August, located in New Orleans, has been on the culinary map for over a decade. That, along with a very consistent track record when it comes to food, atmosphere and service, led to a James Beard Award nomination in the category of “Outstanding Restaurant”. Michael Gulotta is an integral part of the team earning that nomination, serving as chef de cuisine since 2007. I spoke with Chef Michael about how he got his start in the industry, the cuisine they put on the table at August, and his personal food memory.
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Foodie Journal: When did
you discover that you had a love for food and that you wanted to do work with
food as a career?
Michael Gulotta: It’s
really kind of weird. I don’t know.
[Laughing] It’s like always been
that way. When I was a kid I always
watched cooking shows and growing up in New Orleans we never went to any kind
of chain restaurant. We always went to
local restaurants or my Mom cooked so the food was always really good.
Once a week I’d get to
go in the grocery and I would cook one of our meals. I always loved it. I always loved taking the ingredients and
turning them into something else. It
always really held my attention I guess, putting it all together and then
watching my family eat it. That’s the
best way I can describe it now. I think it
was all much more simple to me then. My
stepfather, he was real good about just pushing me in that direction, too. I was watching all those cooking programs so
much that he actually went and bought all the little condiment bowls. He and I would test recipes and I loved it.
My family always supported me.
FJ: Can you talk a
little bit about what your first experience was like in a restaurant
MG: It’s funny, because
like I said when I was growing up we never went to any kind of chain
restaurants; we always went to a local New Orleans restaurant, but my first job
was at a Planet Hollywood. [Laughing] My brother was a server there and he got
me the job. In my senior year of high school I wrecked my car and I had to get
a job right away to pay for the repairs. He said, “I think I can get you a job
tomorrow working on the line at Planet Hollywood.” So I figured why not give it a shot.
FJ: What did you do
there when you first got started?
MG: I really hit the
ground running, and did everything that was asked of me. It’s not a brigade
system, like so many restaurants, you know? They’re like, “Okay you’re going to
make a salad. And, you’re going to put the pizzas in the pizza oven. And,
you’re going to do the…” Oh, what was it? They were barbeque something
tacos. I’m like, “Okay” and was just trying to keep up. It was pretty crazy high tempo, but I at
least had fun doing it! In the time I was there, I progressed through every
station in about three month. By the time I left I was the opening trainer and
I opened in the mornings and I helped new staff members. I just sort of ate it up.
When I got to culinary
school I was terrified. It was very different from what I had been used to, so
I kind of blew it initially. I was afraid I was going to mess the food up and
this and that, so I kind of kept to myself.
Fortunately I was able to make some progress once I started to feel
FJ: Do you think it
helped at all having some of that experience before you went to culinary school?
MG: Yeah, I think it
helped a little. Really the college experience was a good one for me, though. I went to Nicholls State University. It’s not
a big college. Only 7,000 students just for the whole college, so that the
culinary program, which was Chef John Folse Culinary Institute, only had like
200 students or something like that. It
was a state funded college, so they had a lot of ties to the community, which
opened the door to a lot of events. There were a lot of opportunities to
volunteer and be involved, and if you did that and excelled the instructors
would take you under their wing. They really helped us along. It was almost like we got private tutorships
the whole time because we were constantly picking their brains, so I got a lot
out of it. I think for me it did help a lot because they were just a wealth of
knowledge for me to tap into all the time.
FJ: Obviously you can
learn a lot in culinary school. You can also learn a lot just working in
restaurants, assuming you can get in the door. Do you ever think one is better
than the other?
MG: I think you can do
it either way. I think some people learn
just as well in a professional kitchen as they do in culinary school, and doing
it that way you end up with a lot less debt, especially if you don’t have
access to scholarships or haven’t saved up just for that. It can be scary for a
lot of cooks coming out of culinary school, carrying a lot of debt. The hard
part is talking them through that stress and being like, “Look. If you can get
past this beginning part, which is tough, the schooling you did will help to
talk you further.” Beyond that, though, cooks fresh out of culinary school can
sometimes come in thinking they’re ready for just about anything, and they
usually aren’t. [Laughing] You’ve learned a lot, but you don’t even know how to
apply your knowledge yet. When you get
out of culinary school some kids think that they’ve learned everything they
need to learn, but no, they haven’t even learned how to apply what they’ve
I guess what matters
more than anything is just being sure you want to do it, especially if you plan
on spending the money to go to culinary school. So, some time working in a
restaurant would probably be a good idea.
FJ: New Orleans strikes
me as a place that likes tradition. Do you ever run in to problems with new
people coming in and wanting to see all sorts of fancy things rather than
traditional techniques on the plate?
MG: With us any of the
techniques that we use with hydrocolloids or anything else like that, we don’t
want you to know that we use it by the time you get it in the plate. We’re not
looking to be flashy or show off, we just want to make great tasting food.
Whenever we use those kinds of techniques it’s more just to get a slightly
different texture than you would’ve expected, but it’s never going to be in
plain sight. We still base everything on classical cooking techniques. So,
yeah, some times you get students who come in and they look at the food that we
do and they’re like, “This isn’t really that exciting.” When that happens, I always have to ask,
“Well, have you tried it? Tasted it?” [Laughing] You know? Did you taste the
crawfish mousse that we made? We use
local crawfish that we know where they come from, we even know the guy who
harvested them. That’s really as good as it gets!
FJ: Yeah, I think it’s
easy to lose sight sometimes of what great products and a little traditional
technique can put on the table!
So my last question for
you. You’ve been able to travel. You’ve had a lot of exposure to the food world
in general. Do you have a favorite food memory?
MG: I have a lot of
favorite food memories. I remember I had a dinner in Italy along with an
Italian woman I was dating at the time.
We had like six courses and it was all very simple just pastas, but it
was just unreal. Not just because of the
food, but every single aspect of it.
Where I was, the sights, the smells, the sounds, the woman I was with. It was just like one of those things. I think
as cooks we’re naturally very sense oriented people, so that one really sticks
out to me.
As a kid my
grandmother’s food still sticks out to me. She used to make a traditional New
Orleans Sicilian dish, which is pounded out veal top round stuffed with eggs and
Parmesan, parsley and garlic and then slow braised in tomato gravy and served
over angel hair pasta. I mean every time I’d smell it cooking or taste it; it
just sends me to my childhood, which really always sticks out to me.
Then, another one was
for my honeymoon. We got to go eat at Per Se. It just so happened that I had
cooked for both my server and the sommelier when they visited August. So we got
a 32-course meal at Per Se on our honeymoon [Laughing]. I can’t even remember
half the food I ate, but just the whole experience of it, and everyone just
being so awesome to us and so friendly. There’s a lot. I don’t know if I can pinpoint just one!
Michael Gulotta is the chef de cuisine at August , which is located at 301 Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans.