Chef Kristen Essig stepping down at Meauxbar and Cavan, eyes own culinary project _lowres

Advocate photo by SARA ESSEX BRADLEY -- Chef Kristen Essig, shown here at Meauxbar in the French Quarter.

The local restaurant group LeBlanc+Smith has made some big moves in the past few years, and through many of them chef Kristen Essig has led the culinary side. Now Essig, executive chef of Meauxbar and the newly-opened Cavan, is parting ways with the company.

Essig said she is leaving to develop ideas for her own culinary project, though the parameters of what’s next for her remain wide open.

“I have been so fortunate and blessed and I love the people here so much,” said Essig. “But I feel like I have to do something for myself and it would be unfair to stay if I wasn’t giving 100 percent here.”

Robert LeBlanc, a partner in LeBlanc+Smith, said the departure was amicable and that he’s eager to see Essig succeed in her own venture.

“She has the capability to do whatever she wants to do successfully,” said LeBlanc. “Working with her has made me a better restaurateur. I’ll miss her, but she’s left an imprint on our restaurants and she’s someone I know we’ll still count on to tell us how we’re doing, what’s working and what’s not.”

Essig will officially leave her position on April 25. John Bel, sous chef at Meauxbar, will become executive chef of that French Quarter bistro. At Cavan, Ben Thibodeaux, now chef de cuisine, will lead the kitchen upon her departure.

A Florida native, Essig moved to New Orleans after culinary school and worked at a string of high-profile restaurants, including Emeril’s, Bayona and the former Peristyle. She worked as a private chef for a stretch and in 2013 took over the kitchen at Ste. Marie, which LeBlanc and his partners first opened in 2010. She made an immediate impact here, revamping the CBD restaurant’s menu, though other changes were afoot for Ste. Marie.

LeBlanc bought the longtime Rampart Street bistro Meauxbar, closed Ste. Marie and essentially transplanted its staff to the French Quarter to make a new Meauxbar. Last year, she started working with LeBlanc+Smith on its next project, Cavan, a modern tavern-style eatery built in a historic townhouse Uptown. Cavan opened in February.

The same company runs the gastropub Sylvain and the bar Barrel Proof, where Essig and partner Michael Stoltzfus, chef/owner of the restaurant Coquette, run a side project in the tavern kitchen called Little Bird. Essig said Little Bird will continue as normal within Barrel Proof.

The chef said she has mulled the timing of her departure, and while her own plans remain open she felt that Meauxbar and Cavan were well positioned for the transition.

“We have great people at our spots who are ready to step up,” she said.

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.