Interview with Donald Link of Pêche
Anna MowryAnna Mowry
June 16, 2014
The winner of this year's Best New Restaurant award, Pêche is the latest project from New Orleans–based chef Donald Link, who also runs the acclaimed Cochon, Cochon Butcher, and Herbsaint. On top of his culinary talent and business acumen, Link is a passionate champion of Gulf Coast and Southern foodways. Below, Link discusses his ties to local producers, the current state of New Orleans dining, and what's next for Pêche.
JBF: It's obviously been a big year for Pêche. What's your vision for the restaurant in its second year?
DL: We plan on continuing in the same style as before: to keep searching out the best seafood the Gulf Coast has to offer. A lot of doors have opened up in the world of fresh, local seafood since we have opened, and we are continuing to find great sources.
JBF: Can you talk more about that? What kinds of new ingredients or products have you been finding?
DL: We've found sources we never knew existed, such as the spear fisherman who spears Gulf cobia and delivers it straight to the back door. Buying fish whole opens a lot of doors as well, and also allows us to do more unique dishes with all parts of the fish such as the collars and heads. Chef de cuisine Ryan Prewitt has been able to find some small independent oyster farmers that deliver almost exclusively to us. Being really busy helps because it gives us great buying power. It's a similar path we went down with Herbsaint and Cochon, seeking out the best product straight from the source, such as Twin County raising lambs for Herbsaint and Bill Ryals raising pigs for Cochon.
JBF: Can you talk about a dish or two on the menu that really capture the restaurant's point of view or philosophy?
DL: The whole fish is the first thing to come to mind. We took a week long tour of San Sebastián and the Basque country, where every restaurant serves a whole fish meant for sharing. The menu was put together with that idea from Spain: the table shares apps and then a whole fish or a giant steak. The smoked tuna dip, the oysters, hush puppies, and fried catfish are all direct takes on the food I had growing up and living on the Gulf Coast. The oyster bar has always been a huge part of restaurants all along the gulf coast here, we wanted to take it a step farther by adding the elements of crudos to the bar, especially considering the amazing quality of the fresh fish we get every day.
JBF: Can you talk about the current the dining landscape in New Orleans? It's obviously a city with so many vibrant institutions that are still going strong, but there's also a new generation cropping up, like in the Bywater. How do you see things playing out over the next few years?
DL: I think what New Orleans has always needed, and is now starting to get, are more of the smaller, more casual restaurants that are a little more ethnic and not so traditional. We all love gumbo and po' boys, but it's nice to get a little more variety in the form of cool restaurants run by young chefs that are branching out with new ideas.
JBF: A few months ago you published a cookbook called Down South. What's the idea behind the book and how did it come together? How does it differ from your last book?
DL: My first book, Real Cajun, really focused on my childhood food in Louisiana, with a little Alabama thrown in. Down South focuses a lot more on what I see more today across the South, and especially the Gulf Coast. Some of the recipes are straight-up takes on Gulf Coast cuisine, while others are meldings of other cultures and the experiences of cooking with my friends across the region. I've had a great opportunity to travel the world and see so much food; I really love bringing these ideas back and combining them with the food I grew up with.
JBF: We would love to hear about your Beard Awards weekend. Aside from attending the ceremony, how did you spend it? Where did you eat and with whom?
DL: We came up with the Pêche team and a few friends. We had a couple meals together and broke off for a few others. We all had brunch at Red Farm, which was great. The next day was a long lunch at Del Posto. The first night Steve and I had a great dinner with Mario at Babbo. I didn't hit the after-party scene too much, as I had to leave at 6:00 A.M. to get home for another week of book tours. Bummer.
Anna Mowry is senior editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.