Chef Isaac Toups and his wife Amanda run two restaurants in New Orleans, Toups’ Meatery and Toups South. Isaac was a fan favorite on season 13 of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef.” Now he’s starring in his own Food Network show, “Kitchen Takeover,” in which he tries to fix failing restaurants. In the first episode, which premiered Aug. 3, he tried to help a New Orleans and Cajun-themed restaurant outside Atlanta called Margarita Momma’s Bourbon St. Grille.
Gambit: Why did Food Network pick you to fix failing restaurants?
Toups: Food Network was interested in me in general. They said they liked my attitude and my presence on video. They said they wanted to do a “Kitchen Takeover” show, which is cool because I get to help people and be on TV at the same time.
Restaurants can close for 12,000 reasons. A lot of people have bitten off more than they can chew. Some don’t know how to cook. Some know how to cook but don’t know the business side of it — and everything in between. No one opens a restaurant to close it, but a lot of people will open up a restaurant because they think it’s romantic. I hear that all the time, people say “I want to open up a restaurant.” I’m like: You don’t know what that means. It’s tough. A lot of people don’t know that until they’re in debt, so they can’t just drop it. We want to help them out.
I come more from the mentoring side. Not the yelling-at-people side. Some people need to be fussed at. Some people need a hug. Everybody needs a little something different.
Creative French toast and eggs Benedict dishes are on Cajun chef's menu
G: What do you know about the restaurant when filming starts?
T: The crew goes out a month ahead of time. They don’t give me a lot of information because they want my honest reaction on camera. I may look at their menu online and know right off the bat what’s going on. Sometimes I know I am going to walk in and find frozen fish from China, some improper cooking techniques and people in the front of the house that don’t know what they’re doing. In one, this mom and daughter team cooked pretty well, but they didn’t know the logistics of a restaurant. At Margarita Momma’s, they’re trying to open up this cliched New Orleans restaurant and it’s all over the place. They have daiquiri machines. They’re trying to serve Cajun food and no one’s Cajun, which is an assault on my heritage. You are going to see some brutal honesty with the food. I can’t lie about that. It doesn’t help if I sugarcoat it. That’s not fixing anything. Sometimes you have to bruise feelings, but I am not mean about it.
G: Who were your mentors and how did you learn to run a restaurant?
T: Right off the bat, Emeril Lagasse. When I first started, he didn’t know me. I was just a fry cook. He showed me how to run a business, how to treat people. Bob Iacovone from Cuvee was one of my favorite chefs from New Orleans. Anthony Scanio at (Emeril’s) Delmonico taught me a bunch about food. Alton Brown — I have never met him, but I’ve read his books and he has some good stuff to say.
I learned to be a chef before I opened a restaurant, but you never really get it until it’s your own money. A lot of this stuff is trial and error, and honestly, mostly error. Bad summers will teach you a lot of lessons. You can have the best food on the planet, but you have to have customers.
In August, the annual restaurant promotion Coolinary offers set-price menus around New Orleans, baiting the hook for meals out during the slow…
Whatcha reading this summer? We asked a few dozen New Orleanians for their recommendations.