At forty-one, East Texas native and Johnson & Wales grad, Chris Lusk has seen the ins and outs of a few restaurant kitchens and learned a wide variety of international cuisines. After an externship in an Irish hotel he cooked Tex-Mex at Stephen Pyles’ Star Canyon in Dallas, Asian cuisine at an unnamed restaurant in Florida, and Italian at Otto Enoteca under Mario Batali. Later he worked with the iconic Brennan family’s Foodie’s Kitchen in Metairie and more recently at Commander’s Palace and Café Adelaide where he honed his Creole and Southern-style cooking. He is now Chef de Cuisine at Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans.
At DC’s Acadiana in a room filled with shuckers, chefs, industry lobbyists and oyster lovers at the Gulf Oyster Industry Council’s Washington, DC event last month, I met Lusk over a platter of his incredible Crispy Oysters Rockefeller.
Jordan: Can you describe the twist you put on the classic dish?
Chris: Traditionally it would be served on the half shell with a puree of purslane, chives, capers and other greens, then spiked with absinthe. Though it’s often spiked with Herbsaint, it really hadn’t been invented yet. So absinthe is used. Then it would be finished with breadcrumbs. My version has a crust made from dehydrated spinach, chives, green onions, breadcrumbs and Parmesan. Then it’s garnished with more Parmesan and a pesto made of green onions, chives and olive oil then spiked with absinthe. To prepare the oysters we drained the liquor off and marinated them the pesto then rolled in the breadcrumb mix. The crust really adheres to it. Then we flash fry them till oyster begins to plump and it’s still moist inside and crispy on the outside.
What we’re getting at this time of year is a smaller oyster. They go through phases during the year. I prefer to use a medium-sized oyster. At this time of year they are thriving in the cool water and they’re the perfect size and salinity.
You’ve been named one of Esquire magazine’s “Four Breakout Chefs to Watch”, cooked at the James Beard House and won the Louisiana Seafood Cookoff. What’s next?
I don’t know. I have a larger operation and bigger kitchen here with Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans, and have a lot going on right now. They just opened their second restaurant, Seafood R’evolution outside of Jackson, MS in Ridgeland. It’s similar in concept but with more seafood.
Can you tell us about the dessert you prepared which prompted Esquire’s John Mariani’s to award you the “Best Dessert of 2011”?
It was a white chocolate biscuit pudding, a play on a dish my grandmother made when I was growing up. New Orleans is famous for bread pudding so my spin on it was what I was exposed to as a child where my grandmother used the leftover biscuits from breakfast. I took that inspiration and added white chocolate and a bit of Barq’s Root Beer Syrup on top, it’s an iconic soft drink that once was made here. Then I fried some pecans, which are from around here, as a garnish and I serve it with white chocolate ice cream.
I was very fortunate growing up to be exposed to farming. Growing up I spent summers with my grandparents who were farmers and I learned about canning and pickling using ingredients from the farm. My other grandparents were ranchers and raised cattle and hogs so we made sausage and used different cuts of meat. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to learn about farming and ranching growing up.
I understand you are continuing your study of both Cajun and Creole cuisines. What are the differences between these two venerable cuisines?
Creole is more of the refined version of the French, Italian, German, and even African influences and Cajun reflects the more rustic, spicier and bolder flavors. Most Cajun is one-pot meals like jambalaya, gumbos, chicken fricasee and etoufées. What you see in New Orleans are the French dishes indicative of Creole. The use of Pernod, Herbsaint, and absinthe lean more towards the Creole side. Although a lot of the lines have become blurred now – – and you can see the Creole and Cajun coming together.
That’s a hard question because I’m a fan of all of them for different reasons. Justin Wilson gave the first glimpse of what Cajun regional cuisine is. Prudhomme went to the next level with blackened fish, K-Paul’s and Commander’s Palace. He really put it out there on a larger scale. Then Emeril took it one step further. Those three guys have enabled me and my generation and the generation after mine to do what we do in New Orleans. Those guys are the ones that gave the younger chefs the opportunity to push the boundaries.
What are your favorite cookbooks?
I have Lafcadio Hearn and many others. My cookbook collection is all over the place – – Paul Prudhomme, Wilson’s books, Harold McGee and many others have influenced me in my style of cooking, including a lot of ethnic cookbooks that I use in different techniques of frying or pickling – like Japanese for instance. I learn from everyone including my dishwashers and sous chefs. You can never become too educated to learn from someone. Some of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had have been staff meals. The thing about New Orleans is everybody can cook here!
Opened in 1880 Commander’s Palace is one of the great American restaurants of all time. What did you learn while you were there?
That’s when I really started my education apart from culinary school. It really opened my eyes to Southern food. I learned a lot.
What signature dishes are you preparing at Restaurant R’evolution, the French Quarter spot where you are cooking now?
One of the dishes I recently put on was inspired by Vietnamese cuisine. It’s a Hoisin Glazed Grouper tied in with a blue crab pho broth and served with lightly pickled vegetables and rice noodles.
What new ingredients or techniques are on your radar these days?
I’m using lot of Asian ingredients like four different types of soy sauce such as Japanese and Filipino for curing eggs and making marinades, also different types of fish sauce and Indian spices. Sometimes just for myself I make sushi rice with marinated cobia and fresh wasabi. I’m inspired by the Vietnamese fishermen we have here.
Who was your first inspiration in the kitchen?
My grandparents were farmers and raised cattle and grandpa made sausage, things that are very popular now, so I was really fortunate as a child. I lived in a small city but spent summers with my grandparents who had a lot of land. We’d sit around and shuck corn, pick peas, and can together. We do a lot of that at the restaurant pickles, jams etc. My grandpa used to clean out Coke bottles and make his own tomato juice and put the caps back on them. Man, that was the best tomato juice I’ve ever had!
What was the first dish you learned to cook and who did you serve it to?
I learned to make scrambled eggs as a child that I served to my mom and dad. I’m sure they were pretty rubbery and overcooked, but they were pretty nice about it.
What famous person would you like to prepare dinner for?
Wow! No stress there.
Ha! No stress in that! I’m a big fan!
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