Commander-in-Chef: Tory McPhail

Originally published by Paper Palate on October 27, 2008.

Michelin stars are the goal of every European restaurant and of those select few good enough to earn them, fewer still achieve the adjective “important.” To be important in Europe, a restaurant must be groundbreakingly innovative; your everyday innovations just won’t cut it. Although service, taste and creativity are necessary, the most important attribute of an important establishment is attention to detail. From what flowers do the bees draw the nectar for their honey? Which local fishermen supply the best salmon? Whose organic garden grows the most flavorful chervil?

Commander's Wild Side: Bold Flavors for Fresh Ingredients from the Great OutdoorsSince 1880, the Commander’s Palace has been one of America’s most important restaurants. This New Orleans landmark resides in the city’s Garden District, a neighborhood that has played host to everyone from Mark Twain to Aerosmith. But though steeped in tradition, Commander’s Palace is a breeding ground for innovation.

From its inception Commander’s Palace was an important American restaurant but in 1974, it became important by anyone’s standards when it was purchased by the preeminent restaurateurs in North America, the Brennan family. And it has been under the guidance of Dick, Ella, Lally and crew (including cousin Ti Adelaide Martin) that the Palace’s chefs have become household names. The Brennan’s first chef of note was Paul Prudhomme and that collaboration catapulted them to the top of the international restaurant scene. Prudhomme was then followed by Emeril Lagasse. After Lagasse’s departure, they tapped his long-time assistant Jamie Shannon to lead the kitchen.

Under Shannon, the accolades became an avalanche – Chef of the Year from Chefs of America, 1992; Outstanding Service Award, James Beard Foundation, 1993; No. 1 Restaurant in America, Food & Wine magazine, 1995; Most Popular Restaurant, Zagat Survey, New Orleans, 1999; and No.2 Chef in the World, Robb Report, 1999. Just as Shannon’s star was rising, tragedy struck when he was diagnosed with cancer. In November of 2001, Shannon lost his battle at just 40 years of age. At his passing Ti Martin said, “The food in heaven just got a whole lot better.”

Shannon’s former protégé, Tory McPhail agreed to return to New Orleans to assume his friend and mentor’s lofty post. McPhail is a whiz kid of sorts. By age thirty, he had worked at legendary restaurants like The Breakers in Palm Beach, London’s L’Escargot and Picasso Room (two Michelin stars) and Mongoose Restaurant in the Virgin Islands, culminating in his current post as executive chef at what is arguably the most important restaurant in the New World. He was named a James Beard Rising Star Chef Nominee and has been a frequent subject of Food Network cameras on shows like Sara’s Secrets, My Country My Kitchen, Into the Fire and Bobby Flay’s Food Nation.

Recently McPhail has ventured into a new profession, cookbook author. Along with Martin, he has produced a collection of rugged recipes straight from the most famous kitchen in New Orleans. Commander’s Wild Side is a chrestomathy of recipes from “America’s bayous, streams, mountains, and back-country.” According to McPhail, it was developed during the 13 months that Commander’s Palace was closed following Hurricane Katrina.

Not long ago I had a little chef-to-chef with Tory McPhail and chief among my questions was Why wild game?

Well, shoot. Why not?

I think the book really reflects kind of a yester-year when people were forced to go out and hunt and fish and do what they needed to do to survive. I think that over the last five years there’s been a huge push country wide and certainly here in the South to do the whole farm-to-fork movement. In New Orleans and especially at Commander’s we like to take things a couple of steps farther. So instead of just getting it right from the farm, it’s much better to go out and shoot what you want and bring it back to the table.

Later this month you are scheduled to guest chef at Aaron Deal’s Tristan in Charleston. Will you be preparing anything from Wild Side?

Yeah, lots of stuff. We’ve got wild black bear on the menu; we’ve got quail; we’ve got rabbit, turtle soup also. What we’re really trying to do is have fun and teach them how easy it is to enjoy wild caught product.

The tradition of excellence under the Brennan’s is unprecedented on the American culinary scene. From Prudhomme to Lagasse to Shannon to yourself they have been the unifying factor in each stage of the restaurant’s evolution. How have they helped you to become the chef you are today?

