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.
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.
When he took over the Carriage House restaurant in Natchez over a year ago, Chef Bingo knew he could not touch the famous fried chicken and their famous tiny biscuits, which have been the same since the mid-1940s. Being the creative, contemporary chef he is, I wondered how he would balance the old with the new. I think the magic was that he was smart and kept the cracker-jack team of seasoned cooks who had been there for over 25 to 30 years each. That alone should tell you the work ethic of this kitchen crew. With these ladies holding him up and taking care of business, he was able to focus on creating menu items that blended in well with a history worth keeping, and he has been able to create some dishes that will make history of their own.
Last Sunday I stopped by to have a kitchen visit, which is always a pleasure for me, and see the ladies in the new pink coats that Chef Bingo had graced them with for jobs well done. The pace in the kitchen is always a smooth, energetic groove. The ladies in pink never stop working, but they can carry on a conversation while they work.
The topic on Sunday was whom they liked best on the Food Network. It was almost unanimous for Guy Fieri. Susie hesitated because she likes Emeril's band, but I would have to say Guy got the vote. It did not take long for the conversation to turn to what everyone had been cooking lately. Gertrude's favorite dish to cook and eat is still spaghetti and meatballs, which always amazes me because she can cook just about anything and she certainly has a variety to choose from at the Carriage House. Susie and Ora Dell like fish fried or baked, and Jessie will never lose her fondness for the Carriage House fried chicken, while Doris prefers hers baked. On a Sunday it is hard to not think about baked or fried chicken when you are at the Carriage House, but now I cannot get a new menu item off my mind.
I was excited to hear from Bingo that he was working on cold smoking catfish filets, then dipping them in the traditional buttermilk-and-corn-meal batter and frying. He is also the first southern chef I know (and I know a lot) who decided to pickle a green tomato before frying ... genius. It is the perfect garnish for his traditional shrimp rémoulade garnished with deviled eggs. When I was in the kitchen there was a brewing taking place of a vanilla-bean-infused simple syrup to blend with fresh watermelon juice for champagne cocktails (and, how perfect, it is named a Pink Lady). The chemistry between this seasoned trained chef and these five seasoned cooks in pink is hard to match.
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 or the smoking of the fish before the traditional batter or something as simple as the vanilla bean in the simple syrup. These three things told me that this is a seasoned kitchen. Experience and experimentation are great teachers. Whether we come from culinary school or the family kitchen, we all become better at our craft through trial and experience.