Can a new start also trace a full circle? Ask Rita Bernhardt.
When she moved to New Orleans in 2011 her first job was cooking on the line at Domenica. She met her husband while working there and eventually went on to develop her own eatery.
Now she’s back at Domenica as chef de cuisine, and this time she’s tasked with running its kitchen, directing its menu and helping guide the future of an acclaimed New Orleans restaurant through a high-profile transition.
Bernhardt, 27, is also the first chef hired by Domenica’s parent company BRG Hospitality since Shannon White became its CEO in October.
Formerly called the Besh Restaurant Group, the company was formed by celebrity chef John Besh, who stepped down last fall following allegations of sexual harassment.
“It’s exciting for me because this is the first hire I’ve made since taking over,” said White. “But really, I think Rita is so talented and has so much heart, I’d be excited to have her working with us no matter what.”
Domenica is known for its wood-fired pizza, house-made pastas and its salumi. Those cornerstones will remain, while Bernhardt and her kitchen team will begin adding new dishes in the weeks ahead.
“I want to turn this into a super collaborative kitchen,” she said. “I have big expectations for what this restaurant should be.”
The chef is also aware that she too will face high expectations, and also some skepticism.
“I know some people will see this and say they just hired a woman to smooth things over,” she said.
What Bernhardt herself sees is a chance to make her mark on a prominent New Orleans restaurant and to take a leadership role as a new generation of chefs comes into its own.
“There are a lot of badass women in this company, they’re people cooking on the line now and they’re coming up,” she said.
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That’s a sentiment her boss understands as well.
White, 31, had been rising in the ranks of the restaurant company, from waitress to bartender to operations manager. Her responsibilities multiplied overnight when she became CEO in the midst of a company crisis.
While much of her work since has been focused internally, she sees the new chef hire as a chance to show where the company is headed under her leadership.
“This is my job now, to create opportunities for the next generation,” White said.
The chef and the CEO worked together earlier at Domenica, when White was the manager and when Bernhardt was starting out.
Bernhardt later cooked at BRG’s lux flagship, Restaurant August. She and William Barial, now her husband, then developed a supper club called the PDR (for private dining room), which they ran from their home. Eventually they turned it into a walk-up eatery at the St. Roch Market, though they closed it about a year later. Bernhardt was chef at Dick & Jenny’s prior to her return to Domenica.
Domenica opened in 2009 in the Roosevelt hotel. It was the fourth restaurant from Besh’s company, and the first led by Alon Shaya as executive chef and partner. Shaya won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: South while at the helm of Domenica in 2015.
The Besh/Shaya partnership led to the Uptown spin off Pizza Domenica and Shaya, the modern Israeli restaurant. But it went through a dramatic split last fall, which led to a lawsuit that was finally resolved in April through an out-of-court settlement. Shaya now has his own company, which is developing the Israeli restaurant Saba, and he is no longer affiliated with the BRG restaurants.
Michael Wilson is executive chef for Domenica, Pizza Domenica and Shaya, overseeing all three while working with Bernhardt on Domenica. The previous chef de cuisine at Domenica, David Taylor, is now working at Restaurant August with executive chef Todd Pulsinelli.
While she has just started in her new role, Bernhardt outlined the spirit of where she hopes to take Domenica.
“We want up make this place fun again,” said Bernhardt. “I think Domenica started taking itself too seriously. Yes, we’re a northern Italian restaurant but we’re also in southeast Louisiana cooking for New Orleanians. We can have more fun with it.”
One more change at Domenica: its happy hour, always popular for half-price pizzas, beer and wine, is now longer. It’s from 2-6 p.m. daily.
123 Baronne St., 504-648-6020
Lunch and dinner daily
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