I think it’s a little unusual. I think that the unusual thing is that Jamie hired me when I was 19. I was directly out of culinary school. So from my very beginning in the industry, I knew what was happening with the Brennan’s philosophy and how they thought about going about their business. There’s a really good vibe around the kitchen that people are getting much, much, much more than just a paycheck here. They’re getting a tremendous amount of experience at a quick rate.

I tell you we are having a great time jumping in and doing great Creole food.

Jamie Shannon was not just your boss, he was your friend. How has his passing affected you and the entire Commander’s Palace organization?

I could go on and on for about an hour but I tell you what, you grow up in a different town and different cuisine and a guy like that is your chef, it becomes a guiding force in your life. And when those experiences happen at a young age they are a bit more impressionable and they have more of a lasting effect on you.

Jamie was the kind of guy that ran around, was full of life, fun, and as soon as he walked in the room, he just lit it up. He didn’t have to say anything, you just knew there was something special about that guy. I think all of us have grown up since then. There’s been a lot of tough nerves and a lot of hard lessons learned at an early age.

Do you have regular contact with the other former chefs at Commander’s Palace, Lagasse and Prudhomme?

Yeah, Emeril’s a good friend. Paul’s a good friend. I see them, you know, a couple of times a year. We’re all very sociable. We talk about what’s going on in New Orleans and we’re definitely close. It’s a good group of guys.

Earlier this year you taped an episode of my favorite show, After Hours with Daniel. What was it like cooking with Chef Boulud?

It was a moment in time that I’ll always remember. Daniel Boulud walking in your front door, all of us knew he was coming so we prepared for it. This is one of those guys who you look up to, you know I’ve got tons of his cookbooks, and we all aspire to be at that level. Then he walks in and says, “Hey, Tory, how are you? I’m Daniel, let’s do some cooking together.”

It was a huge honor for myself, all of my sous chefs, the whole Brennan family.

Commander’s Wild Side was published in 2008 by Harper Collins.

Outdoor Cooking: Burger Tips

Originally posted at

I am a firm believer that the most American food is not the hot dog nor the apple pie but the burger.  Both the hot dog and the apple pie trace their lineage to one other country (Germany and France respectively) while the burger reflects our melting pot culture.  The bun originates in Egypt, the Mongols were the first to grind the beef while the Germans were the first to cook it, tomatoes are from the New World but ketchup gets here by way of Italy via China and mustard is from India.

Mobile Burger CrawlThere is a very important designation to make here – a burger refers to a sandwich with at least 5 ounces of meat while anything with less than 5 ounces of meat (including a quarter-pounder) is a slider.  Remember when the McDonald’s sign used to say how many hamburgers were sold?  Today it says “billions served.”  There is no mention of hamburgers.  Perhaps that is because most of their menu fails to meet the definition of a burger.

Of course when most of us think about throwing a few burgers on the grill few visualize a paper thin wafer of frozen ground beef.  Most of us visualize a thick, hand formed patty.  That’s why the designation is important, if you try to mimic the weights at Micky D’s you’ll end up disappointed with your grilling experience.  In this case bigger is absolutely better.

Calories aside the best burgers contain a grind that is 80% lean meat and 20% pure fat.  Unfortunately that much fat can be lethal.  Many have experimented with leaner grinds, not just of beef but also chicken, turkey, pork, et al.  The result is a dry, less than satisfying burger.  Granted it is healthy but not exactly good.

I have two healthy fixes, one easy and the other a bit labor intensive.  The first is to throw your lean ground meat into a large bowl then blend in olive oil equal to 1/5th of your meat.  That’s 1/5th by weight mind you not volume or 3.2 ounces of oil per one pound of ground meat.  Olive oil being unsaturated fat that is full of antioxidants will give your burger the right mouth-feel without adding all the saturated fat.

