Kings of Creole
John Kessler / September 2012
You say you want a R’evolution, well, you know John Folse and Rick Tramonto are changing the world, New Orleans style. This unlikely chef duo—swamp Cajun and Chicago dude—are shaking up Bourbon Street with an expansive new restaurant.
With its yellowing checklists taped to the walls and its chafing dishes stacked higgledy-piggledy on a steel prep table, the main kitchen of the Royal Sonesta Hotel in New Orleans looks much like that of any busy downtown hotel—well worn and well loved.
But walk through the swinging doors at the kitchen’s far end and you enter an environment that couldn’t be more different. Brass pendant lamps cast bright illumination on granite counters. Glass-fronted walk-in coolers display shelves of colorful produce, and banks of custom-designed Viking equipment sport a custom burgundy finish called R’evolution Red. Walking from one kitchen to the next is like that point in the James Bond movie when the scene moves from the mine floor to the high-tech command center hidden within. You suck in your breath and think, “Wow. A lot of money went into this.”
The multimillion dollar Restaurant R’evolution opened in early June in a meandering warren of former banquet rooms just off the Royal Sonesta’s central courtyard. It’s the first project from Home on the Range, a new restaurant development company formed by John Folse, Louisiana’s longtime ambassador for Cajun and Creole cuisine and culinary polymath, and Rick Tramonto, the high-wattage Chicago chef known for his award-winning stewardship at Trio and Tru. With an epic menu designed to invoke the historic multicultural sweep and grandeur of Louisiana cuisine, R’evolution represents a major investment in the future of New Orleans dining. In remarks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony in June, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu called it the most important new restaurant to open in the Crescent City in the last 50 years.
And talk about location…
R’evolution landed hard in the honky-tonk heart of the French Quarter at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville Streets. Just outside the hotel’s doors, tourists in Mardi Gras beads stumble about with plastic cups of boozy happiness, and hawkers in hot pants lure passersby into euphemistically dubbed gentlemen’s clubs. Like Galatoire’s a block away, R’evolution offers a respite of elegance and fine cooking. In fact, it may prove just as timeless—Galatoire’s for the 21st century.
“We’re trying to respect the past, while presenting a new and revolutionary style of Louisiana food to contemporary diners,” says Folse. Hence the apostrophe: Every revolution starts with an evolution.
Folse and Tramonto had been friends for over a decade when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 and gave them the opportunity to forge a deeper bond. “Rick was the first chef to call after Katrina, and I was moved,” says Folse, whose multifaceted Chef John Folse & Company, based in Gonzales, Louisiana, includes Lafitte’s Landing at Bittersweet Plantation Bed & Breakfast in Donaldsville, plus food manufacturing, catering, a dairy, a smokehouse, baking operations, a radio show, and the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux. “I told him the only thing he could really do to help was to come down and start feeding people.” Tramonto caught the next plane.
At the time, both chefs were going through major career changes. Folse, who has been a chef since the 1970s and famously cooked for a presidential summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, had recently converted his longstanding destination restaurant, Lafitte’s Landing, into a bed-and-breakfast. Moreover, he turned the kitchen into a culinary research and ideation center for his expanding food manufacturing business. Tramonto, after nearly two decades in the heart of Chicago’s fine dining scene, was looking further afield, starting with a group of upscale-casual spots in the Chicago suburb of Wheeling. As the two chefs dished out chow to displaced people, their conversation ranged from spirituality to Sunday gravy to—eventually—the future.
In 2010, after years of discussion, Tramonto left Tru to go into partnership with Folse and spent the next two years traveling to Bittersweet Plantation to hash out the details for R’evolution. Tramonto and Folse thought about design right from the start, developing a brand standard and then bringing in Tramonto’s frequent collaborator, architect Bill Johnson of Atlanta’s Johnson Studio, to execute their vision. Much like his work for Dean Fearing’s eponymous restaurant in The Ritz-Carlton Dallas, Johnson created a series of distinctive-yet-interlocking environments. The delicatessen-inspired Market Room, with its sausage-curing cabinets and showcase exposition kitchen, leads to the more formal Storyville Parlor, where hand-painted murals depict scenes of Louisiana’s culinary past. Among the scores of figures in the murals, Tramonto and Folse make Where’s Waldo? appearances.
The spare, modern wine room abuts a display of the 10,000-bottle cellar’s most bodacious occupants (including a magnum of Château Mouton-Rothschild Pauillac 1982 valued at $24,000), while the bar evokes a French Quarter carriageway of yore, right down to custom gas lanterns overhead that keep it in a state of flickering penumbra. But when it came time to design the $1 million kitchen, these two culinarians relied on their own wits rather than a professional designer. They went about it in a way that might seem backwards to anyone but a chef. “First we wrote a menu, and then we created a menu,” says Folse. “And then we designed the kitchen around it.”
