The restaurant group that Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman have built in their hometown of Memphis is as tight knit as they come. The two chefs have been friends since the sixth grade. They live a few blocks from one another. Their three restaurants all sit on the same block.
Now they’ve leapfrogged about 400 miles due south to New Orleans for their Italian restaurant Josephine Estelle, which opened this week in the CBD inside the new Ace Hotel.
It’s the latest example of high-profile chefs from out of town joining the deluge of new dining options around New Orleans. When the chefs discuss their move, however, they sound less like empire builders and more like young dads, proud and maybe a little dazzled by the widening circle of their family.
“We take influences from the people around us, the farmers who supply us, the chefs we work with, and we let it evolve organically,” said Hudman. “It’s a completely new world for us in New Orleans, so we’re excited. We have this new set of creative people and influences.”
Their executive chef for Josephine Estelle is Phillip Mariano, a New Orleans native who was previously chef de cuisine at Domenica. Mariano is also in charge of food for the Ace Hotel’s lobby bar and for Alto, its open-air rooftop bar and grill, which opens this weekend.
Josephine Estelle, which Ticer and Hudman named by combining their daughters’ first names, sits at the intersection of Italian methods and regional Southern ingredients.
On the opening menu, this takes the shape of agnolotti with sweetbreads and chanterelle mushrooms and tortellini with smoked brisket and collards in potlikker. There’s grilled asparagus with country ham and trout roe, duck with polenta, citrus and Brussels sprouts and, on the dessert list, a peanut butter pie budino.
“It’s a different blend of flavors, not strictly traditional but pulling from different influences from all three of our lives,” said Mariano. “The philosophy is Italian but it’s not going to be the traditional red sauce Italian.”
Old bones, new energy
Josephine Estelle is a striking new restaurant, its style synched to the Art Deco design of the new Ace Hotel’s century-old CBD building. With thick columns reaching to the high ceiling, amber-colored lamps, smoothly curving banquettes of dark wood and windows framing views of streetcars rattling past, the bar and dining room here can feel like a grand old train station, now repurposed as a contemporary restaurant.
It’s at the center of a beautifully-renovated, multifaceted hotel space that unfolds in a progression of social spaces. Just past the check-in desk, there’s a lobby bar and then a small, cleverly-designed music venue called Three Keys, which is enclosed with soundproofed walls that can also retract to open the space up. The Ace Hotel and other partners are developing an oyster bar in an adjacent building down the block. A coffee shop from the Portland, Oregon-based Stumptown brand is slated to open here this spring too.
Take elevators up to the ninth floor and you step out to Alto, with it own pool, pavilion, bar and kitchen for Mariano’s menu of small plates and spiedini (Italian style grilled skewers). Alto opens Saturday (March 19).
To develop Josephine Estelle itself, however, the chefs followed an approach that has already proven successful in Memphis, and one they link back to their respective families.
Lessons from home, abroad
Ticer and Hudman both hail from large families, and each has an Italian-born grandmother they credit as the initial inspiration for their culinary careers. Drawn to the stove at home, they later traveled to Italy to study at the source. They opened their first Memphis restaurant, Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in 2008.
“The idea was, we’re in the American South, let’s see what’s around us and how that correlates with what we learned from Italy,” said Ticer. “It should resonate in your Southern memories, or if you grew up in an Italian family it should resonate that way too.”
The chefs’ second, more casual restaurant Hog & Hominy opened in 2011 across the street from their first property, and in 2014 they added Porcellino’s Craft Butcher, a meat market and café. They were nominated for a James Beard Foundation award last year, and they’re up for consideration again this year.
Expanding from their close circle of Memphis operations to New Orleans is a big move, though Ticer and Hudman say the way they’ve navigated some potential pitfalls in their careers thus far gives them confidence for this chapter.
“Everyone warned us not to go into business with your friends, but it’s been more like a marriage, we know each others strengths and weaknesses,” said Hudman.
“We’ve gone through every single experience together,” Ticer added. “I think that helps keep us grounded.”
600 Carondelet St., 504-930-3070
Breakfast and lunch Mon.-Fri., brunch Sat. and Sun., dinner daily (until midnight Fri. and Sat.)
600 Carondelet St. (rooftop)
Open to the public with a $10 cover, which is waived after spending $20 on food or drink.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.