At last week’s James Beard Awards, Emeril Lagasse wasn’t the only New Orleanian to strike gold (the Bam Bam Man was named Humanitarian
of the Year). Proving the third nomination’s a charm, Tory McPhail of the legendary turtle soup-serving Commander’s Palace edged out Jeff McInnis of Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in Miami, as well as a trio of Nola chefs —Justin Devillier (La Petite Grocery), Alon Shaya (Domenica), and Sue Zemanic (Gautreau’s)—to snag the Best Chef: South title.
“When I got back to the restaurant, there were balloons in the foyer and a cake,” he says.
Now, it’s back to making the likes of wild Burgundy escargot and cold-water sea scallops with creamy bacon vinaigrette at the legendary New Orleans institution where he’s built his reputation.
McPhail’s love for the Garden District restaurant—housed in a quirky turquoise-turreted Victorian that’s been a destination for diners since 1880—is deep-rooted. Armed with a reverence for the local and seasonal, the Ferndale, WA native graduated with a Culinary Science degree from Seattle Community College before heading to the Big Easy, where he landed in the Commander’s kitchen at the ripe age of 19. Despite his inexperience, he whizzed through all the stations under the prowess of executive chef and mentor, the late Jamie Shannon.
The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, came next; then London for Michelin-starred L’Escargot and its sister restaurant, Picasso Room, followed by Caribbean-Creole-centric Mongoose Restaurant in the U.S. Virgin Islands. By 2000, Commander’s welcomed McPhail back to the family—this time as sous chef of the short-lived Las Vegas outpost—before ultimately handing him the keys to the New Orleans kitchen where he first cut his teeth, in 2002.
Eleven years later, McPhail’s authentic Creole creations and upgraded tweaks on classics still enthrall the diners who linger in each of Commander’s Palace’s grand dining rooms. Yet the chef remains ever-humble. At the Beard awards, McPhail’s acceptance speech eloquently paid tribute to the women behind Commander’s—matriarch Ella Brennan, her sister Dottie, and Ella’s daughter Ti and niece Lally, who gracefully run the restaurant with an evenhanded dose of humor and hospitality. “Ladies, this one’s for you,” he said, holding up his medal.
Aside from “the hands down best weekend I’ve ever had in New York,” McPhail says winning has been exhilarating because of the “overwhelming support from everyone—friends, family and the entire New Orleans community. People have been coming into the restaurant not only to dine, but just to congratulate me.”
Here, the soulful McPhail talks about the 10 dishes that helped him evolve into one of New Orleans’ biggest culinary champions, from ones that have appeared on Commander’s Palace’s own menu, to those that leapt out at him from the cookbooks of some of the country’s most influential chefs. Spoiler alert: He’s got a thing for foie gras and Louisiana shrimp.
Interview by ALia Akkam (@aliaakkam)