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Women Command the Kitchen at Commander’s Palace

Commander’s Palace has been a breeding ground for many leading New Orleans chefs, including Emeril Lagasse, Tory McPhail and the late Paul Prud’homme and Jamie Shannon. For the first time in the restaurant’s 128-year-old history, a woman is leading the kitchen.

Chef Megan “Meg” Bickford is no stranger to Commander’s Palace. She worked closely with former executive chef, Tory McPhail who decided last year to move to Montana. McPhail was born in Bozeman and accepted a position working with a restaurant group there. Many were surprised and saddened to see him depart. He had served as both a de facto culinary ambassador for New Orleans and had earned many awards during his long tenure at Commander’s Palace.

Chef Megan Bickford (Photo by Chris Granger)

Everyone was equally delighted to see Chef Meg assume her new role. The Louisiana native has family in Bayou Lafourche and attended the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux. After graduation, she joined Commander’s Palace, advancing through the ranks over the years. For a time, she was executive chef at family’s restaurant, Café Adelaide until it closed in 2018.

Since taking over Commander’s kitchen, Chef Meg has upheld the restaurant’s award-winning haute Creole menu and “dirt- to- plate within 100 miles” philosophy, as in 90% of ingredients come from within 100 miles of the restaurant. And she’s added her personal flair.

Corn-Fried Louisiana Catfish with tomatillo, grilled corn and salsa over Bibb lettuce
Corn-Fried Louisiana Catfish with tomatillo, grilled corn and salsa over Bibb lettuce

Dishes we tried included Wild Louisiana White Shrimp Curry, ancho-citrus glazed Gulf shrimp with crispy artichokes, fire-roasted cauliflower, sweet potatoes and spiced coconut curry broth; Corn-Fried Louisiana Catfish with tomatillo, grilled corn and salsa over Bibb lettuce and Griddle Seared Gulf Fishcakes, smoked redfish over Louisiana soybeans, local mushrooms, roasted squash and truffled cauliflower cream.

Griddle Seared Gulf Fishcakes, smoked redfish over Louisiana soybeans, local mushrooms, roasted squash and truffled cauliflower cream.
Griddle Seared Gulf Fishcakes, smoked redfish over Louisiana soybeans, local mushrooms, roasted squash and truffled cauliflower cream.
Pecan crusted Drum with Crabmeat, Kale and Corn
Pecan crusted Drum with Crabmeat, Kale and Corn

Hospitality is in Lally Brennan’s DNA. Both she and her cousin Tí Adelaide Martin grew up in the family restaurant business and now serve as co-proprietors of Commander’s Palace and Sobou, a stylish restaurant in at the W hotel in the French Quarter. They also co-authored In The Land of Cocktails from the Cocktail Chicks. After all, New Orleans is the origination of some classic cocktails, including the Sazerac, French 75 and Ramos Gin Fizz, among others.

Lally Brennan and Ti Adelaide Martin
Lally Brennan, Tí Adelaide Martin

Both Lally and Tí are longtime friends who make us feel like family every time we pay a visit to Commander’s Palace. But we’re really not alone. Everyone who dines at Commander’s Palace feels extra welcome. On any given day or night, one or both will be working the floor saying hello to every table of guests. And how lucky you are if you on hand for Sunday Jazz Brunch or twenty-five cent martinis at lunch. We’ve done both and celebrated a birthday and an anniversary.

In December 2016, we had the pleasure and honor of having both Tí and her legendary mother, Miss Ella Brennan, join us on The Connected Table Live! Ella was 91 and had co-authored a memoir with Ti entitled Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace: I Don’t Want a Restaurant Where a Jazz Band Can’t Come Marching Through. A film called “Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table” had been released. Both can be ordered at www.commanderspalace.com

In this edition of Link to podcast“>The Connected Table Live, we visit with Lally Brennan and Chef Megan Bickford.

