chef interview: Patrick Waters
chef Patrick Waters
(*Updated since our interview Pat is currently chef of Crescent City Brewhouse)
Monday, October 20, 2013
Interview by Katie Culbert
Photography by Denny Culbert
Here’s a little known fact - Cafe Vermilionville is open on Mondays. Other little known fact - the chef is a crazy cool New Yorker with a Sicilian mother who has worked at some of the country’s biggest restaurant institutions. We sat in the gorgeous sunlit Cafe Vermilionville dining room after lunch service and got to know one of our new favorite food people.
Interview originally appeared in vol. 2 of Runaway Dish magazine
My mom is from Sicily so she cooked all the time. She cooked puttanesca, macaroni and red gravy, braciole, any kind of meats. Braised meats, grilled meats. She taught me how to make bread. She was the first person who showed me how to cook.
I was never really a bad kid. Just normal stuff. Mischief. Hawking eggs at cars. We figured out at an early age that if you throw snowballs at Brinks trucks, they can’t stop because it’s an armored car. That was fun.
For my 16th birthday, my dad’s gift to me was a job at Tavern on The Green. I started in a room just cutting onions and lettuce with a plastic knife. And by the time I was 18, I was the youngest saucier that had ever worked there.
I didn’t really want the job at first. I didn’t want to be cutting lettuce and onions with a knife. It was boring. But I guess the chef saw that I had a natural ability and he asked if I ever considered being a chef because he thought I’d make a good one. And with one letter from him, I got into CIA (Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park New York).
I went to Sicily in 1997. I went to the town where my mother grew up, 40 miles west of Palermo. They weren’t the nicest folks to me because I was American, but they gave me a little slack because my mom was from there. It was fun, it was beautiful, and the food was fantastic. It was the year after I finished culinary school so I took a little trip and backpacked by myself. I guess you’re supposed to do that when you’re young.
Because of the movies when I was a kid, I wanted to be a homicide detective. I thought that would be the coolest thing ever. Other than that, I knew I wanted to do something creative, I just wasn’t sure what I was really good at. I’m glad it’s something that can make me money, you know, instead of being able to make shadow puppets or something.
My first job in New Orleans was at The Pelican Club on Exchange Alley. I was only working during the day and I needed to supplement my income, so I was a strip club DJ in the evenings. It was a place called the Maiden Voyage which is now called the Hustler Club. I’d rather not talk about it. I mean, I was 22.
My first day working at Commander’s Palace was on Mother’s Day. I poached about 3000 eggs, and still to this day, I just freak out when there’s anything with eggs. I never lose my cool in the kitchen. I don’t yell. I’m not that guy. But I will just start flinging eggs everywhere. It’s my kryptonite. I can’t stand it. If we do serve brunch, I’m never the egg guy. I had my time in the trenches.
Commander’s was like being back in school again. It’s a true French Brigade system. There are a lot of chiefs in the kitchen. A lot of guys you have to answer to. Like in most kitchens, it’s one maybe two. But there - it was like six. It was something else, I’ll say that.
Katrina was awful. Mid City, where I lived, along with the 9th ward pretty much got it the worst. I had 18 feet of water in my house. I was in my attic and finally it got so hot I had to break out of the roof with a hatchet. I was on my roof for 4 days. Everything I had I lost. Eventually I found an inner tube and floated down from Mid City to the French Quarter. And then I was there for another 11 days. So for 15 days all together, I was just kind of hanging out and sweating and starving. I had nothing to eat for those first four days. No food, no water. I wasn’t hungry, I’ll just never forget that unbelievable thirst.
The whole thing was unbelievable, and it was bad to see New Orleans in that shape. You know, a lot of people helped, yes. But a lot of people did not, which was just sad. Such a small community you would think they would come together. It was exactly the opposite. It was just chaos.
When I came to Cafe Vermilionville five years ago as the sous chef, I was always part of the menu. Since day one, I’ve always been that guy. At first it was a little tough to get some of the things out. My style can be a little out there sometimes. But I tried and I’ve been trying and it seems to be working so far.
We started the Chef’s Canvas about a year and a half ago because we started pumping out specials and they would be great, but they would never make it onto the regular menu. So we figured let’s do a kind of R&D menu and whatever works we can add to the Chef’s Canvas and then we can have the other menu with those classics that will never change.
I married my wife in the Cypress Room right here at Cafe Vermillionville. All we served was champagne and cake. That was it. It was all of our friends and just a bunch of cake and champagne. We went through three cases of champagne in an hour.
My wife’s family is Cajun so she cooks. They all cook. I love it. I’m like… please, yes, cook. Chicken stew, ettoufee, it’s great. I have tried to outdo the Cajun ladies, but it’s hard. I’ve learned not to even try anymore.
I love shepherd’s pie. It’s my favorite thing in the world. It’s got everything. You can’t go wrong with it. Lamb, veal, smashed potatoes, minted English peas....I love that. It’s comfort food. It’s just perfect.
My favorite dish at the restaurant is the Trout Puttanesca. It’s my mom’s recipe, so I love making that because it makes me think of her. She’s no longer here, so every time I get to make it, it’s nice. It’s like a little part of her is here. Even though I fought it for a long time, she did teach me a lot about cooking. I was just being that kid that wanted to be a homicide detective.
One of my huge inspirations has always been Charlie Parker. Always. That’s what really made me cook the way that I do. I’ve never heard anyone fly out of the box like that. Just go over the top and then be able to come back in. I try to bring that to cooking. Go as far out as I can and then still bring in all the tastes together at the end of the plate. I just can’t figure that guy out. And you know, I don’t want to. It’s what keeps me on my toes.
I’m a candy fanatic. Not that I eat it so much. I just hoard it. I hoard it so bad. Right now in my freezer there are gummy colas, gummy cherries, Reeses, Starbursts, about 7 kinds of gelato, a whole block of salted caramel fudge with candied bacon in it. I made that myself. And then some more candied bacon.
Bringing a pan of olive oil caviar spheres to Runaway Dish was the most nerve wracking 15 minutes of my career.
It’s funny because in school they would never tell you to cook down pepper and onions and celery until they are almost mush. Like that is such a no no. I wanted to yell at these Cajun folks at first. I was like what are you doing! And then I’d taste it and be like oh, sorry, I’m so sorry. I’ll just be quiet.