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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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Exploring AOC Costières de Nimes, Rhône Valley

Costières de Nîmes was a pleasant discovery for us, far from the more heavily visited areas of Provence to the east. The Rhône Valley’s southernmost wine region sits on a plateau that stretches north from the Camargue delta region 50 kilometers to the south. From some hilltop vineyards, one can see Arles and an outline of the Frank Gehry-designed The Luma Arts Foundation complex, which has turned that ancient Roman city in Provence into a contemporary arts destination.

View from a Costières de Nimes vineyard

Vines have been cultivated in Costières de Nimes since the days of Ancient Greece. The area was also occupied by the Romans after they conquered Egypt during the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. The region and its namesake city, Nîmes, display the imagery of a crocodile tied to a palm tree, from the pavement to street signs and a few whimsical sculptures positioned here and there. The crocodile represents Egypt, and the palm tree is the Roman symbol of victory.

You can find the crocodile and the palm tree throughout the city of Nîmes.

Winemaking began to flourish in Costières de Nîmes during the Middle Ages, and the region’s wines became the preferred selection of the 14th century Papal Court when it occupied nearby Avignon. A boost to the viticultural economy occurred in the 20th century with the construction of both Pierre-Paul Riquet’s Canal du Midi and Philippe Lamour’s Canal du Bas-Rhone which facilitated transportation from the region.

An AOC since 1986, Costières de Nîmes‘ production is red wines (55%), rosés (40%) and whites (5%).  Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah are the dominant red varieties (80%); Carignan and Cinsault are also used.  Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussane are the three main white grapes, followed by Bourboulenc, Clairette, Vermentino and Viognier. The reds are sultry and juicy with dark blackberry and raspberry notes; the whites are aromatic with a touch of salinity thanks to the region’s proximity to the sea and the soil. The climate is classic southern France – Mediterranean Sea breezes mixed with cool mistral winds from the north and more than 200 days of sunshine.

Rockin the vineyards with Jérôme Castillon, Château L’Ermitage, AOC Costières de Nîmes, Nimes, Rhône Valley

Our first visit was Château L’Ermitage. Owner Jérôme Castillon took us on a bumpy open-air Land Rover ride through the hilly vineyards to shows us the rocky terrain covered with garrigue, a particularly herbaceous Mediterranean brush that contributes to the earthy herbal character of the wines. Thanks to the proximity to the Rhône River, the soils are alluvial with many large pale pebbles, called galets.

More rocky vineyards with Costières de Nîmes vignerons, Anne and François Collard, Château Mourgues du Grès

Later, we visited more, even steeper and stonier vineyards at Château Mourgues du Grès with proprietors François and Anne Collard. At their winery, which was formerly a convent, a few other local producers joined is to present their wines along those from  Château Mourgues du Grès, including: Maison Gabriel Meffre (Anthony Taylor), Mas des Bressades (Cyril Marès), Château de Valcombe (Nicolas Ricome).

A tasting with Costières de Nîmes vignerons. (left to right): Nicolas Ricome (Château de Valcombe), Cyril Marès (Mas des Bressades), Anthony Taylor (Maison Gabriel Meffre), Ann Collard, François Collard (Château Mourgues du Grès)

In the evening, we had dinner in Nîmes at the Museum of Roman History (Musee de la Romanate. This is a newer addition to the city of Nîmes. It’s a large modern edifice with a rooftop garden and panoramic views. We read in this article that the architect, Elizabeth de Portzamparc, was inspired by a Roman toga. We’re not sure we get that, but we did get – and enjoyed -the wines we tasted during our meal at museum’s on-site restaurant, La Table du 2 Brasserie by Michelin Star-rated Chef Franck Putelat. The producer was fourth generation vintner Fanny Boyer, Château Beaubois.

Maison Carrée (“square house”) is a perfectly preserved Roman temple in the heart of Nîmes

If you visit the region, seeing Nimes is a must. It’s filled with history and is nice for strolling and spotting crocodile and palm tree imagery. Among the many sights of historical note, two include the giant ancient amphitheater that now serves as a performance space and the Maison Carrée,  a completly preserved the ancient Roman.  More on visiting Nimes here.

We also recommend this article in The New York Times Style Magazine

Domaine des Clos was formerly a winery. Now it is a lovely hotel restored and owned by Sandrine and David Ausset.

A note on where we stayed…We loved our two nights at Domaine des Clos, a boutique apartment-hotel with spacious grounds and very good food (we had three meals there- breakfast, lunch and dinner). Owners Sandrine and David Ausset, both native to the region, left their corporate jobs in Paris to spend years renovating this abandoned 18th century wine estate. Sandrine is passionate about ayurvedic health and offers special retreats.

We came; we saw; we tasted- and enjoyed- the wines of Costières de Nîmes, Rhône Valley

Our trip was arranged by Inter-Rhône which has very helpful information on the Rhône Valley on its website www.vins-rhone.com. We also recommend www.costieres-nimes.org

Listen to The Connected Table SIPS with Anthony Taylor, Maison Gabriel Meffre, who discussed the region and styles of wine produced in Costières de Nîmes.

Ir’s considered Good Luck to touch the nose of the crocodile in Nimes.