Few New Orleanians need an introduction to Donald Link, the man behind Herbsaint, Cochon, Cochon Butcher and Peche. The James Beard Award-winning chef released his first cookbook, Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link's Louisiana, in 2009. His latest, Down South: Bourbon, Pork, Gulf Shrimp & Second Helpings of Everything, was released last week. Link spoke with Gambit about his travels, his love of the "Redneck Riviera" and the state of modern Southern cuisine.
What inspired you to focus on regional Southern cooking for your second book?
Link: I started working on Down South two years ago with this idea of exploring the South a little bit more. I was having a conversation with Nick Pihakis — who has a number of barbecue restaurants — about community, the south and farming, and about barbecue, too. I started really getting into barbecue, and we wound up putting together the "Fatback Collective," which is dedicated to preserving barbecue's culinary heritage in the South. With that, and my experience working with the Southern Foodways Alliance, I've learned there's so much more to the "New South" than what I experienced when I was a kid. So that's something I really wanted to get across with this book, that the South is so much different now than it was 30 years ago. When I was a kid it was all home cooking. Now you see more and more chefs from the South taking what they grew up with and applying that to more modern restaurants. It's a lot of the stuff we grew up with as kids approached with our years of formal training.
Are there any dishes from Down South that have particular resonance or you?
L: There's a recipe for lamb stew with lemon and olives. With those ingredients, you'd think it would be straight Mediterranean, but it's a similar cooking style to a classic Southern smothered pork. It has that great depth and richness that you find in Southern food, but also taking some elements from another cuisine like Mediterranean or Italian and adding those techniques.
Another good example is the roasted lamb saddle (grilled boneless lamb saddle). It's very similar to American barbecue as far as the temperatures and method, but it's not your traditional choice when you think of barbecue. It's similar to how you'd smoke a pork shoulder, but using some ideas from different countries, like a lamb leg or saddle.
I grew up vacationing on the "Redneck Riviera," and it's changed so much since I was a kid. It was interesting to get into classic Gulf favorites like the smoked mullet dip, Royal Red shrimp and fresh grouper that are much more difficult to find now. Exploring that area was kind of like rediscovering the Gulf South. I didn't even know you could dive for scallops in Apalachicola, Fla. until four or five years ago, which I did right from the boat.
What inspired you also to focus on cocktails?
L: New Orleans has always been a mecca for cocktails, but it's really interesting seeing what other places in the South are doing with drinks. If it's past a certain time of night, I'll just be drinking bourbon. But there are some really great bars I go into and I have to ask myself, "What should I have?" And the bartenders create a great, sophisticated cocktail.
It's that blend of the South that you find these days, a metropolitan feel as well as the old South we grew up with. You can still spend a day at the beach or go out duck hunting, and then experience modern adapted food that night. It's almost like a dual existence. It's the best of both worlds.