The first time Slade Rushing took Allison Vines home to Tylertown, Mississippi, to meet his family, it was Thanksgiving Day, 2000. During their drive from New Orleans, where the two young chefs met rolling gnocchi in the kitchen of the now-shuttered Gerard's Downtown, Allison wondered aloud what she was in for. "You're not going to be able to keep up," Slade warned.
He didn't mention the karaoke machine.
Soon after what Allison calls "the funniest Thanksgiving dinner of my life," she and Slade boarded a train to New York City. They found jobs at some of Manhattan's best restaurants—Allison at Picholine and then Alain Ducasse, Slade at March and then Fleur de Sel—then took a quick trip back to New Orleans to get married.
But after a few years Allison, who'd grown weary of the kitchen, decided to quit cooking completely and applied for a job working the espresso machine at a café. The owner, Jack Lamb, took one look at her résumé and insisted she open the tiny but ambitious kitchen at his new venture, Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar, instead.
Jack's debuted in September 2003, with menu of innovative Southern-inspired dishes: pickled quail egg with black truffle puree, New Orleansstyle barbecued lobster and deconstructed oysters Rockefeller (oysters poached in beurre fondue, set on a bed of greens). The restaurant quickly became one of New York's most sought-after reservations.
And, just months after enlisting Slade as her co-chef, Allison, then 28, won the James Beard Foundation's "Rising Star Chef of the Year" prize.
But last spring, in search of a more balanced lifestyle and more than a little homesick, the couple surprised everyone by quitting their jobs and moving back South. In September they bought a restaurant, which they renamed Longbranch, in Abita Springs, Louisiana, not far from where Slade's brother, Heath, lives and four hours from Allison's hometown, West Monroe. And today they are celebrating their first Southern Thanksgiving since that now-mythical karaokefest.
In a sense, they left Manhattan just when they had finally arrived, but Allison says, "We never intended to stay in New York forever. We always saw ourselves learning in the city and then having our own place down south."
When they learned that Artesia Restaurant in pastoral Abita Springs (an hour's drive from New Orleans, across Lake Pontchartrain) was up for sale, they acted swiftly. "That's pretty much how we do things, drastically and on the fly," Allison says.
To restore the historic 19th-century building and its property, Allison and Slade spent three months painting walls, antiquing a new cypress bar and planting bamboo and crepe myrtle. They took breaks to forage for chanterelles and wild dill in the woods, and tableware and furniture in local antique shops. And they readjusted to the pace of country life. "I hadn't driven in five years. I'm loving our old beat-up pickup truck," Slade says.
It's in Longbranch's covered first-floor gallery, within arm's reach of a cypress tree bearded in Spanish moss, that the couple is hosting their homecoming Thanksgiving.
Allison, who missed the South's penchant for bitter foods like collards while she was living up north, prepares a side dish of the creamed greens. She blanches them, then squeezes them dry and chiffonades them. After they're cooked down and their bitterness has been softened by cream and nutmeg, they will replace Thanksgiving's traditional creamed spinach.
On another cutting board, Slade turns sweet potato gnocchi dough into small, perfectly formed ocher dumplings before slipping them into a pot of boiling water. After they have cooked to soft cushions, he will finish them in a cast-iron skillet with brown butter and butter-toasted pecans. This side dish is an idiosyncratic spin on Allison's mother's Sweet Potato Yum Yum casserole.
Allison and Slade set their Thanksgiving table with some prize discoveries from their shopping outings—antique silver-plated flatware, ivory-handled knives and faience bowls—and also with dueling turkeys, one deep-fried and the other smoked.
Louisianans fry turkeys whole with shocking nonchalance in burbling oil baths, using the same outdoor pot-and-propane setup they employ for crawfish boils in the springtime (you can purchase such kits online). Novices should approach the process with caution, to great reward: It produces a bird with crackly golden skin and incomparably moist meat.
The second turkey, which Slade braises in chicory coffee from New Orleans Coffee Works (an outfit that family friend David Figueroa co-owns), then slowly smokes in a Weber grill over glowing hickory chips, is a more complex bird. Sweet, bitter, herbaceous, charred and thoroughly smoked, it reminds Slade and Allison of this past summer when, due to their lack of a functional kitchen during Longbranch's renovations, they cooked their dinner over charcoal nearly every night.
When dinner is served, Allison raises an Ambrosia cocktail (a riff on the fruit saladandshredded coconut dish that sweetens holiday celebrations throughout the region) for a toast to the family and friends who have gathered at the table:
"To being back down south. We have color in our cheeks and warmth in our hearts, and we are so glad to be here with y'all."
One of New Orleans's truer clichés is that the only thing natives enjoy more than eating is talking about eating, and the conversation today stays true to local custom. Amanda Rushing, who is married to Slade's brother Heath, tells about the hierarchy of cooks in her family—she wasn't allowed to touch the stove until she was married. Slade and Heath claim their father makes "probably the finest gumbo in the southeast."
And everyone at the table shares a childlike affection for red velvet cake, today's dessert—a Southern classic. The cake is a dark, moody red, a hue attained only with the addition of food coloring and a little unsweetened cocoa powder.
"We tried like crazy to make it with beet juice, but it's just not the same," Slade says apologetically, but no one really cares. In lieu of the customary white icing, a small scoop of cream cheese ice cream melts beside each slice. Unfrosted, the cake's surface stays "nice and crusty, like corn bread," Amanda observes.
Finally, there's more of David's delicious coffee, a robust Viennese blend. When Allison begins to take requests—"Hot milk? Sugar?"—several of the guests offer to help. She orders them to sit still: "I was a barista once. I can handle it."
F&W was going to press just as Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana. We're thrilled that the Rushings and Longbranch weathered the storm miraculously well.
Longbranch, 21516 Hwy 36, Abita Springs, LA; 985-871-8171.