The other method is for the burger connoisseur like myself.  Using the meat grinding attachment on my trusty old stand mixer I usually grind my own meat for burgers.  I buy the leanest sirloin steak I can find, usually 96% lean or higher, grass fed if at all possible.  I cut that into 2” cubes and place them two or three cubes at a time into the grinder alternating frequently with a tablespoon of coconut oil.  This gives me an actual saturated fat for my burger that has the added benefit of being very healthy.  The result is a burger that is perfect in every conceivable way.  This same method works well for grinding a skinless turkey breast or a nice lean pork tenderloin.

When hand-pattying burgers it is important not to work the meat too much, it can actually make them tough.  For the novice I suggest getting a 5 ounce ice cream scoop to make well-rounded balls.  Place each ball on a piece of parchment paper or cellophane topped with another piece then gently pressing down with a plate until the patty is ½ to ¾ of an inch thick.

Something else I like to do when making burgers is to blend herbs into the meat.  My preference is Herbes de Provence but any dried herbs and/or seasonings will do.   This way the meat is flavored throughout and not just on the surface that gets the salt and pepper on it.  Oh, yeah, salt is not an option; it has to be used.  In addition to enhancing the flavor it is crucial for the Maillard reaction which is the fancy science name for searing meat to get a crust.

Outdoor Cooking: Rib Tips

Originally posted at

The most popular ingredient in American outdoor cooking is quite possibly pork ribs.  They are probably the ingredient that gives the weekend warrior the most trouble as well.  That’s because ribs do not react well to the same cooking method as burgers, dogs and chicken.

More Tips from the ProsTo understand the reason for this it is important to learn the actual definition of one of the most misconstrued words in cooking – grill.  When most here the word “grill” the immediate picture that comes to mind is usually of iron grates over a gas flame.  That specific cooking method is called char-broiling.  While that it is a method for grilling it is not the only method.  To grill something means to cook quickly in close proximity to a high-temperature, dry heat.  Char-broiling certainly fits that description but so does a griddle.  This is the method most use to cook burgers, dogs and chicken.

If you try to grill ribs you will not be happy with the result.  If they look good on the outside they are raw in the center; if they are done through and through then they’re most likely burnt on the outside.  To properly cook ribs you need a low temperature for an extended cooking period, usually no hotter than 225 degrees for no less than three hours.

The secret to ribs according to Danielle Dimovski (aka Diva-Q) is, “low and slow rules.”  Diva-Q is the Grand Dame of the competitive barbecue circuit.  She was the break out star of season two of TLC’s BBQ Pitmaster and is rumored to be part of a new series on the Food Network.  The lady knows her ribs.

According to her, “The number one rule for ribs is pull your membrane.  If you’re making ribs you need to pull your membrane so the smoke can absorb and the rub can absorb into the meat.”  Concerning the low/slow method she adds, “You cannot break down that internal fat fast.  You need to take time to do it.  It’s not something that should be done quickly.  At least four hours for a slab of St. Louie spares. “

Because it only produces a high heat gas is difficult, but not impossible, to cook ribs properly.  If you have a gas grill only light one side of it and place the ribs over the cold side.  It isn’t perfect but it will work.   The reason it is only functional is because there is little smoke.  Smoke is vital because it provides a great deal of the taste.

Low and slow isn’t the only reason why charcoal is the preferred cooking medium for barbecue; it also produces smoke.  As the smoke permeates the meat it slowly breaks down the connective tissue leaving a tender rib with great flavor.

Two last tips to producing great ribs.  First, do not put on any BBQ sauce until the ribs are done.  The sugar in the sauce will scorch long before the ribs are done so try not to cook the sauce more than about 10 minutes.  Lastly, never, ever boil the ribs before putting them on the fire.  You lose all of the finger licking goodness.

Video Recipe: St. Patrick’s Day-After Cajun Corned Beef Hash

Mired in a St. Paddy’s Day hangover from too much green beer, Chef Stuart approaches the morning after with as little effort as possible. By using the leftover corned beef and potatoes that were cooked in crawfish boil for his Rouxben (see last episode) he makes a tasty skillet of Cajun Corned Beef Hash.

Irish Blessing: “May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been, the foresight to know where you are going and the insight to know when you have gone too far”

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up


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