The Art of Survival

How one local chef went from pandemic frustration that captured national attention to opening a second restaurant.


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.


Through backbone and grit accompanied by incredible culinary talent, Chef Eric Cook has
survived the challenges of the past years and is looking forward to a brighter 2022.

The former Marine — who saw active duty during the Gulf War — had no direction in his life after the military until he landed a job at Brennan’s Restaurant. Once at work peeling shrimp and potatoes there, the native New Orleanian felt right at home. Cook thrived under the discipline inherent in the leadership structure of a professional kitchen, easily transitioning from the “Yes sir” of the Marines, to the “Yes chef” of his new career. Under the watchful gaze of Chefs Michael Roussel and Lazone Randolph, he was well schooled in the traditional canon of Creole cuisine.

Next, Chef Tory McPhail tapped Cook to join Commander’s Palace post-Katrina reopening crew.

After Brennan’s tiny French Quarter kitchen, the gleaming, brand new expanse of space was dazzling.

Cook credits Commander’s with his approach to hospitality.

“I learned to see from the front door to the back door – not just what to do, but why to do it,” he reminisced. On days off, he cooked collaboratively with South Louisiana friends who helped him perfect the velvety, dark brown roux that is a trademark of his gumbo today.

Cook’s sisters, mom and wife constantly urged him to consider opening his own place until finally Robyn, his wife, insisted, “It’s time.” The first time they walked into the empty, triangular building at 1800 Magazine Street. Robyn turned to her husband in tears and said, “This is it! This is you!”

In the space, formerly home to the ultra-Modernist Square Root, Cook felt compelled to “throw away the sous vide machines and cook with fire; to cook what I ate growing up — grits and grillades, my mom’s chicken and dumplings.” To acquire the required financing, the Cooks, along with Eric’s parents, mortgaged their homes, a move he remembers as “Going to the cliff, saying, ‘Let’s hold hands and jump!’”

Gris-Gris quietly opened in August 2018 with such a tight budget that by the end of September, Robyn warned, “If things don’t pick up soon, we can’t make payroll next week.” Luckily, soon after New Orleans discovered Gris-Gris — where signature dishes like humble turkey necks are elevated with a 96- hour fortified veal stock showcasing Cook’s powerhouse French technique and discipline.

When the pandemic forced the restaurant’s closure, Cook retreated to his Algiers home and quarantined with his wife and daughter while their business hemorrhaged money. When a costly attempt to reopen in spring 2020 was aborted due to an employee COVID-19 scare, the former Gulf War veteran sat down at the family breakfast table broken by powerlessness and desperate for direction.

“I just wanted someone to say, ‘Hey, follow me!” he recalls. Unbeknownst to Cook, his daughter, Liz, recorded the entire rant and with her mother’s help transcribed his desperate words and shared the message on social media. The response was immediate, with more than 240,000 shares, becoming briefly the most searched MSN story in the country.

The Restaurant Revitalization Act brought a brief glimmer of hope, yet after hundreds of hours pursuing the money, it never came, despite Cook’s supposed preferred status as a veteran. Banks refused his attempts to borrow the funds for reopening, citing high risk. Finally, Cook remembers he “shook off the negativity,” saying to Robyn, “Let’s grind! I was determined to work every day ’til I couldn’t work any longer.” Each night as they went to bed, Cook asked his wife, “Can I go to work tomorrow?” The answer was always yes and Gris-Gris prospered.

Now the pair seems unstoppable — opening St. John, their second restaurant, in September, despite Hurricane Ida’s challenges. The storied French Quarter location on Decatur Street is turning heads with dishes like Oysters St. John, a rich combination of cream poached oysters, crispy fried oysters and a classic, New Orleans oyster stuffed patty shell.

Chef Cook sites sustainability as his greatest pandemic life lesson.

“The restaurant is my job and I want to be there for a long time,” he said.

Today, instead of pursuing lunch and dinner business seven days a week, both restaurants close Monday and Tuesday. “By Sunday, you can look forward to time in your garden,” the chef philosophizes. “That’s how we can come back every day and make it better,” which is Cook’s secret to success.

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.