When Beausoleil chef Nathan Gresham was growing up in tiny Louisville, Miss., among his favorite foods were the kinds of down-home, Deep South dishes you’d expect to find in a town just east of the Delta - fried chicken, barbecue and stews made from hog or freshly caught squirrel.
Oh, and quiche.
“In a Mother’s Day packet I made for my mom when I was in the third grade, I wrote that my favorite food was quiche,” said Gresham, whose mom recently pulled the packet out to show him. “It was something she loved to make, and we ate it all the time.”
It’s a cute story. It’s also an example of how from his earliest days Gresham, 29, has been a country boy with a cosmopolitan sensibility, a characteristic that is serving him well in the kitchen and becoming one of the defining traits of his culinary style.
It’s a style that is earning him recognition. He was the only chef from the Baton Rouge area named to Louisiana Cooking magazine’s list of top five chefs to watch earlier this year, and was runner-up in the Louisiana Seafood Cook Off in 2009, coming in second to Commander’s Palace Executive Chef Tory McPhail.
Another honor came last year, when he was invited to cook at the James Beard House, a prestigious distinction that he shared with his then-boss, former Galatoire’s Executive Chef Brian Landry.
“It was a huge honor,” said Gresham, who with Landry prepared for the event a Sautéed Cobia With Baby Fennel and Fingerling Potatoes and Louisiana Blue Crab Butter, among other dishes.
That’s typical of the kind of food you find on the menu at Beausoleil, which Gresham has co-owned for the past year with Jeffrey Conaway and Michael Boudreaux. He describes his style as Creole American, but that sounds too much like the kind of fare you find at chain restaurants that serve salty seafood platters and oversized portions of greasy crawfish pasta.
Gresham, on the other hand, creates fresh, eclectic dishes that are influenced by Creole cuisine but are innovative, sophisticated and almost entirely of local ingredients.
One of his latest creations, for instance, is Red Stick Benedict, a layered appetizer of fried sweet and spicy pickle and homemade hogshead cheese topped with a tiny fried quail egg and Creole hollandaise sauce.
One of his standards is Sweet Tea Chicken, a distinctly different kind of fried chicken that is marinated first in a brine of sweet tea and aromatics like fresh basil and thyme.
Both are examples of Southern or Creole-style dishes. Both are distinctly Gresham.
Other creations of which Gresham is particularly fond are his Duck Confit and Arugula Salad, which is made with slow-cooked duck served over baby arugula, cippolini onions, goat cheese and toasted pecans, and Shrimp Pistou Pasta, which blends roasted tomatoes, kalamata olives, capers, red onions and sweet vermouth with pasta and Louisiana Gulf shrimp.
Those dishes won’t be around much longer, however. Gresham changes his menu with the seasons and will unveil his fall menu later this month.
“We’ll be doing a Duck, Prosciutto and Oyster Salad, for instance, and a Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad,” he said. “Anything we can find at the farmers market we put on the menu.”
Gresham is a big fan of local farmers markets and is committed to using local products as much as possible. He estimates that more than 60 percent of ingredients in his dishes are made in Louisiana, and most of those come from local farmers.
“To me, as a chef, I feel it is our responsibility to support the local economy,” he said. “That’s how we do a seasonal menu. It would be a lot easier to do the same menu year-round but this keeps people interested.”
Gresham’s appreciation for local ingredients dates back to his childhood. Both his parents were good cooks, and the family fridge was always filled with casseroles, freshly caught game and other treats his mom would make, like the aforementioned quiche. She did the indoor cooking; his dad was the expert on the grill.
“They really made a wonderful culinary team,” Gresham said.
Still, Gresham did not aspire to be a chef when he was growing up. It wasn’t until he took a part-time job at the Bull Dog Deli in Starkville during his freshman year at Mississippi State that Gresham realized how much he enjoyed cooking.
“Everything was homemade,” he said. “We cut all our own deli meats, made all our own soups. It was great.”
That summer he moved to Yellowstone and decided he wanted to leave school for a life of traveling and cooking. Such decisions aren’t always wise for 19-year-old guys to make, but in Gresham’s case it turned out to be a good call. He landed a job in the kitchen of the iconic Lake Hotel at Yellowstone National Park, where he eventually worked his way up to sous chef.
After a few years, he moved to Colorado, where he learned true French cooking - with its emphasis on fresh, local ingredients - from the owners of a popular French bistro in downtown Steamboat Springs.
“He was a butcher and she was the executive chef and the pastry chef, and they did everything themselves,” Gresham said. “We would go in very early every morning and make our own sausages and p?té, then during the lunch rush, they would tend to the front of the restaurant and I would be manning the kitchen by myself. It was great experience.”
In 2005, Gresham returned to the South and enrolled at Louisiana Culinary Institute, where he received his degree in culinary arts. But his real training in Creole cuisine came under the tutelage of Galatoire’s Landry, under whom he worked for several years as chef of the local Galatoire’s Bistro, which closed earlier this year.
“Brian was over the New Orleans restaurant as well as the bistro and was a great influence,” Gresham said. “I learned a lot from him.”
After five years, Gresham left Galatoire’s in 2010 to open Beausoleil with Conaway and Boudreaux. They bought what had been the Silver Spoon in Bocage Shopping Center and set about redesigning the restaurant, which included adding a bar and a wine room, redoing the kitchen and completely overhauling the menu.
In a city that doesn’t take to change very well, it was risky.
But gradually word is spreading and the popularity of the restaurant is starting to grow. Patrons come from all over the area, and some from out of town.
Gresham is heartened by the acclaim the restaurant has received and humbled, too. As for future plans, Gresham said he is happy to stay in Baton Rouge, a culinary market that he believes holds a lot of opportunity for aspiring young chefs like himself.
“There is a lot of potential here,” he said. “You have a lot of great talent like Scott Varnado at Stroube’s, Jaime Hernandez and Joey Daigle at Juban’s, Peter Sclafani at Ruffino’s. They’re doing a lot of cool stuff and we have a lot of opportunity to grow.”