"He has a fetish for pepper," Amy says of her husband, staring accusingly at his barbecue shrimp in a sauce that is almost as black from cracked pepper as it is roux-brown.
"Well at least I don't put it in my ice cream," counters Neil, sitting next to her at the table and dramatically rolling his eyes up toward the towering chef's toque on his head. Neil is referring to one of Amy's desserts, a creamy, pink, spicy gelato made with pecans and Crystal Hot Sauce.
Spousal disagreements in matters of cooking are nothing new. In the Mockovaks' case, however, these differences play themselves out not in the family dining room but rather in the kitchen of Bourbon House Seafood & Oyster Bar, where the husband and wife each hold the unusual title of "co-executive chef."
Bourbon House, one of restaurateur Dickie Brennan's operations, was among the first wave of restaurants to reopen last fall following Hurricane Katrina. Before the storm, the executive chef was Jared Tees, a product of successive chef roles in Brennan family restaurants. When he departed in August with plans to develop his own restaurant near his home on the Northshore, Brennan turned the Bourbon House kitchen over to his two sous chefs, the Mockovaks.
While plenty of couples run restaurants around town -- usually as proprietors in a front-of-the-house/back-of-the-house arrangement -- the Mockovaks' situation is different because both spouses are in the kitchen, sharing a title. Along the way, the approach is helping tackle a key challenge of running a large restaurant in post-Katrina New Orleans, where the lack of experienced employees has turned many kitchens into virtual career centers for people new to the hospitality industry. The tandem chef roles, Amy and Neil say, allow them to not only focus their own responsibilities but to deliver the equivalent of specialized team teaching for their employees.
The Bourbon House kitchen serves the restaurant's dining rooms, its private event rooms and also the adjoining Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel. Even with 26 kitchen employees currently on the payroll, it is understaffed. Many of the new recruits are young and include a steady flow of students from Delgado Community College's culinary arts program working as externs.
"It's a great opportunity for the students and for us," says Neil. "They have a lot of enthusiasm. Most of them are putting themselves through school, paying their tuition, and they have a real motivation to learn and do well. When they're hungry and growing, it brings a lot to the restaurant."
Amy (whose adult daughter also has worked at Bourbon House) and Neil both refer to their young kitchen employees as "the kids" and they frequently employ a management system -- perhaps familiar to some parents -- that can be summed up as "good cop, bad cop." For instance, when Neil recently took a cook to task for a mistake, Amy sidled up a minute later to slip him something from the dessert pantry.
If it all seems a bit more familial than the ferocious image of restaurant kitchen relations popularized by some reality TV shows, consider that the Mockovaks' own relationship together started in a restaurant kitchen.
Neil, a native of Minneapolis, came to Louisiana in 1992 for a job at Lafitte's Landing Restaurant in Donaldsonville. Six months later, he moved to New Orleans and started working at Commander's Palace. Meanwhile, Amy, a native of Houston, made her way to New Orleans thanks in part to a chance encounter with Paul Prudhomme in California in 1991. The legendary chef and Commander's Palace alumnus was in Los Angeles to tape a Thanksgiving TV special and he briefly took over the kitchen of the hotel where Amy was then working to prep his on-air meal. They talked food for a while, and he encouraged her to move to New Orleans. A year later she did, and by chance rented an apartment across the street from Commander's Palace, where she promptly joined the kitchen staff.
So what does flirting look like in a busy restaurant kitchen?
"He'd steal my mise en place," Amy says, referring to the array of measured ingredients chefs commonly make ready before they cook. "He was trying to get my attention, and at the end of the night he'd have a soft-shell crab ready for me or he'd make me something that's not even on the menu, like veal parmesan."
A manager bet Neil $20 he wouldn't ask her on a date. He did, she accepted and in 2001 they wed. Amy later worked as a chef at Martin Wine Cellar for a stint while Neil went on to work at Dickie Brennan's Canal Street restaurant Palace Caf. He became sous chef at Bourbon House when it opened in 2002. A year later, Amy came to Bourbon House to fill another sous chef slot.
"All they asked was 'Can you work with your husband?' and of course I said yes. We had worked together for years already," at Commander's Palace, she says.
While they admit that living together and working together makes it hard to put restaurant worries and stresses out of mind, they prefer to look on the bright side of their unique work/life equation.
"The way our schedules are, the way chefs work, especially these days in New Orleans, we would never see each other if we worked in different restaurants," says Neil. "We've done that and we know what the opposite is, so we're grateful that we get to do this."