Chef Slade Rushing
By Tracey Teo
“It’s not just about the food,” says Rushing. “It’s about the Brennan’s experience. It’s about popping champagne at eight in the morning. It’s about the celebration of life.”
Chef Slade Rushing’s first year at the helm of Brennan’s, a paragon of Creole cuisine In New Orleans’ French Quarter, has been a heart-pounding roller coaster ride of ups and downs, adjustments, experiments, adaptations and innovations, but he loves a thrill ride and shows no sign of getting off any time soon.
It’s more than just a job. The legendary restaurant founded by Owen Brennan in 1946, evokes a sense of nostalgia for Rushing, who has fond childhood memories of dining there with his family.
Geographically, New Orleans is only 90 miles from Rushing’s childhood home in Tylertown, Mississippi, but culturally, the boisterous, fun-loving city is a world away from the quiet country life of his youth. A highlight of any family road trip to the Big Easy, especially for his mother, was an extravagant meal at the iconic, flamingo-pink restaurant on Royal Street. “She loved Brennan’s and its classic New Orleans dishes,” Rushing says. “She was a big foodie before foodies were even called foodies.” If she were alive today, no doubt she would be proud of Rushing’s new gig at her favorite restaurant.
Nostalgia aside, Rushing ushers in a new era for Brennan’s, the restaurant famous for transforming breakfast into a sophisticated affair that lasts for hours. (Lunch and dinner are also served.) It’s perfectly acceptable to have an “eye-opener,” say, a Cajun Bloody Mary or a brandy milk punch, at 10 in the morning. Traditionally, here’s how the meal unfolds. Start with a bowl of turtle soup doused in sherry and follow that with a decadent egg dish topped with seafood and smothered in rich Hollandaise sauce. When you can’t eat another bite, order bananas Foster, the flaming spectacle of a dessert that originated at Brennan’s in the 1950s. Now, take a deep breath and linger over coffee or another cocktail. That’s breakfast at Brennan’s.
Rushing’s charged with the daunting task of bringing Creole cuisine, a cooking style that originated with colonial-era, aristocratic European immigrants, into the 21st century without alienating long-time customers with his refinements. That means finding the perfect balance of the traditional and the modern. He started by paring down the tome of a breakfast menu. The egg entrees “had so many derivatives, it read like a Chinese menu,” he says. He also lightened some of the heavy French sauces to appeal to health conscious diners and contemporary palates.
“We focus on clarity and clean flavors,” says Rushing. “I might dust food with Creole spice and then put a light sauce with it. We are holding on to the DNA of Creole cooking and are proud of that, but we are bringing it into the future.” That future holds some of Rushing’s own unique dishes, most notably rabbit Rushing. He calls it “a new classic for Brennan’s next chapter.” In the bustling kitchen, the chef scrutinizes an artfully-arranged plate of his signature dish before it’s whisked away to an elegant dining room reverberating with Dixieland jazz and adorned with pastel-hued murals depicting whimsical Mardi Gras scenes. Rushing seems satisfied and gives a nod of approval. Customers can’t get enough of the battered, deep-fried rabbit cutlets served over creamed collard greens and covered with a fried egg. The recipe was inspired by the rabbit hunting expeditions of Rushing’s youth in rural Mississippi. It’s a more refined version of the simple, but delicious, late-night suppers he shared with his father.
New Orleans is in the midst of a culinary renaissance, so the time is ripe for innovation. The beauty of Creole cuisine is that it has always been a blend of cultural influences: French, Spanish, Caribbean, and African, to name a few, so the boundaries are relatively loose. Rushing says that as those influences change, so does the cuisine. When diners see the occasional Vietnamese-inspired dish on the menu, they shouldn’t think that Rushing has strayed way off course. On the contrary, he’s reflecting the city’s new ethnic make-up, which now includes a large Vietnamese population. The flavors of Southeast Asia have been thrown into the Creole melting pot.
A Fresh Start
It’s hard to believe now, but Brennan’s was almost relegated to the pages of culinary history. For years, the venerable restaurant seemed as enduring as the Creole cuisine it served, but it was a house of cards that fell suddenly and dramatically in June, 2013.
Brennan’s survived the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but it couldn’t survive family squabbles, foreclosure, and bankruptcy. To the dismay of locals and tourists alike, the restaurant was abruptly shuttered. Fortunately, the story has a happy ending that Rushing helped write.
Ralph Brennan, a successful restaurateur from another branch of the family, bought the landmark restaurant with business partner Terry White. After an extensive, multi-million dollar renovation that added more kitchens and dining rooms, Brennan’s reopened in November, 2014 – just in time for the holidays. Rushing was brought on board to run the show – and what a show it was. “It was the craziest opening I’ve ever been a part of,” Rushing admits, “but we pulled it off. Sometimes it’s just better to jump in the fire and figure it out.”
To understand the onus of running Brennan’s, one has to understand how the restaurant is woven into the fabric of New Orleans society – and there’s no social scene in the world quite like the one that flourishes in the Big Easy. Rushing gets that. “It’s not just about the food,” says Rushing. “It’s about the Brennan’s experience. It’s about popping champagne at eight in the morning. It’s about the celebration of life.”
After the whirlwind of holiday parties, Rushing should have been able to catch his breath – if he lived in any other city in the world. But this is New Orleans, and January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany, the official kick-off of Carnival season which leads up to the merry madness of Mardi Gras. So while the rest of the country is recuperating from the frenzy of the holidays and breathing a sigh of relief that life is returning to normal, New Orleanians are gearing up for a whole new round of festivities.
Krewes – social clubs that organize parties, parades, and balls during Carnival – happily returned to Brennan’s for annual luncheons and other events. The King’s Room, a plush, private dining room adorned with Krewe of Rex memorabilia, was filled once more with the revelry of the city’s bon vivant.
Looking Back and Looking Ahead
Looking back at his first year, Rushing reflects on the day he auditioned for the position of executive chef. Since the restaurant is known for its elaborate egg entrees, it was no surprise when he was asked to make eggs Benedict. He arrived full of hope and introduced Ralph Brennan and his associates to his modern take on the dish. The perfectly poached egg was paired with Canadian bacon Rushing smoked himself and presented atop a homemade English muffin, reflecting Rushing’s belief in fresh, artisanal cooking. It was a winner. How did Rushing feel when he was offered the position? “Scared,” he admits. “Excited. A lot of emotions.”
Well, there’s nothing like a James Beard Award nomination to affirm a chef’s progressive vision. After being in the driver’s seat for only a couple of months, Rushing was nominated for Best Chef South, although the honor went to someone else.
The apprehensive chef that took the reins at Brennan’s a year ago is no more. Today Rushing is moving forward with poise and confidence. He knows that in New Orleans, a dash of joie de vivre is essential to any successful recipe.
Brennan’s 417 Royal St. New Orleans, Louisiana (504) 525-9711 BrennansNewOrleans.com