The Mid-City restaurant MoPho started with a chef’s infatuation with Vietnamese food, and his curiosity for where it could go outside its traditional borders. Now it has brought that chef, Michael Gulotta, one of the more prominent honors in American culinary circles.
Food & Wine magazine today named Gulotta to its list of Best New Chefs for 2016. The editors explain their annual list as an effort “to uncover America’s most brilliant up-and-coming chefs.” It’s an honor he shares with 10 other chefs around the country this year.
Food & Wine began its Best New Chef awards in 1988, and over the years it has ID’d some top names in the industry early in their careers, including Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud. Among New Orleans chefs, Frank Brigtsen was among the first class of winners and others to follow include Susan Spicer, John Besh (Gulotta’s former boss), Greg Sonnier, John Harris of Lilette, Sue Zemanick of Gautreau’s and Ian Schnoebelen of Mariza.
Gulotta runs a small, growing restaurant company, the MoPho Group, with his brother Jeff Gulotta and their longtime friend Jeffrey Bybee.
“The restaurant wouldn’t be there if they weren’t part of it,” said Michael Gulotta. “It seems a little off for me to get the award, because they’re just as much a part of this.”
They opened MoPho in 2014. Last year, they took over the tavern kitchen at Finn McCool’s Irish Pub, with a walk-up window for bar food called Rum and the Lash. In January they expanded with another eatery within a bar, Tana at the cocktail lounge Treo, where they serve regional Italian dishes with a specialty in pastas.
“An industry restaurant”
Both Gulotta brothers and Bybee are New Orleans natives and lifers in the local restaurant industry. Michael was chef de cuisine at Restaurant August, John Besh’s lux flagship, before leaving to open MoPho and his brother and their business partner had logged many years in kitchen and management positions.
To set out on their own, they zeroed in on the food they found themselves craving after a long day, and that was Vietnamese food. Gulotta’s idea was to start with the staples of this cuisine and apply a broader culinary perspective and some New Orleans fundamentals.
“It’s soul-warming food, with a lighter edge,” said Gulotta. “Our goal is always to be a fun, gregarious place, an industry restaurant with that food that people will always come back for.”
It was a much different look at a deeply traditional cuisine, and for MoPho for path has not always been smooth. Gulotta’s approach sometimes drew critcism from diners expecting the standards of their favorite pho shop. And though the restaurant received a burst of attention early on, Gulotta acknowledged there were some tough times after that initial buzz wore off.
But along the way MoPho has built its own following with new ideas for comfort food on a menu that is highly original yet remains approachable.
Today, this starts with a familiar framework of spring rolls and pho and vermicelli bowls, retooled with the particulars of Gulf Coast flavors and an eye for precision. Pork shoulder and preserved satsuma go into one noodle bowl, lamb neck and smoked tofu soak in green curry, and when the chefs decide to char-grill some oysters they skip the standard garlic butter and instead apply shrimp paste and headcheese and a bouquet of herbs.
For all the interest MoPho has garnered, it still feels like a neighborhood spot. There are paper towel rolls on the table, kids slurping noodles with their parents, a patio of picnic tables and an outdoor grill for weekend pig roasts, a happy hour and a food-friendly wine list.
In introducing their winners, the Food & Wine editors described Gulotta’s cooking as “awesome, Delta-inspired Vietnamese food.” That fits pretty well, and the national recognition feels right for a homegrown talent who has gone against the grain and built his own niche.
514 City Park Ave., (504) 482-6845
Lunch and dinner daily
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.