Why he won Because he melds the influences of California cuisine and Michelin-starred restaurants in England to create a contemporary New Orleans menu.
Born Outside of Honolulu; 1970.
Experience Gidleigh Park, Devon, England; Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Oxford, England; Red Room and Lilette, New Orleans.
How he got into cooking "I was a prep cook at the Newporter Hotel in Newport Beach, California. I turned lots of vegetables and potatoes. It was the late ’80s, and they were really into turning vegetables. I spent many an hour with my little turning knife."
Favorite cheap eat The late-night barbecue truck Que Crawl parked outside of Tipitina’s nightclub on most weekends.
First big break "Early on, I got a job on the sauté station at the Radisson in Orange County [California]. I had a lot of leeway to create sauces and work with expensive ingredients like racks of lamb—and I was 18. That was crazy; I would never let an 18-year-old do that now."
Career detour "When I was 19, I decided I didn’t want to cook anymore, and I tried to get a job waiting tables, but no one would hire me. That was the only time I even attempted to do something else."
How he got to New Orleans "I moved here in 1993 from California. I’d never been before, but I thought it would be a fun adventure. I had a garage sale and sold everything I owned and moved to New Orleans on Amtrak with two trunks. I thought I was moving to the swamps, but I fell in love with it."
On trying to cook in the Southwest "Once, I left New Orleans to cook in Albuquerque, but the restaurant scene wasn’t very exciting. I love burritos as much as anyone, but there was nothing to challenge me."
Most memorable cooking experience Preparing a meal for then-Vice President Al Gore. "I got a vice-presidential pencil set, with a seal and everything."
Most humbling moment "Back in the days when I was turning potatoes, there was a banquet for a thousand people, and I was peeling for eight hours. Then I put the potatoes in a steamer and forgot about them. After eight hours of work, I forgot about them. And ruined them. I had two hours to redo them all."
Biggest influences The chefs he cooked for in England Gidleigh Park’s Michael Caines and Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons’s Raymond Blanc.
How he opened Iris "After Hurricane Katrina, my girlfriend, Laurie Casebonne, and I evacuated to Birmingham [Alabama]. My friend Ann Lloyd had a Caribbean restaurant in New Orleans called Mango House; she decided not to return after the storm. I decided to buy it, even though we didn’t know if our houses were still there—we didn’t know anything. We reopened it in November, early on after the storm, with the Caribbean menu to get everything up and running. A couple nights it was just me, no dishwasher or anything. We shut the restaurant for Christmas—it was the first New Year’s Eve I ever had off—and opened Iris in January 2006."
Favorite kitchen tools A hybrid knife that’s part cleaver and part French knife. "And my $20 electric ice cream maker from Target. We don’t have high-tech equipment here."
Favorite childhood dish "I had a dish that I called my specialty—cheese quesadillas. I was nine or 10 and I remember really taking a lot of time to get it right; I wanted the cheese to bubble correctly. It’s still the main thing I cook when I get home from work now."
Pet peeve When people don’t listen. "When you try to tell someone something and they say, ‘Yeah, yeah’ and then do something else."
Most memorable meal Lunch at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. "I was by myself, so I could really concentrate on the food. My favorite part was sitting in the garden and drinking Champagne and eating canapés before I was seated."
Food trend he dislikes "I wish mashed potatoes in fine dining would go away. I liked it at one point, but now it’s gotten old."
Favorite cooking show "I like Mario Batali. And I do watch Top Chef—that’s my guilty pleasure."
Favorite cookbook Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire. "I look at it a lot to reference the classics."
What he’d be if he weren’t a chef A construction worker. "I really wish I could build things."
What his next restaurant would be A small-plates bar with an open kitchen and a counter. "I don’t particularly want to go out in the restaurant and visit people, but I’d like a counter where our worlds are one and the same."
Advice to future cooks "Keep your head down and listen to the chefs around you, because they probably know what they’re talking about. If they don’t, you should go work for a chef who does."
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.