Indeed, this menu, with no fewer than 50 items, was built around the theme of the Seven Nations of Creole identity—that stewpot of European, Native American, and African influences. It veers merrily from house charcuterie (hog’s head cheese, pâté de campagne, finocchiona) to snapping turtle soup, Tramonto’s signature caviar staircase, homemade pastas, stewed tripe, crabmeat-stuffed frog’s legs niçoise, molasses lacquered duck, and a full steakhouse menu. It covers more multicultural ground than Epcot Center. Executing it would be no small feat. Tramonto took the lead in laying out the stations and the work flow. “I feel very blessed and very spoiled as a chef because I’ve worked in lots of million dollar kitchens,” he admits.
After considering the plethora of cooking methodologies employed on the menu, he and Folse decided to place the J&R rotisserie and Wood Stone wood-burning oven in the expo kitchen, which is responsible for more than a dozen menu items as well as all the charcuterie boards. Then they turned their attention to the main restaurant kitchen. “When we sat down to lay it out and design it, I originally drew an island like at Tru,” says Tramonto. “But I couldn’t get the HVAC system to work with it—this is a very old hotel.”
But a chance meeting with Viking executives at the National Restaurant Association Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago convinced him he could get the kind of work flow he needed from a more traditional American hot line. “There’s a lightness to the kitchen and a clarity to each station. But they’re also very in tune with each other,” says Tramonto.
Each of the five stations along the main cooking line comes equipped with its own customized reach-in coolers, built-in trash disposal units, water spouts, and “spice channels” to keep seasonings in front of the cooking surfaces. Viking worked closely with Tramonto and Folse on custom configurations. The salamander has an adjustable shelf but no sides, so cooks on either end can place or remove plates, or even pass them through. Refrigeration units sit underneath the grill, allowing cooks to reach for steaks without turning around. Containers for every food item—from a 40-ounce tomahawk rib eye to beet powder—is clearly labeled.
“It’s more functional than other kitchens I’ve worked in,” says Folse, “with a lot less running around. Plus, it’s got a lot of eye appeal.” The R’evolution Red color of the appliances is mirrored in the dining room chargers and menu, and even in the bottles of camellia-infused R’evolution ratafia the barkeeps use in cocktails.
The pastry station around the corner from the cooking line has a granite counter with a built-in ice cream dipping cabinet. It also boasts a dedicated soufflé oven, so there’s no need for a pastry chef to run soufflés to a prep kitchen oven during service. Its front counter is finished with quilted stainless steel. “All these pastry chefs are women, so we give them something nice to look at,” Folse says, with the wink of a rogue who can get away with such lines.
Tramonto hit a small snag when he wanted the plates and serving vessels to be stored in drop shelving from the ceiling. “I had to bring pictures from Chicago and show them to the stainless-steel guys here. They had never seen anything like that.”
Tramonto says he’s most proud of the three smaller walk-ins that face the line—one for prep and pantry items, one for produce, and one for meat. They have transparent Jamoclear doors, so every time you walk by you can both admire the beauty of the neatly shelved provisions and take a quick inventory.
Viking went as far as to build custom appliances for the kitchen, including a temperature- and humidity-controlled cheese cabinet with wooden shelving and a hot smoker. “We’re still working on this,” says Folse, squatting by a bag of pecan wood chunks to show where he and a Viking tech are planning to conduit to a separate box to turn the unit into a dual-function hot-and-cold smoker. “We’ll be smoking fish before long.”
The best view into the kitchen may be from the chefs’ office, perched behind a one-way mirror just above the pastry station. Folse and Tramonto do indeed use it as office space during the day, but at night it turns into a private event room accessible via a discreet private entrance from the garage. “They don’t seem to do the kitchen table here like they do in Chicago, where it was our main celebrity haunt,” says Tramonto. “But we pitched it to the hotel, and it made sense to everybody.”
The mahogany-paneled room offers a large eight-top table under a fanciful seashell-encrusted chandelier as well as a full suite of AV equipment. “It will be used for a slide slow for a pharmaceutical company or just as a TV for a group of friends who want to watch the Super Bowl,” Tramonto predicts.
For his part, Folse sees the room as appealing to the kinds of high rollers who need more options in New Orleans. People who might order that tomahawk rib eye and decide on that magnum of ’82 Mouton to drink alongside. People who will come to this happy crossroads in the heart of New Orleans to celebrate in style.
“You never know,” Folse laughs heartily. “We might sell it to someone who has won a big BP case.”