Slade Rushing

Slade Rushing web

Brennan's | New Orleans 

Slade Rushing describes his childhood in Tylertown, Mississippi, 90 miles north of New Orleans, as being straight out of an Anthony Bourdain show, at times -- like when his father would bring him to a friend's hog killing. "Cracklins frying, fresh hogshead cheese, all that. Unless you're there live, you can't imagine the intensity of those smells and flavors." He and his brothers were breaking down fish, still in the boat, at an early age. They'd shoot robins in the front yard of their rural property and cook them in the fireplace with chopped celery, onions, and carrots, wrapped in foil -- long before they'd heard the term mirepoix. It was not uncommon for his father to wake him in the middle of the night wearing a headlamp, to shoot a rabbits eating the turnip greens in their garden. "On the way back inside, we picked some scallions. Then we eviscerated the rabbit, dredged it in flour and black pepper, and fried it up in a cast iron skillet with the scallions, as a late night snack. It was flavor at its simple purest," says Rushing. 

Balancing the rustic outdoor cookery, his parents had a great fondness for the fine dine dining of New Orleans' French Quarter. They'd bring the boys to town for classic Creole cuisine, "and so my mom was sure we knew how to mind our manners," laughs Rushing -- who, according to his mother, was eating turtle soup at six months. At home, his dad, an ardent cook-hobbyist, loved following recipes from Paul Prudhomme repertoire. The future chef was still a youngster when he began to discern differences in regional cooking, even within Mississippi: the cornbread of his mother's people, from the northern end of the state, was sugar-sweet; his father's, from the south, was savory with cracklings. 

These are the food memories informing the Southern-influenced French cuisine that earned Rushing such great acclaim in New York City, and more recently, back in New Orleans. But he never planed to become a chef, despite his high school annual's prediction that he was "Most Likely to Become a Restaurateur." Instead, he headed to Mississippi State for the engineering program. It was his brother, who was also his roommate, who noticed that Rushing was skipping classes to watch the Discovery Channel's "Great Chefs, Great Cities." Word got back to the family, and, almost as a dare, his parents enrolled him at Johnson & Wales, the alma mater of one of his father's clients. Rushing had never been so excited. He packed his Jeep, got a road atlas, and headed to Providence, Rhode Island. "I'd never been north of Tennessee.”

After his false start in college, his attention was now refocused and Slade absorbed everything and anything when cooking. His experience breaking down deer and wild game gave him a real leg up in meat-cutting class. Following an impressive internship at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, Colorado, he graduated at the top of his class.

His early career was a whirlwind of kitchen intensity and running the gamut full circle. Interesting that Slade started out in the French Quarter at Mr. B's Bistro, a favorite of his father's, partly owned by Ralph Brennan -- with whom he is now working closely, as executive chef of Brennan's. At Chez Daniel, in Metairie, his understanding of classic French cuisine was ratcheted up under the tutelage of Daniel Bonnot. Leaving the south once more, his next move was to San Francisco, where his first job was under Traci des Jardins at Jardinière. At Alain Rondelli, a small establishment with "the most amazing kitchen" and four stars from the San Francisco Chronicle, he learned pastry. A year at the Asian-influenced Waterfront under Bruce Hill pushed his boundaries in the kitchen and at the markets, and a two-year stint at Rubicon, as pastry chef, deepened his understanding of wine and food pairing. 

Back in New Orleans, at Gerard's Downtown, Rushing found himself immersed in farm-to-table cooking before it was "the thing." More importantly, it was where he met his future wife, Allison [now Vines-Rushing], who was doing a stage there. She helped him to make gnocchi, and when he moved to New York to fulfill a longtime dream, she moved with him. The struggling pair started slow, living on a dime for a while, but caught traction soon enough: Rushing worked first at March Restaurant under Wayne Nish, and then with Cyril Renaud at Fleur de Sel, both Michelin-starred. As a creative innovator of French cuisine, Renaud was a great mentor, and entrusted Rushing with daily trips to Union Square Market. In early 2004, Rushing joined his wife as co-executive chef at Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar. "We were both blown away by the acclaim," he admits. "We had all these big chefs flocking to this little carriage house in the East Village. We were developing our own lighter Southern style, and it was clearly striking a chord." 

The actual South was calling them home, and in the spring of 2005, they returned and opened Longbranch in Abita Springs, across the lake from New Orleans. Despite the disruption of Hurricane Katrina within months, the restaurant was a tremendous success, cherished by locals and garnering features in such publications as Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, Vogue, The Wall Street Journal and Art Culinaire. They brought their particular brand of Franco-Southern cuisine to New Orleans' Central Business District in 2007, with the opening of MiLa. The Times Picayune awarded it a four-bean rating, and again, national press took notice, with features in Food & Wine, Gourmet, CNN Money, and Food Arts. It was a busy seven years for Rushing and his wife, who served as MiLa's co-executive chefs: they also had two children and produced a highly acclaimed cookbook, Southern Comfort, A New Take on the Recipes We Grew Up With, which was a 2013 James Beard Award finalist.

And then Rushing heard that Ralph Brennan was reviving Brennan's, his family's old-school French Quarter dining institution. Rushing had always said that he would jump at an opportunity to overhaul the menu of an Antoine's, or a Galatoire's -- or a Brennan's. "The old restaurants are the heartbeat of the city. The traditional food here is so decadent, and so rich, you wish you could indulge more than once a week or so. Locals want their traditional favorites but can it be a touch lighter?" He left Ralph Brennan a message, and was startled to hear back from him within hours. Brennan, himself a champion of lighter eating who insists that a simple grilled fish must always be offered on the menus of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, was thrilled to find a chef of Rushing's caliber who had a more healthful approach to Southern cooking, but “not wavering from the expected flavors of what sets us apart from any other cuisine.”

"Traditional New Orleans food is so unique that I don't have to do much but lighten the sauces not the taste," explains Rushing. “We can accomplish that through technique and execution, and still retain the flavors." His signature Deconstructed Oysters Rockefeller are a case in point, allowing him precise control over individual elements and flavors. Look for similar dishes on his menu at Brennan's, like the Artisanal Eggs Benedict, a deconstructed arrangement of a housemade English muffin, fresh smoked bacon, farm eggs and Hollandaise, all completely from scratch. The heavy butter sauce of his Flounder Meunière is transformed to a lighter flavorful foam. Rushing's Crab Remoulade gets a lighter touch with less fat, but plenty of aroma and texture from crispy shallots. A Bone-in Ribeye, sourced from nearby Alabama, is treated to a jus-like version of Brennan's classic Marchand du Vin sauce -- hold the cream -- flavored with chanterelles from the North Shore, shiitakes from Jackson, fresh parsley and locally cured pancetta. 

"With a quick extraction, rather than a traditional long drawn-out sauce preparation, we can keep each dish fresh and immediate," says Rushing. Just like that long-ago rabbit. And just the way he wants guests to experience the resurgence of the French Quarter's classic restaurants. "I'm so happy to be a part of this," he says. "We're giving new life and sustainability to a truly grand old tradition."