Q & A with Chef Donald Link

Chef Donald Link grew up in South Louisiana in a family steeped in making boudin and other Cajun culinary traditions. He began cooking with his grandfather as a boy and worked in restaurants in Louisiana before heading out west to San Francisco in 1993. Link attended the California Culinary Academy and cooked at such legendary San Francisco eateries as the Flying Saucer and the Elite Café.

Chef Link returned to New Orleans in 2000 to open Herbsaint with Chef Susan Spicer. Herbsaint echoes Link’s dedication to quality ingredients and local produce, as well as house-made pastas and cured meats. He spent months feeding rescue workers and locals in post-Katrina New Orleans and still managed to open Cochon with partner Stephen Strjewski in Spring 2006.

Cochon is an homage to the foods and cooking techniques on which he was raised. The menu features smothered greens, gumbos, and all the foods he watched and then helped his grandfather make. Chef Link and Stryjewski also oversee an in-house Boucherie. His cookbook, Festivals, Funerals and Family Recipes, will be published by Clarkson Potter by early 2009.

The James Beard Foundation’s 2007 Best Chef: South, Chef Donald Link was kind enough to answer a few questions about his life, his restaurants and his food philosophies.

Where are your culinary roots planted? 

South Louisiana. I like to keep it all here. All of the seafood and pigs that we use in the restaurants are locally fished and raised. We have connections with local farmers. My sister-in-law grows the lettuces and arugula that we use, and we work with local farmers to grow what the restaurants need. It makes sense.  There’s no point in getting what we can grow here from somewhere else. Local resources use less gas, less people handle the food. It’s better and cheaper if it’s local. It also supports the local economy – same reason I do all my Christmas shopping on Magazine Street in New Orleans.

What is your earliest kitchen memory? 

I remember being at my Grandad’s house in Lake Charles, Louisiana shucking beans and ripping greens.

How are passing down your culinary heritage? 

I have two children, ages eight and one-and-a-half. My oldest daughter cooks with me. She likes to make pasta from scratch and has been since she was two. She makes Ravioli and Gnocchi and pretty much does it by herself. We make desserts together.  She also picks parsley and shells peas like I did when I was growing up.

When you give a party, what’s on the menu? 

I’ll serve anything from Gumbo to Dim Sum. I usually pick a theme. I worked in San Francisco for a while so I got lots of practice cooking Asian food. Gumbo and potato salad for the Super Bowl.

What ingredients do you always have on hand? 

Flour, lard, onions, potatoes, grits, and lots of rice. 

What is in your refrigerator at home? 

I keep it pretty light in there but I always have eggs, butter, fresh vegetables, milk, half and half, and orange juice. Condiments, pickled peppers, preserves, chow chow, beer, and wine. And I keep boudin and shrimp in the freezer.

What is your most used cookbook? 

I don’t really use a cookbook, but I go to Larousse’s Gastronomique to reference classical dishes.

What is your favorite kitchen gadget? 

Probably my mortar and pestle. I put garlic and anchovies in there to make Caesar dressing, or I’ll put in peppers for Mexican dishes.

What is your most memorable meal?

Any meal my granddad made. I’ll say Squirrel and Dumplings with Cornbread and Smothered Greens.

What is your favorite place to eat? 

Lilette Restaurant in New Orleans.

Any guilty pleasures or food indulgences?

Duck skin sandwiches – I take the skin from a roasted duck and put it, a little meat, and some mustard on a baguette.

What are your favorite foods?

Steak and fries – a classic. Chicken and dumplings. Thai fried fish in spicy chili broth. And Gumbo, I eat it every day.

What advice would you give to an aspiring chef? 

Work hard and clean. Be quiet.

What is the most useful ingredient? 

Salt

What is the one thing you will not eat? 

Andouillette. It’s a French sausage with an intestine casing and packed with intestines. I ate it once but never again.

What food reminds you of childhood? 

Southern food. It’s what I still cook.

Who or what influenced you to become a professional chef? 

Albert Trodjman at the Flying Saucer in San Francisco. He was a maniac and an amazing cook. Working with him I realized that there was a future in cooking. I was passionate about food and saw that it was possible to translate that passion into owning a restaurant.

What is your favorite food and wine pairing? 

A Bordeaux with steak tartare and French fries.

What is your favorite international cuisine? 

I like them all equally. What I eat depends on my mood. Right now I really like Vietnamese. Chinese is always high up on the list but only in a couple of places – Ton Kiang in San Francisco redefines Chinese food. Yank Sing (also in San Francisco) is a favorite too.

What do you think will be/should be the next trend in fine cuisine? 

Southern food!

What is your favorite go-to ingredient time and time again? 

Rice. You can do so much with it: sticky rice, mushroom rice. It’s an easy thing to make. Rice takes on flavors and goes with almost anything.

If you weren’t a chef, what might you be? 

Astrophysicist. That was my first dream.

What do you like to do when you’re not cooking?

Play tennis. I’ve been playing since I was a boy.

Does your wife ever cook for you? 

She does her mother’s tuna casserole, which I love, and a really great grilled cheese.

Is there anything that you cook that is guaranteed to get you out of the doghouse? 

Her favorites I cook at home are fajitas (which are in the book as Amanda’s fajitas) and any time I do dim sum. For her birthday one year I cooked 16 dim sum dishes.