Rebecca Wilcomb has worked for and under the tutelage of several renowned chefs, including Keith Pooler at Harvest and Ana Sortun at Oleana, both in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Even so, it is safe to say that she has found a place to truly shine at Herbsaint in New Orleans, Chef Donald Link’s flagship restaurant.
After moving to New Orleans in 2008, Wilcomb worked the line at Herbsaint under Link and Chef Ryan Prewitt, eventually taking over as chef de cuisine in 2011. There she is able to combine the rich Louisiana food culture with her family’s Italian culinary heritage. Her dishes feel both personal and rooted in a sense of place. A member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Rebecca works closely with local fishermen, farmers, and purveyors to maintain the highest possible level of freshness and quality. In May of 2017, she won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South, and soon she will be overseeing our upcoming Friends of the Café Dinner. We took the chance to speak with Rebecca in anticipation of the event.
AC: What drew you to New Orleans? And how has its unique and varied food culture impacted your way of looking at food?
RW: Honestly, I moved to New Orleans to escape winter. I was living in Boston at the time and just couldn’t stomach another long, cold stretch. New Orleans just kind of called to me. It’s so rich with culture, food, music, art…at the time it seemed so exciting. Ten years later, it still fills me with that same feeling. Life is really celebrated here. I can’t imagine being anyplace else.
AC: You stepped into renowned chef Donald Link’s flagship restaurant, Herbsaint. Did you feel any pressure to put your own stamp on the place? What did you want to shine through on your menu?
RW: Herbsaint is a special place. For me, being a good steward and maintaining the standards set by Donald was very important. Part of that is pushing hard every day—grinding it out. When you do that, your stamp naturally gets put on a place. It becomes a part of you, and you of it. I’m not a planner; I let things happen organically. The only goal I had for the food was to stay true to the ingredients and to myself. What ended up shining through on the menu was an expression of who I am and where I come from. From my first dish on the menu of blistered chilies with whipped feta and fried lemon, to lamb lasagna, to beef with anchovies, to ceviche—every dish has come from love. The chilies were an ode to Oleana, a restaurant I worked in as a young cook and was deeply influenced by. The lamb lasagna is a labor of love—the love of a granddaughter for her Nonna. The beef with anchovies is a reflection of my deep pride in my Italian heritage.
AC: With the growing challenge to a male-based culinary culture, do you see yourself as a role model for women in professional kitchens? What are the biggest challenges for women in the industry? How does an organization begin to tackle those challenges? (We know this is a big question!)
RW: Geez. Well, this is a big question, and I hope is something that continues to be a part of the dialogue for a long time. We should never stop talking about how to make the world a better place. It’s important for women and men to make good choices. Choose to work for people who have a strong moral compass and treat their employees well. Choose to speak out against injustices and unfair practices in the workplace. Choose to work hard every day and treat those around you with respect. I’ve always worked for people and companies who treat their employees well. Tackling big challenges isn’t an issue if you start out doing the right thing. We as women have found our voice, and people are listening. Poor behavior can no longer be tolerated.
AC: What is your earliest food-related memory?
RW: I remember being very young and in Italy for Christmas, and seeing my Nonna cut the head off of a goose and a corn kernel falling out of its neck.
AC: Do you remember the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
RW: Pasta with tomato sauce. I loved making that when I was a kid. It was easy, and I couldn’t mess it up.
AC: What is your most reliable go-to ingredient? What do you always keep on-hand in your home kitchen?
RW: I always have good olive oil. I start and finish everything with a good olive oil.
AC: Do you have seasonal favorites? How do you incorporate seasonal foods into your menus?
RW: I have so many seasonal favorites. I especially love greens—turnip greens, mustards, arugula, lacinato kale, cabbage, spinach—I could eat greens with every meal. Braised, grilled, fermented, pickled—they’re the best. We have a company forager and have built a vast network of farmers who grow awesome things for us. Most of our meat, fish, produce, dairy, and rice come from people in our community. I try to use as much as possible from our neighbors.
AC: When was your last truly great meal/dining experience?
RW: I went to Mosca’s a few weeks ago. It’s this old-school Italian place outside of New Orleans. The food is straightforward and delicious, the staff is welcoming, and you get to play your own music on the jukebox. It’s a really special place with a lot of history.
AC: In a culture where fast and easy solutions often prevail, what do you think is most important for home cooks to focus on? And what should they avoid buying when pre-packaged, if at all possible?
RW: Basic technique. If home cooks learn the basics, cooking becomes that much more fun. Don’t ever buy pre-packaged gnocchi. They are terrible.
AC: Like Alabama Chanin, you are an active member of the Southern Foodways Alliance. What drew you to the organization and what does it mean to you?
RW: I was introduced to the SFA by Donald Link. The organization is filled with people passionate about the South and its history. I’ve always been interested in the history of things and where stuff comes from. The SFA examines and preserves our history, and considers our future while saving a seat for everyone at the table. Knowing where we, all of us, come from is vital to understanding who we are. And who we are is not only what we eat and drink, but also why we eat and drink what we do. The SFA is a very important piece of who I am as a chef in the South.
AC: At Alabama Chanin, you can often find music influencing the mood and the workflow in the studio. If you have music in your kitchen, what is your favorite music to cook by?
RW: I really like listening to Buena Vista Social Club and Gypsy Kings while cooking. I need something upbeat. Opera, rock, hip-hop all make the list. My new favorite is Kendrick Lamar—his music is really great. Rarely do I put on anything mellow.
AC: Congratulations on your James Beard Award! What was it like hearing your name called?
RW: Thanks! It was surreal. I just didn’t think I stood a chance of winning. It was quite a shock and a very special moment.