For part three of my New Orleans-centered blogs (there will be more in the future, I’m sure), I decided to focus on culinary whiz, Chef Marcus Woodham. By combining curiosity and fun with a passion and respect for ingredients, this local chef has found a recipe for success—one measured not only by his rise in the culinary field, but also by what shows up on the plate. Woodham began his culinary journey in 2003, working as a bus boy at French Market Bistro in Baton Rouge. It was here that Woodham first discovered his desire to become a chef. “As I was taking a woman’s plate, she told me to ‘tell whoever cooked this eggplant [that] it was the best I ever had,’” Woodham remembers. “As I was walking back to the kitchen, I thought to myself, ‘I want someone to tell me this.’ I then told the cook, and he said ‘fucking right’ in a kind of way that was like ‘no shit.’”
From that moment on, Woodham steadily climbed the ranks, and, over the years, he helped open Galatoire’s Bistro in Baton Rouge as well as John Besh’s award-winning Lüke in downtown New Orleans. Later, Woodham was named sous chef at Restaurant Patois. And in 2013, he became Executive Chef at Tivoli & Lee (a modern, Southern restaurant located within The Hotel Modern New Orleans). While it was no easy climb, Woodham credits a number of talented chefs and restaurateurs for helping him along the way.
“Chef Kevin White (Wayfare) really taught me the foundation of French cuisine, which is the basis to everything I do in the kitchen,” Woodham says. “He instilled in me the love and passion for each ingredient—to treat it with love and not to mess up something that a farmer worked so hard to grow. Cooking under Aaron Burgeau (Patois) was probably the best learning experience of my life. I learned creativity, soul and what it truly means to cook farm-to-table. His attention to each ingredient is truly incredible and inspiring. His business partner, Leon Touzet, really showed me the ropes as far as actually running a restaurant as a business and making it profitable. Aaron and Leon were very influential in my career, [and] I’m very honored to have worked with them.”
Woodham focuses on local and farm-sourced ingredients, but he uses a modern approach to elevate the ingredients and to really let them shine. And when it comes to inspiration, for Woodham, it’s all about having fun. “I like to have a good time in the kitchen, and I think that’s what comes out on the plate,” he says. “Cooking farm-to-table can be tough at times, due to shortage of produce on some farms and how often produce changes. Farmers maybe have something one week, and [they’ll be] out of it the following week. This keeps you on your toes, and you must be ready for change to be able to adapt to that. Sometimes inspiration comes out of necessity, but, for the most part, inspiration [comes from] talking with other cooks about the things they like and the things they have grown up eating.”
The menu at Tivoli & Lee is soulful and approachable, and it changes with the seasons. “I’m basically cooking the things that I grew up eating—using everyday ingredients, but presenting them in a way that you may not be used to. Once again, I like it to be playful and fun. Food shouldn’t be taken too seriously; you gotta learn how to have a good time with it. I like people to look at the menu and say, ‘Wow, that’s kinda strange, but I’ll try it out of curiosity.’” (This comment definitely brings to mind the root beer float with sweet potato ice cream that I tried at Tivoli & Lee on my last birthday—I was certainly curious, and it was absolutely delicious.)
The current menu includes stellar standout dishes, such as the smoked ham hock with mac ‘n’ cheese, pickled watermelon, chow chow and a watermelon barbecue sauce. Other favorites are the fava bean salad, which is light, clean and crisp; and the poke salad with tuna, crab and pickled shrimp, which seems to be a crowd favorite. As summer turns to fall, the menu will transition into heartier fare. There will be beef heart and tongue, and different root veggies and squashes. “I kinda see it as having a football or tailgating feel to it—something that you can enjoy with a big group of people,” Woodham says.
In addition to the joy he finds in creating inventive dishes, Woodham also loves the camaraderie that he finds in the kitchen and in New Orleans as a whole. “I’ve played sports my whole life, and being in a kitchen with a group people is probably the best part of this job. It has all the same feelings of a locker room. I spend more time with these people than I do my family. We are a very close-knit community, and I love the respect that the chefs in this city have. I think this new wave of chefs in this city [is] kinda changing the landscape of New Orleans cuisine. It’s something that’s very exciting.”
Chef Woodham, along with bartending phenom Kim Patton-Bragg (who recently left Tivoli & Lee to manage the bar and front of house at The Three Muses on Frenchman Street) are off to the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen this weekend. They will talk about the relationship between the bar and the kitchen, and how to work together to create various menus and concepts.
And, if you’re in the mood to cook up a little something yourself this weekend, give this pickled shrimp recipe a try. It’s straight from Chef Woodham’s kitchen to yours!
8 lbs. u10 head-off shrimp
2 red onions
3 red bell peppers
1 bunch green onions
1-½ bunches cilantro
1 large kitchen spoon creole mustard
5 c. rice wine vinegar
1-½ c. olive oil
For the shrimp boil, combine water, creole seasoning (like Tony’s or another favorite), salt and lemons. The water should taste like seawater. Poach the shrimp and cool in ice bath with additional creole seasoning. Then, combine all ingredients and toss with the cooled shrimp.