Jana Billiot, who recently was promoted to chef de cuisine at Restaurant R'evolution, knows a thing or two about Louisiana food. Born and raised in rural Louisiana, Billiot grew up hunting and fishing and cooked the fruits of her labor. After attending culinary school at the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute, Billiot went to work at chef Rick Tramonto's fine-dining restaurant Tru in Chicago, before joining him and chef John Folse at Restaurant R'evolution in 2010. Billiot spoke with Gambit about how her childhood helped shape her outlook on food and fine dining.
How did your upbringing in Louisiana shape your outlook on food?
Billiot: I'm from a tiny town called Johnson Bayou in Cameron Parish. I literally graduated with nine people at my public high school, and that included students from two different towns. I was very, very sheltered — from the mud, essentially. From the time I was 13, I started working at a seafood market. I'd have to be there at 5 a.m. every day ... and that was really how I grew up — hunting, fishing and living off the land. We grew up with chickens, goats, horses, cows and pigs. Every year to this day we still have an annual boucherie. True Southern Creole and Cajun traditions revolve around cooking like that — big gumbos, big crawfish boils, big crab boils. To this day I still love to go hunting and fishing with my dad. I grew up cooking, but I didn't really know that it was what I wanted to do until I went to college.
How does your background translate to your career in fine dining?
B: When I was introduced to (chef) Tramonto and read about his restaurant — and then when I started working there later — I was overwhelmed with the intricate and fine details involved with (his) cooking. It's like a whole other level of fine dining. I feel like I really honed my skills there. I learned to have that eye for detail and understand and respect it, and [I] learned how important it is to notice (detail) and to be able to bring that out in food.
Coming to (Restaurant) R'evolution, at first, I wanted to use tweezers on everything, and I was doing all this crazy stuff. I wanted to pull from something that I knew and what I had been experiencing for the last four years. I struggled for a while in the beginning with the menu. I was always trying to make it just a little too intricate; it was a little too out of place and just not traditional enough. Then, I had this revelation when I realized, "This is just traditional, Southern Creole and Cajun food. I already know this." I just had to figure out a way to marry the two so that it worked and it was still successful.
Do you think multi-course, extreme fine dining has a home in New Orleans?
B: I don't see there being that large of a demographic here for that kind of restaurant, especially the price point. To be honest, for me, it goes against what I think dining in New Orleans is. Why does there need to be a place in New Orleans for dining like that when it exists all over the country? New Orleans is so unique all on its own. If the niche doesn't exist, I don't feel that we necessarily need to create it. Tasting menus are out there; they're everywhere. But they're reasonable (here); it's not as overwhelming. You don't have to have a 12-course tasting menu. You can still have a tasting menu and at the end of it, the guests can still walk away thoroughly impressed and pleased and happy.