When I first started to cook, I had never met anyone who had gone to cooking school. In my father's kitchens and his circle, there were amazing Southern cooks, self-taught or taught by their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, or him.
Occasionally, I would hear of one of their friends who took a frivolous day or two of courses at "Cordon Bleu" while traveling in Europe. My father was not at all keen on me going to cooking school and once said to me, "If you want to wear whites, become a nurse." He did know some hotel chefs, mostly European and of course all men. I think it was a combination of knowing the culinary world was male-dominated or that 40 years ago, in most instances, the culinary world was a minimum wage world. I use to think he was being chauvinistic trying to keep me out of the kitchen, but when I really got into the long hours and workload, I realized he just loved me.
One thing I have learned through years of cooking is that it is the nuances in preparing food that bring it to a higher level, such as the pickling of the tomato.
Through the years, I have worked with all kinds of cooks, but I learned early on that many of the best cooks were seasoned cooks. They may not have known all the proper names, but they had the skill and much of the technique down. To this day one of my favorite cooks and longtime friend of my Dad's is Loveta Byrne. There is very little she does not know about food and cooking, and she never went to school for it. I am amused when she has dinner at my house and will compliment a dish and ask me for a recipe, and I have to respond, "You gave me this recipe." And any of you that cook know it is often just based on feel and touch. You have it or you don't. If I do a culinary tour of my childhood in my mind and think of the best cooks, I come up with many seasoned cooks.
Stanton Hall, in Natchez, is one of the most palatial of the pre-Civil War homes left standing in the South. There is a priceless treasure on its grounds—the Carriage House restaurant—and behind the swinging doors into the Carriage House kitchen there are five more treasures: five seasoned cooks. When you walk into Stanton Hall, you enter the 1850s, with pot metal chandeliers that are some of the most exquisite works of art I have ever seen, and carved Rococo furnishings including a couple of Belter pieces (a famous carver of furniture from New York during the middle decades of the 1800s). My favorite features of this truly magnificent Greek Revival-style house, after the chandeliers, are the elaborate Carrera marble carved mantels. The treasures in the kitchen, however, include Gertrude Payne, Ora Dell Marsaw, Susie Mathews, Jessie Patterson, and Doris Jones. Among them they have close to 150 years of experience, and now they have Chef Richard "Bingo" Starr adding another 30 years ... only because he started cooking at 14 at his family's New Orleans pub.
After attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Chef Bingo worked at the Hotel Crescent Court in Dallas, Texas, and also at the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans. Then he worked with well-known New Orleans chef Emerill Lagasse, and he later made his own mark at the popular Cuvee Restaurant in New Orleans. I met Bingo when he started coming to our Natchez Food and Wine Festival as a guest chef. He fell in love with Natchez, and the ladies of the Pilgrimage Garden Club, who have owned the Carriage House since the 1940s, fell in love with him.