Local growers and producers supply many of Delmonico’s fresh ingredients, which Minch uses to create classic dishes, prepared in a modern, lighter style.
When Emeril Lagasse was well on his way to achieving super stardom during his years as Commander’s Palace executive chef, who could have guessed that he would one day own a restaurant founded by a member of the original Commanders family?
Well, it happened in 1997 when Emeril Lagasse purchased Delmonico’s, the restaurant begun more than one hundred years earlier by Anthony Commander. Anthony was the older brother of Emile Commander who established Commander’s Palace in 1880.
Of course, both landmarks changed hands over the past hundred-plus years, with the Brennan family taking personal supervision over Commander’s in 1974 and bringing the restaurant to its current culinary heights among the top dining rooms in the country.
When Anthony Commander set his sights on the one-story former dairy at 1300 St. Charles Avenue, Delmonico’s in New York was already renowned as an epicurean destination. More than seventy years after the New York restaurant opened, Commander approached the Delmonico family to obtain permission to use the name for his New Orleans eatery. His request was granted!
Commander sold the restaurant in 1911 to Anthony LaFranca who added a second floor gymnasium where bow-tied diners took off their coats and played at being boxers engaged in gentlemanly après-lunch contests.
Over the next eighty-five years, the LaFranca family continued to run Delmonico’s, making many design and business adjustments such as converting the old gym to dining rooms to enhance the operation. Over the decades the restaurant flourished serving many famous visitors as well as generations of New Orleans’ families.
When LaFranca’s daughters decided to sell the restaurant in 1997—in Emeril, they found a buyer who embraced the restaurant’s heritage. During the extensive renovation that followed, careful attention was paid to preserving architectural elements of the building and honoring the history of the LaFranca family.
Today, the elegant upstairs dining rooms overlooking St. Charles Avenue retain the names of the family members and in the bar, old sepia photos of the building and boxers are showcased.
And in the kitchen, current Chef de Cuisine Spencer Minch and his staff oversee not only the Delmonico’s legacy but that of Emeril himself, creating exquisite updated versions of classic Creole dishes, many of which were on Delmonico’s menus long ago.
Minch, who grew up in Memphis, reveres his southern heritage and the menu is indicative of that. He taps his grandmother as his biggest culinary influence. “She made great Sunday dinners and cooked fantastic meals for holiday gatherings.”
She also had a garden, growing tomatoes, zucchini, peas and peppers, where young Spence had weed duty, yet he’s never forgotten the clean, fresh fragrances of the produce on the vine, between the weeds.
One of his earliest food memories was sitting around on the front porch with family members shucking fresh, sweet corn bought from a roadside stand. “Then, we’d boil it in a big pot with sugar, milk and water,” he said,
He started working in restaurants at fifteen and never really left. “I fell in love with the energy, the adrenaline, the atmosphere, the immediate impact the food has on people when they’re served,” he said. “It’s really cool!”
After school, he drifted in and out of construction work and kitchen jobs. Then, in his mid-twenties, he decided to go to culinary school. “I just wanted to know so much more about the craft,” he said.
He graduated from Johnson & Wales in 1996, and took off for New Orleans where he immersed himself in the diverse culinary culture. Beginning at the Hyatt-Regency, he spent the next five years in the kitchens at local eateries such as Crescent City Brewhouse and Mr. B’s Bistro.
About two years into his New Orleans’ culinary odyssey, he came to a realization. “I suddenly started taking what I was doing more seriously. I decided that this was what I loved and wanted to do the rest of my life,” he said.
“It was sort of like a transition from a job to a career. I think, after a couple of years at it, I matured a little and stopped thinking like a line cook and started thinking like a chef.”
Beginning at Delmonico’s as a line cook in 2001, he rose to sous chef in three years, then executive sous chef the following year, and in the spring of 2007, took the top spot at the venerable old, yet new establishment.
At Delmonico’s, he’s definitely in charge. Although Emeril approves new dishes and menu changes, adding a comment here and there, Minch runs the kitchen with his talented creative team, many of whom have been with him for a number of years, including Executive Sous Chef Isaac Toups and Sous Chef Anthony Scanio.
The Minch style has evolved over the years, influenced to some degree by a number of good chefs he’s worked with and observed. “You look at different chefs’ styles and philosophies and you learn from all of them, and develop your own,” he said.
“I really like traditional, classic food prepared in a more modern, lighter, cleaner style,” he said, “using traditional French techniques.”
His love for fresh ingredients is only enhanced by the plentiful opportunities to work with growers and producers of fresh, farm raised products. “I try to use as much locally grown or produced items as possible to support our region and keep the dollar flow in this area,” he said. Fortunately, he added, working with local growers is becoming a strong trend among local chefs who want to develop and maintain on-going chef-farmer relationships.
Among the local items found in Delmonico’s kitchen, Minch notes all the fresh herbs, products from Smith’s creamery, Ponchatoula strawberries, heirloom tomatoes from a garden in New Orleans East and lots of fresh greens and seasonal vegetables from the North Shore.
