During his first few weeks at Antoine’s, Rich Lee did his best to keep a low profile, taking some time to quietly observe the historic French Quarter restaurant in action.
The first customers to meet the chef, however, were less subtle.
“The waiters here have their regulars, and during the holidays they were introducing me to a lot of the families coming in,” said Lee. “They’d tell me, ‘congratulations, welcome to the family. Don’t screw this up.’”
Lee is the new executive chef for Antoine’s, the restaurant officially announced today. He takes over the head culinary position from Michael Regua, who has worked at Antoine’s for 47 years.
That’s a big change, and at Antoine’s change is always a big deal.
Dating to 1840, it is the oldest restaurant in New Orleans and the oldest continually-operated, family-run restaurant in America. It is a repository of traditional French Creole cuisine, including some cornerstone dishes created in its kitchen, most famously oysters Rockefeller.
In a dining sector marked by constant churn and ever-changing trends, Antoine’s is treasured by its most ardent fans for its continuity. Its style and flavors and customs have become ingrained in the traditions of local families and organizations, especially Carnival groups. Of course, they are protective of the restaurant.
Lee is well aware of the expectations and how closely the Antoine’s faithful will be watching his debut. But he also said he was brought in to lead a kitchen that is indeed changing.
Doing so on Antoine’s own terms, and in a way that respects the relationships that run through this restaurant, is his mandate.
“This place got to be what it is because of its history, these recipes, its people,” said Lee. “To be able not only to continue these traditions but also to carry them forward into the 21st century, what chef wouldn’t consider that the ultimate honor?”
To be a classic, not a museum
Antoine’s, one of the most famous names in New Orleans dining, did not pick a famous name to lead its kitchen. Instead, the restaurant tapped a chef with experience cooking, creating menus, developing dishes and managing teams in large-scale kitchens and highly-varied culinary ventures.
Lee, 52, is a native of Charlotte, North Carolina. He served in the Coast Guard and later became executive steward (chef, essentially) for a U.S. Merchant Marine vessel. He worked at hotels and resorts along the Florida panhandle, and then spent a dozen years as general manager for large corporate restaurants in the Carolinas.
He first came to New Orleans seven years ago to work for Sodexo, the global food services company. Here, he was a chef and trainer, executive chef for the company’s energy division (overseeing food service on offshore oil rigs, among other things) and, most recently, senior manager for culinary development.
“I’m glad I can walk into this place with fresh eyes and with a different perspective,” Lee said. “I think I’m going to draw from all that experience from different parts of my career for what we need to do here."
Lee now heads a kitchen based around the city's indigenous French Creole cuisine. It will always serve the classics, but it is now gradually retooling and revamping.
Chefs can win acclaim and maybe get famous. Restaurateurs can build empires and they might make fortunes. But in New Orleans these aren't the …
“How do you evolve and be more relevant to more people while being perceived as not changing?” said Rick Blount, CEO of Antoine’s and a fifth-generation owner of the restaurant. "That’s not easy, but that’s part of this job.”
The balance is in modernizing how Antoine’s operates as a business, while preserving how Antoine’s feels as part of New Orleans dining culture.
That tall order has been Blount’s own task ever since taking charge of his family’s business in 2005. The stakes were thrown into overdrive by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath for the city’s economic, social and cultural life, all of which are filtered through the restaurant.
Through the intervening years, a gradual progression has continued with new approaches to marketing, behind-the-scenes accounting and management systems and other facets of the operation.
One of Lee’s jobs will be to streamline the kitchen's processes. Describing himself as “a spreadsheet guy,” part of that entails codifying recipes and techniques that have been passed down as practically an oral tradition in the Antoine’s kitchen.
It will be a long game, Lee acknowledged, with changes manifesting themselves over months, not overnight.
But Blount himself has specified areas where the Antoine’s menu should change, and outlined these as part of his new chef’s marching orders.
There should be better salads and side dishes, Blount said, and there should be a more versatile lunch menu, something between the prix fixe specials the restaurant now runs during lunch and the larger, more expensive dishes of the dinner menu. Expanding options for vegan and gluten-free dining are on the table.
“I just think there’s so much potential for us to remain this classic, to feel the same as it always has, but also to be able to experiment and do extraordinary things. There is a lot of room to grow,” said Blount. “We cannot be a museum.”
Lee, who has a hobby collecting antique cookbooks, sees opportunities to mine Antoine's own long history for new ideas. Bygone dishes could get new life as specials or for private dining menus, for instance.
While Lee is now being formally introduced as Antoine’s chef, he has been on the job since December. During that time he's been working closely with Regua, who is preparing to officially retire soon.
Regua got his own start at Antoine’s as a prep cook in 1972, eventually working his way up executive chef. He took over that position from the late John Deville, who worked at Antoine’s for 48 years.
Such long tenures are not so unusual at Antoine’s, a fact Lee is still getting his head around. One waiter, Sterling Constant, has been working at Antoine’s for as long as Lee himself has been alive.
That's another reason the chef said he is taking things slowly. And that’s why, even with a mandate from Antoine’s management to make his own changes, he has started by watching and listening.
“It’s was about coming in and observing, and treating people with respect and dignity,” said Lee. “My job one here was introducing myself.”
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