Aaron Burgau

F&W Star Chef

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Restaurants: Patois, Tru Burger

Experience: Bayona (New Orleans, LA) Gerard’s Downtown (New Orleans, LA), Bank Café (New Orleans, LA)

Education: Louisiana State University, Johnson & Wales (Vail, CO)

The son of a shrimp broker, New Orleans native Aaron Burgau has been working in restaurants since the age of 14, when he began scrubbing dishes and helping out in the kitchen “to earn beer money.” Burgau had designs on a career in social work—he earned a psychology degree from Louisiana State University—but after college he switched gears, taking off for culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Vail, Colorado, in 1996. When he returned to the Crescent City, Burgau hooked up with one of that town’s most celebrated chefs, Susan Spicer, taking a grill cook post at Bayona. “That was the first time I worked with a serious chef,” he says. “Susan is pretty tough and demanding in the kitchen. She taught me how to think like a chef.” Burgau worked with several other notable New Orleans chefs before opening Patois with his former high school classmates Leon and Pierre Touzet. He was a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: South for three years (2009–2011) and a Food & Wine People’s Best New Chef nominee in 2011. That same year, Burgau opened his first casual spin-off, Tru Burger, peddling burgers, Creole-spiced onion rings and fresh-cut fries drowned in gravy.

The chef talks with Food & Wine about nose-to-cottontail rabbit cookery and why Coors beats out craft beer any day of the week.

What recipe are you most famous for?
People definitely come in for the lamb ribs. We take domestic lamb, rub it and smoke it, and then we serve it with a green tomato marmalade. But I’d say our pheasant dish is the one I’m most proud of. We put it on our menu for New Year’s Eve in 2009 and it became one of our biggest sellers. When I took it off the menu people were coming in every day asking about it. It’s just a roast pheasant breast with a confit pheasant leg. We serve that over pureed sunchoke with heirloom carrots and a spiced foie gras reduction.

What two dishes really tell us your story as a chef?
For me it’s really more about an ingredient than it is a specific dish. My rabbit dishes change a lot but I use every part of that animal: For brunch, we fry the tenderloin and serve it with country gravy. We use the liver in our boudin, and we stuff the legs with goat cheese, pancetta and wild mushrooms, or we’ll fill them with sausage and make a cassoulet out of it. I use it in gumbo; I use it in confit. It’s so Southern and so versatile.

If I have to choose a dish, I’d choose that gumbo. I do a bunch of different types, and think my gumbos are some of the best in town. I’m usually not that confident—I’m a second-guesser. But I’d put my gumbo up against any in the state of Louisiana.

What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
Madeleine Kamman’s In Madeleine’s Kitchen. It’s simple, but contains a lot of good techniques and details about the science and chemistry of cooking. Her recipes for charcuterie just really work. The ratios are perfect.

What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
My line cooks always make fun of me because I add fresh bay leaves to everything. I just like the level of spice and complexity it gives to certain dishes. It’s almost floral but also peppery. We have a lot of laurel trees around here in New Orleans. One of my cooks has one next to her house, and she grabs the leaves for me whenever she can.

Name one indispensable store-bought ingredient.
I like stone-ground mustard. You can use it as a condiment, but you can also use it in sauces to add acid to a dish. I’ll do a mustard and cherry reduction for meat or add it to vinegar and use that with pork belly to cut the richness.

If you could invest in a dream project, what would it be?
I’d open an Italian restaurant focusing on all homemade pastas and the kind of things that I grew up eating with my Sicilian grandmother. I remember she’d slit open baby eggplants and then shove veal in there with a big hunk of Parmesan. And then she’d cook it all day in a red sauce. I’d serve dishes like that and keep it very bare bones—everything would be under $20.

What is your go-to cocktail? How about beer?
Is Jack and water a cocktail? That’s what I drink. I also like Coors original. I lived a stone’s throw from the brewery in Colorado and I actually like the flavor. I’m not big on craft beers.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
I make meat sauce for my family. I usually use a little bit of pork and beef with crushed tomatoes. It’s nothing special—my kids are three and five years old, so they like it pretty simple. I’ll eat that cold right out of the fridge. I’ll scoop it out on a Wheat Thin.

If you were going to take Thomas Keller out to eat, where would you take him and why?
I would take him to Alzina’s in Galliano, Louisiana. She’s this 85-year-old lady who has been cooking Cajun food for 40 years. You sit down, and she immediately starts bringing you food. It’s all house-baked bread, crabmeat lasagna, stuffed chicken wings and gumbo. Her walnut tarts are insane. It’s the best thing you could ever put in your mouth.