From much-admired California Chef Paul Bertolli’s volume, “Cooking by Hand,” Minch further enhanced his respect for natural ingredients. “Bertolli encourages choosing and handling ingredients with care and respect,” said Minch, “that’s ultimately reflected in the dish you’re preparing.”
It’s those fresh ingredients that can cause Minch’s creativity to soar. He’s inspired by what’s fresh and seasonal. “What can I get and what can I do with it?” he asks himself. In addition, “the power of food and how it impacts people is very satisfying,” he said. “When you take a peek into the dining room and you see someone enjoying the dish you’ve prepared…. I guess all of that is my base inspiration. The challenge to create something wonderful is a powerful feeling. When the ideas come, that’s pretty awesome.”
And the ideas come frequently in Delmonico’s kitchen. The menu changes seasonally and specials come and go daily, so there’s always something new: a twist on an old classic, a new combination of textures and flavors, a different spice, sauce or relish.
Delmonico’s dedication to the highest quality ingredients is further reflected in the sauces, stocks, soups, pastas, cured meats, sausages, dressings and patés, which are all prepared in house.
One of the most outstanding appetizers that never goes out of season, is Delmonico’s charcuterie. An assortment of housemade sausages, cured meats, marinated and pickled vegetables, and Champagne mustard served with grain bread, it is a great way to begin a meal.
Other recent starters destined to make the evening more delicious were Emeril’s BBQ shrimp and baked grits; jumbo lump crab cake; traditional beef tartare crowned with a sunny-side-up quail egg; baked local oyster gratinée with housemade chorizo, spinach, béchamel and fresh herb breadcrumbs; crispy slow cooked pork with Creole dirty rice; escargot with red wine butter; and flash-fried pimento spiced calamari with house-cured sopressata, Manchego cheese and sauce Romesco.
Among the soups and salads served are a tableside prepared Caesar; seafood gumbo; roasted beets with arugula, feta and pine nuts; and Delmonico’s wedge salad made with Boston Bibb lettuce, bacon, blue cheese, cornbread croutons and fresh herb buttermilk dressing.
Entrées available one weekend included pan seared Atlantic salmon with red lentil cake, oven dried tomatoes, arugula and wild mushroom broth; pan fried redfish with fingerling potato “Lyonnaise,” tomato stewed green beans and red pepper-shrimp velouté sauce; lamb duo with Colorado lamb chops, garlic-fennel lamb sausage, ratatouille, Yukon gold potato confit and natural jus.
Other selections featured were a crispy confit of Muscovy duck leg and thigh with a traditional cassoulet of flageolet beans, roasted squash, Toulouse sausage and dried fig grain mustard; grilled Niman ranch double cut pork chop with spaetzle, bacon braised Brussels sprouts and Riesling reduction sauce; pan roasted Tanglewood Farm chicken breast with black-eye peas, seasonal greens, prosciutto compound butter and natural jus; and a grilled, seasonal fish of the day.
In addition, U.S.D.A. prime steaks are always available, served with house made Worcestershire, Bearnaise and horseradish sauces. The meats are dry aged for anywhere from 2-3 weeks in the restaurant’s walk-in cooler.
Diners can also choose the six-course degustation menu available nightly with optional wine pairings.
If there are wine pairing questions regarding the many labels on Delmonico’s superb list, Sommelier Russ Bergeron is always around to lend a suggestion or two.
Irresistible side dishes offered include Delmonico’s blue cheese potatoes au gratin; buttermilk fried onion rings; bacon, carmelized onion smothered with mushrooms; farmhouse cheddar creamed spinach; classic baked macaroni and cheese; jumbo lump crabmeat with Bearnaise; southern cooked greens; sautéed green beans; and honey glazed carrots.
Hungry yet? For dessert, think about Pontchatoula strawberry bombe: layers of strawberry sorbet, ice cream and Champagne mousse; a warm apple and almond turnover with brandied fruit compote and apple ice cream; and seasonal ice cream or sorbet with assorted cookies.
Additional spectacular desserts from the kitchen are Emeril’s Delmonico signature bittersweet chocolate pudding with Creole cream cheese, seasonal fruit compote and pecan praline; and warm tropical fruit crisp with macadamia nut streusel and coconut-lemongrass ice cream.
But wait, there’s more. Traditional bananas Foster with vanilla bean ice cream and salted pecans is served tableside for two as is drunken chocolate cake with a raspberry cream center, whipped mascarpone and flambéed raspberry sauce.
And to finish, highly aromatic, classic café Brulot, served with bon bons, tops it all off.
Although the restaurant has a reputation for understated elegance, super service and high-end cuisine, new diners are often surprised and impressed at the eclectic menu with so much comfort food and so many down home southern and Creole selections. Of course, the dishes are innovatively created and impeccably crafted. They have to be. It’s a continuation of the century old restaurant’s legendary status in its newest incarnation as Emeril’s Delmonico!
From: Country Roads Magazine
Story and photos by Brenda Maitland