Lally Brennan, Tí Adelaide Martin, Chef Megan Bickford outside Commander’s Palace (masked in 2020 due to COVID-19)
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A Must -Visit Museum For Southern Food & Beverage

For anyone curious about southern food and beverage culture, a visit to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (a.k.a. SoFAB) is a must-stop when you visit New Orleans. Located at 1504 Oretha C. Haley Boulevard, the museum is chock full of culinary culture and ephemera, ranging from the history of Popeye’s Fried Chicken and traditional New Orleans foods to the many foods, products and culinary curiosities native to each southern state. There is a demonstration kitchen; cooking classes and other educational programs are offered regularly. www.southernfood.org

Inside SOFAB. Museum hours are Thursday to Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

SoFAB also houses the Museum of American Cocktail (MOTAC), a fascinating history of America’s cocktail culture, and the John & Bonnie Boyd Hospitality & Culinary Library, containing over 11,000 volumes of culinary books, food and cocktail menus, pamphlets, archival documents and a growing number of important collections, other literature and ephemera, collected by and donated to SoFAB. It’s also home to the Nitty Grits Podcast Network, a selection of audio and video podcasts addressing food and drink topics.

The museum may appear small at first but, trust us when we tell you to take your time walking through the exhibits. There is much to digest, especially if you enjoy learning about the history of food and drink. The exhibits on New Orleans’ culinary history alone, ranging from the impact of Hurricane Katrina to the history of cooking with beans and a tribute to the late Leah Chase, offer much to reflect on.

Learn the history of New Orleans' famous Popeye's fried chicken and its dynamic founder, Al Copeland.
Learn the history of New Orleans’ famous Popeye’s fried chicken and its dynamic founder, Al Copeland.

Meet SoFAB’s Founder

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFAB) was founded in 2004 by Elizabeth Williams, who wanted a place where the intersection between culture and food could be studied. The museum began with pop-up exhibits and was the first official exhibit for what is now the Museum of American Cocktail. Over time, individuals began donating family artifacts to the museum, requiring the need for more space. SoFAB has been at its current location since 2014.

Williams, who joined us as our guest on The Connected Table LIVE May 5th, was born and raised in New Orleans to a family with Sicilian heritage. She notes in her bio that she was “always fascinated by the way the lure of nutmeg and peppercorns motivated the exploration of the world.”

Elizabeth Williams, President of the National Food & Beverage Foundation
Elizabeth Williams, President of the National Food & Beverage Foundation

A lawyer by training, Williams has had a long career working with foundations and museums. She served as President & CEO of the University of New Orleans Foundation and UNO Research and Technology Foundation, Inc. working in foundation budget management and financing, development and fundraising and management for properties including UNO Studio Center, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the D-Day Museum, now the National World War II Museum.

Since 2004 she has served as founding President of the National Food & Beverage Foundation and established the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. She has researched and written on the subject of food policy and is coauthor with Stephanie Jane Carter of The Encyclopedia of Law and Food (Greenwood Publishing, 2011).

Over lunch at Café Reconcile, a nonprofit restaurant and hospitality training ground for at-risk youth ages 16 to 24, Williams shared some of her projects for the National Food & Beverage Foundation, which includes the cookbook library and culinary archives, the SoFAB Meat Lab, a state-of-the-art facility offering classes and demonstrations on everything meat-related, from butchering to grilling, and the Nitty Grits podcast studio and other programs around culinary history and education.

SoFAB’s repository library includes The John & Bonnie Boyd Hospitality & Culinary Library  which contains over 11,000 volumes of culinary books, food and cocktail menus, pamphlets, archival documents and a growing number of important collections, other literature and ephemera, collected by and donated to the Southern Food & Beverage Museum.  The collection is non-circulating but available for reference. The library also contains a collection of books written by members of Les Dames d’Escoffier, a nonprofit organization of leading women in food fine beverage and hospitality.

Williams is encyclopedic on food and drink culture, especially when it comes to New Orleans. Listen to our conversation on everything from Mississippi tamales and Alabama white sauce to New Orleans Krewe of Red Beans on this edition of The Connected Table. Click below or this link