers the best per-person steak price on the menu. Steak lovers will notice the gorgeous, green-handled Perceval knives that slice through the meat like butter. “I saw them in Italy and had to have them,” says Link.
Pan-roasted Ora King salmon with lentils, beef tartare, and a vegetarian grit cake with wild mushrooms and rapini are a few other menu options. The plan is for bread and desserts to come from La Boulangerie co-owner and head LRG pastry chef Maggie Scales, as the restaurant ramps up for a busy holiday season. “I tried to achieve a balance on the menu,” says the chef, with the restaurant’s lineup of appetizers in the $12 to $38 range and individual entrees starting at $25 and climbing up to $80.
Chemin also serves breakfast and offers a casual menu that includes a burger and a cheese plate served at the bar and out by the pool; lunch will be added in the coming weeks. LRG beverage director Cary Palmer and Hadi Ktiri, beverage manager for Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans. designed the cocktail menu, which includes a bracing Ti’ Punch made with aromatic rum from Martinique and the wonderfully named Melonious Funk, a mix of vodka, cantaloupe shrub, lemon, and seltzer. The Chemin de Fer, powered by bourbon, Forthave aperitivo infused with coffee, and Fey Anme Forrest bitters is perfect for banishing a winter chill.
For now, Link is capping nightly reservations at 100 people to allow the kitchen and staff to get into lock-step as business swells. Judging from the stream of loyal customers who stopped by to wish Link well on opening day, growth can be expected, along with good food — for the sport of it.