In November 2015, chef Mike Gowland opened his 1950s-themed diner Rocksy's Cafe (3220 Edenborn Ave., Metairie, 504-889-7064; www.rocksys.org). New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival fans may know him as "Fireman Mike" for his chicken and andouille gumbo and shrimp and grits. Gowland spoke with Gambit about his transition from fighting fires to working in the kitchen and about his favorite comfort food.
How did you go from working as a firefighter to cooking?
Gowland: I cooked first. I used to work in the bar industry, but when I was 21 I went to work in Houston as the beverage manager at Del Frisco's Steakhouse. They had just lost somebody in the kitchen and that's pretty much how it happened. They just said, "You're a cook now." It was a great way to start.
When I came back (to New Orleans), I started cooking at other restaurants, but I wanted to get the formal training. I went to the Beau Chene Country Club and worked under a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef. I cooked for about 10 years, and when I started having kids, that's when I needed the benefits and joined the fire department. After that I started working at Jazz Fest and all the other festivals, which has always been a family business for me. There, all my kids are involved and it's a way for us to get together. It's different than cooking in a (traditional) kitchen because it's different every day and there's a beginning and there's an end.
Are there parallels between chasing fires and working the kitchen line?
G: At the risk of coming off as cheesy, my life has been very fulfilling because working as a fireman I got paid to serve people. I've missed that the last couple of years and felt that something had been missing. Now, with (Rocksy's Cafe) it puts me back on a platform of doing something good. It's good to see people walk out and say, "This was awesome."
After (Hurricane Katrina), one of the things that helped me was to bring people back to their childhoods through food. Obviously, the stress of being a fireman was part of why I retired. Being in the kitchen is almost therapeutic. There are always kids out there looking to cook and looking to help, and if I can hire them, that's great too.
What are some of your favorite nostalgic foods?
G: I hate to be so basic and be such a New Orleanian, but I love our red beans and rice that we serve on Mondays. It's just so traditional ... and Creole comfort food. I love a good Alfredo, spiced up a bit, maybe with some grilled shrimp on top of it. I love that really flavorful cream sauce where you can put whatever you want on top of it. And a chocolate shake always does the trick.