“I usually have this conversation late at night when I’ve had too much to drink,” Donald Link says. The soft-spoken New Orleans chef is talking about Southern food, or what qualifies as real Southern food, a topic he doesn’t like to ramble about when he’s sober. But a topic he’s more than qualified to discuss. Link is the James Beard Award-winning chef/owner of four New Orleans institutions: Herbsaint, Cochon, Cochon Butcher and Pêche.
“When I’m driving through small towns, I look for Southern restaurants,” he says. “I’m thrilled when I find a real Southern restaurant, not a chef-y Southern restaurant, but a real one. It usually involves some sort of buffet or family-style eating. And it’s like wow, here it is. This is awesome food. And it’s always cheap.”
Later this month Link will open his first eatery outside of New Orleans, an outpost of his sandwich shop Cochon Butcher, in Nashville. We caught up with him after he returned home from a work-cation to the Caribbean.
Did you discover anything new while you were in the Caribbean?
Yeah, I’m really interested in that area right now. I went to Saint Lucia and Martinique and ate some good, old-fashioned Creole that you don’t really find anymore—blood sausage, crab backs and salt conch fritters. Saint Lucia was so fascinating because some people speak with a slight French accent and some people speak with a slight British accent. One of the dishes I had was black pudding, which is an English dish, served next to chilies and cucumbers, which is definitely more of that Caribbean flair. It’s such a mix.
Every place I go comes into the menu somehow. I’ve been playing with curry for the last three months. I was in Belize in a Mayan village in the jungle, having this chicken curry that just knocked my socks off. It was the closest thing to Cajun food that I’ve had outside of Louisiana, anywhere. The spice mix was different, but it was almost the same dish that we serve in Louisiana: the way they cooked it with all of the bones in it and served it over rice was so similar.
Have peoples’ perceptions, expectations of New Orleans food changed in the years since you opened Herbsaint?
Definitely. New Orleans food has changed a lot. Paul Prudhomme, Susan Spicer, and Emeril [Lagasse] were game-changers in New Orleans. But even in those days there was just a small handful of those guys doing something different. There was a quote, I think it was in The New York Times, that said in the old days, New Orleans was a city of 5,000 restaurants and five recipes. That was funny, because it seemed like that to me, too. It got a little boring.
But food can still evolve and still keep its core integrity. That’s the whole nature of what Creole food really is: it’s this evolving New World mix of food and it’s never stuck in one point in time. Even if you go back 200 years, the food continually changes. It was African mixed in the Caribbean with European influences. Then that migrated to New Orleans and then you got the French influence, and the Spanish, and the German, and the Italians.
Southern cuisine is really popular in the rest of the country, in the rest of the world, right now. Why are people suddenly so interested in it?
Everybody’s going back to those regional, local ingredients, and the South has got all that stuff—the greens, the peppers, the peas. It makes a lot of sense to me that Southern food would be popular, because it’s fucking great when it’s done right. It disappeared for a while, so it’s interesting to watch this Southern resurgence. I was flying through Atlanta yesterday and I stopped in this place and ate fried chicken and collard greens and black-eyed peas. That’s what should be in the Atlanta airport. But it wasn’t for a long time.
Do people need to have Southern roots to be able to cook good Southern food?
I usually have this conversation late at night when I’ve had too much to drink. Yes and no. It’s like saying, can I cook French food if I’m not French? I can. Do I cook it like somebody’s grandmother in Burgundy in the 1800s? I don’t have the same ingredients, but I do a really good job with it.
Everyone’s got his or her own judge of what good Southern food is, and for me it’s my grandfather’s. So anything I ever eat that’s Southern, that he used to cook, I measure by that. I measure myself by that too. A lot of people have childhood memories of what food they ate. When they have it 40 years later, does it trigger that taste, that flavor, that profile, that memory? I’m the same way with my Cajun food. I’ve never had Cajun food in a restaurant that I thought was as good as what I grew up with. I would say the same about most Southern food too. But every now and then you get that one that’s like wow, this is how my granddad cooked it. And it’s a very personal take and anyone else from the South, and especially Cajun country, is going to judge everything by the way their grandparents cooked it. At least in my generation. My kids’ generation doesnʼt have grandparents cooking for them like I did.
Is your kids’ generation missing out on the family food culture?
Definitely. They’re growing up in the city, I grew up in a smaller town. My kids aren’t going over to granddad’s and grandmother’s house and having creamed corn and ham hawks and collard greens and rabbit and dumplings. They aren’t growing up with that food memory. My kids eat sushi and Mexican food—city food. My kids’ food memories aren’t going to be my food memories. But the sensibility behind Vietnamese cooking, which is pretty big in New Orleans, of balancing brightness with fatty foods is how I cook these days.
Does incorporating new flavors from other regions dilute Southern cuisine?
It adds to it. It would get really boring if you ate the same thing every single day. I love fried chicken and cornbread, but I’m not going to eat it everyday. That’s what I love about Cochon: We have items on the menu that are very classic Cajun, but we also have a good section of the menu that’s the evolving side of what Cajun and Creole and Southern is. That’s the exciting part about food is seeing how it evolves but still keeping its core intact.
You’re opening a Cochon Butcher in Nashville on August 29. What attracted you to Nashville?
We looked at a lot of places in the South to find the best market to fit the concept and vibe that we have here in New Orleans. And after looking at several Southern cities, which I should probably not name, we decided on Nashville because we just really liked the scene there. Weʼve got lots of friends there who own restaurants and the music scene is great. It’s just got such a good energy. It feels like a really happening place.
A lot of chefs such as Sean Brock and Maneet Chauhan are opening restaurants in Nashville right now. Why is it suddenly so hot? We were interested in Nashville years ago, before the boom of chefs coming in from out of town. I almost feel bad being a part of that. We have a partnership with people who are based there. One of our partners owns Jim ‘N Nick’s and our chef, Levon Wallace, has family ties to Nashville. It was just a really good fit for us. What’s drawing other people to Nashville is the same thing that we’re drawn to. It’s got that great midsize city feel that’s not too big and not too small. It’s kind of like Austin or New Orleans. The people are super nice and it just seems like a really genuine, good place.
Many chefs who have been in the industry as long as you have start spending a lot of time on TV shows to stay relevant. But you just focus on your restaurants. What are you doing so right that keeps people coming back?
Well, not doing TV shows first off. I’m not a TV guy. I’m not an actor. You have to be either a TV guy or a chef. It’s too difficult to be both. I don’t know if that’s possible actually, to do both. I choose being a chef and working on my restaurants over TV. One of the lost arts in cooking in general is just doing real food real well. A lot of people try to change things and do trends so they can stand out. I don’t really need to do that. Our restaurants speak for themselves.
Alyson Sheppard is the token Southerner at Playboy.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep