Baruch Rabasa is the executive chef at Gautreau’s, an Uptown New Orleans fine-dining mainstay known for its distinctive elegant-but-down-to-earth cuisine. This week we sat down together to dish on what drives him to keep cooking in the restaurant and at home, and cooked up a dish featuring Good Company Vermont Creamery.
Good Companies: You have a fascinating background — will you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into cooking?
Baruch Rabasa: I come from a very multicultural family. My father is Spanish/Mexican, my mother is from California, my stepmother is French, my stepfather is from Southwest Louisiana, and my adopted grandmother is indigenous Mexican. Family dinner was always the focus of the day, no matter which branch of my family I was with.
I had planned on becoming a lawyer after college, but during the law school application process I realized it wasn’t for me — but food was. I started working at Zingerman’s deli in Ann Arbor, MI, and went from there to training at a restaurant in Aix-en-Provence, France.
France was a real wake up call: here I was, walking in as a 25 year old, and there were these kids a lot younger than me who had been cooking for years and could run circles around me. It gave me a lot of focus, and so when that ended I enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY.
Fast forward a few years to New Orleans, which is where I’ve been more or less cooking ever since. I love being at Gautreau’s because I’m able to focus on dishes built around quality ingredients — my menu is driven by French technique, but incorporates international elements that are near and dear to me, especially from the Americas.
GC: What do you love most about being a chef?
BR: I love the creative freedom and rawness of the professional kitchen environment, but at the same time I love the necessary structure and rigidity of the team in a kitchen. To me, it’s like being at the helm of a pirate ship, or directing a film: Creating, leading, putting out fires as they arise, all while keeping a firm handle on the overall mission. Which, for us, is to produce the highest quality, most delicious food the guest has ever experienced.
GC: When it comes to the actual art of cooking, what inspires you?
BR: I always aim to surprise the audience with unexpected flavors, textures, and aromas — but beyond that, my goal is to build memories. I enjoy the art of it too, but my food is sort of wabi-sabi — perfection through imperfection.
My passion for food lies in the sense of community it provides. I grew up in a family where you weren’t allowed to miss dinner so to me, more than the cooking itself, it’s about the time spent coming together around a shared meal.
GC: What do you have your eye on next? Any personal projects in the works?
BR: Being from Mexico, my dream is to return there — or at least return to the food of Mexico. I’m trying to put together an al pastor pop-up side project, drawing on the techniques and traditions of my background. The fine-dining scene has its pros, but I’d like to get into something that speaks to a larger percentage of the population — quicker, more affordable food is just so accessible.
GC: Do you think growing consumer demand for “sustainable” food is changing the way cooks — at home and in restaurants — are thinking about and sourcing ingredients?
BR: The sheer range of Good Companies you have speaks to this. I recognize some of them, but there are plenty that I don’t; you’ve got everything from little mom and pop brands to major setups like Ben and Jerry’s.
There’s clearly a growing community of businesses coming together to give back and make a difference, and I’m sure that’s due in no small part to what shoppers are asking for; it’s a kind of collective responsibility. You see this reflected on restaurant menus, too, with the farm-to-table movement driving seasonal ingredients and traceability.
It even trickles down into accessibility. How many startups are coming out that are able to bring ingredients to people all over the country? I’ve lived in a lot of places, and you couldn’t always buy what you can buy in Los Angeles in South Dakota. Now you can, and I think it’s fascinating.
GC: When it comes to cooking at home versus cooking in a restaurant, what are some of the key differences? Besides getting paid for what you put on the table!
BR: Stress level! Every day in the restaurant is a combination of funny, crazy, and disastrous — but that’s what makes the kitchen an incredible place to work. The space is tight and the tension is high moment-to-moment, so you have to develop a trust and rhythm with your team and really bond with your coworkers.
When I have people over or I’m cooking at friends’ houses, they’re always like “How do you make it look so easy?” Well, the short answer is: it’s my job! But it’s also about approaching cooking the way you would any task, and taking the time to plan everything out in advance.
This kind of organization is called mise en place, which is just French for “everything in its place.” Most people read recipes as they’re cooking, chopping something before they know what’s going to happen to it — it’s hectic, and they’re trying to do everything at once. Chefs read through a recipe, prepare all of their ingredients and line up all of their tools in an orderly way, and then start to cook. It lets you focus on the real work of making good food.
BR: It’s a product I’m already very familiar with. I usually make my own crème fraîche at the restaurant, but when I’m buying it from a store Vermont Creamery is my go to. To be honest, I probably first discovered it because it’s the main option Whole Foods carries, but at the end of the day it’s a great product — it’s phenomenal. I’ve never used another one!
Now, thanks to you guys, I also know about all the good work they do donating to local communities and supporting sustainable family farms, so I can start telling people more than “It’s delicious!”
Once I started thinking crème fraîche, the rest just came to me. Salmon is a natural pairing, and preparing it simply like this with a hearty side lets the brightness of the sauce really shine.
Grilled Salmon with Whole Grain Mustard Sauce and Fingerling Potato, Tomato, and Fennel Ragout
2 tbsp whole grain mustard (creole mustard optional, but delicious)
1 lemon (juice and zest)
1 tbsp chives (minced)
Finely ground black pepper
4 thick slices applewood-smoked bacon (cut into ¼-inch pieces)
8 small fingerling potatoes (halved)
12 pearl onions (peeled)
1 fennel bulb (fronds and stem removed, bulb quartered)
1 tbsp garlic (minced)
1 tbsp fresh thyme (chopped)
12 grape or cherry tomatoes (halved)
¼ cup parsley (chopped)
Finely ground black pepper
Canola oil (as needed)
Four 6 oz salmon fillets
Finely ground black pepper
For the Sauce:
In a small bowl, stir together the crème fraîche, mustard, lemon juice and zest, and chives until combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Store in refrigerator until ready to use; can be made in advance.
For the Ragout:
Preheat the oven to 350 °F. Adjust a rack to the middle position.
In a small sauté pan, heat the diced bacon over medium until crispy and the fat has rendered off. Remove the pan from the heat and reserve the bacon fat. Set cooked bacon aside.
In a large bowl, toss together the fingerling potatoes, pearl onions, and fennel. Add in 1 tbsp of the reserved bacon fat and season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss again to combine, adding canola oil if the vegetables seem dry.
Place the potatoes, onions, and fennel in a roasting pan. Put the pan on the middle rack of the oven and roast for 30 minutes. Add the reserved crispy bacon, minced garlic, and thyme to the vegetables, stir, and roast for another 15 minutes.
Add the halved tomatoes and parsley and stir to combine. Taste, and adjust seasoning as needed. Turn the oven off and leave the roasting pan inside while you cook the salmon.
For the Salmon:
Preheat your grill to high; alternatively, you can use a grill pan or cast iron on your stovetop.
Lightly oil the salmon fillets, and season with salt and pepper. When the grill is heated, place the fillet top side down and grill for 2-3 minutes.
Gently rotate the salmon by 45 degrees, and grill for an additional 2 minutes. This will give you the classic X grill marks — if you’re cooking in a pan, there’s no need to rotate the salmon. Flip the salmon, and cook a final 2 minutes for medium doneness.
Place the potato ragout in the middle of your plate, and lay the grilled salmon on top. Drizzle the mustard sauce on top, and serve.