Changing of the Kitchen Guard
Antoine’s Restaurant takes another step into the future with a new chef.
A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.
illustration by Tony Healey
Back in 2009, Rick Blount, fifth generation at Antoine’s Restaurant, made a daring move.
He opened a bar inside his family’s venerable dining establishment, a place renowned for its formality and tradition. Blount knew that in order for the historic landmark to stay viable in the 21st century, it would also have to become more accessible.
The Hermes Bar represents an evolution that began in 2005 when Blount became Antoine’s CEO. At the bar, for the first time, guests could experience Antoine’s magic no matter how they were attired. Some of Antoine’s greatest classics, like oysters Rockefeller and pommes souffle, could now be sampled in casual attire while sitting amongst lighted cases filled with glittering Carnival memorabilia, mirroring those in Antoine’s famed private dining rooms.
Blount also found the restaurant’s menu needed a bit of an evolution. Since its earliest days, Antoine’s menu was written entirely in French, including hundreds of items literally dating back centuries. English subtitles were added, and archaic menu choices like pigeonneaux sauce Paradis and matelotte d’Anguille (yes, that’s pigeon and eel!) were eliminated. Alligator meat replaced turtle in the traditional potage au sherry, and specially priced lunches made the Antoine’s experience easier on the pocketbook and more attractive to tourists.
Today, the 178-year old institution stands at yet another crossroads. After almost five decades of service, Antoine’s chef, Michael Regua, is retiring. In preparation for that day, Blount and his wife, Lisa, had conversations with possible replacements from as far away as Paris and New York. It might be expected that a celebrity chef could take the reins, but as the Blounts explain, “That wouldn’t work with the restaurant’s core DNA. Antoine’s is a family – it’s a team operation.”
Both agree that a bit of divine intervention was needed to find the right fit and that’s exactly what happened last fall during a conversation between two mothers. Yvonne Alciatoire Blount, Rick’s mother, had met a woman named Donna Lee Robert several years ago while participating in a religious retreat. The two stayed in touch and, while catching up on the phone, Robert mentioned that her son, Rich, had recently left an executive position with Sodexo, one of the largest food service companies in the world. Yvonne Blount knew that her own son Rick was searching for a chef and asked for Rich’s resume, which she passed on to her son. As it turned out, he was a perfect fit. Blount’s hiring was announced in early January.
Richard Lee’s path to the famous kitchen is unique. Originally from North Carolina, he joined the Coast Guard at 18, finding his place in the ship’s galley. Later, he traveled the world as an executive steward with the Merchant Marines. After leaving the sea, Lee quickly climbed the ladder in large corporate settings like Macaroni Grill, where he added front-of-the-house and financial management skills to his resume. Years as senior manager of culinary development with Sodexo brought his creativity to the forefront and earned him the title of efficiency expert.
Now at Antoine’s, all of Lee’s talents are being put to use, but nothing could have prepared him for the challenge of pommes soufflé. This house specialty, invented by founder Antoine Alciatoire, involves twice cooking carefully formed potato slices, shaking them in a pot of 600-degree oil over an open flame, which causes them to magically puff. There is no modernizing that ancient preparation, just like with other sacrosanct classics like oysters Foch, pompano Pontchartrain, marchand de Vin and baked Alaska.
For now, the lunch menu provides a testing ground for new dishes, like the recently-added charbroiled oysters. Plump oysters on the half shell are baked with a garlic-butter sauce, escargot-style, to great acclaim. While reworking the mechanics of food ordering and other business details, Lee is studying old Antoine’s menus while referring to his own collection of antique cookbooks for special-occasion luxe dishes featuring lobster, pheasant and fois gras.
Together, the Antoine’s team is looking toward the future and making new traditions.
“Antoine Alciatoire played a major role in creating classic Creole cuisine,” says Rick Blount. “We hope to look back in 25 years to see that we made our mark in tomorrow’s nouveau Creole.”.
Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, Louisiana Eats! Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.