What’s on the menu? For Fertel, it’s got to be local!

By Jill Warren Lucas

As the son of one of America’s best-known fine dining entrepreneurs – Ruth Fertel of Ruth’s Chris Steak House – Randy Fertel is understandably choosy about eating at restaurants. “My mother always avoided the word ‘chain’ and called Ruth’s Chris a ‘family’ of restaurants, but chains pretty much are a deal breaker for me,” Fertel said during a recent call from his New York home. “It’s important to me that a restaurant sources its foods in a local and sustainable way.”

Randy Fertel’s memories of family meals and a flourishing
restaurant business – and a life sometimes soured by the eccentric behavior of his charismatic parents – is chronicled in The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir (University of Mississippi Press).

He will talk about the book in two local appearances: Nov. 15 at The RegulatorBookshop in Durham, and Nov. 16 as the guest of Culinary Historians of the Piedmont (CHOPNC) at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

The global Ruth’s Chris empire is no longer family owned, but it did make good use of the abundance of the bayou when his mother bought
the 17-table Chris Steak House in 1965. Fertel said New Orleans’ post-Katrina restaurant scene has inspired a resurgent interest in locally-sourced foods – not only among the Crescent City’s best-known chefs, but also its home cooks and youngest diners.

“We lost so much with Katrina, and the impact is far from over, but today chefs and communities are reconnecting with the land and have a real appreciation for what it provides,” Fertel said. “Through the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, which supports education, I’ve been able to bring Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard to New Orleans. We have five projects and will add another soon. It’s as important that children and
families understand where food comes from as it is for top chefs.”

Fertel believes the farm-to-table movement is more than a hip dining trend as it has deep roots in family traditions. “My mother would talk about her great-grandmother, who would send the men out at Thanksgiving to dig up 17 bags of oysters from the bayou,” he said. In turn, the elder cook would create “the best, richest oyster stuffing in the world” – which still graces his groaning holiday table every year.

While familiar with the top spots in New Orleans and New York, where he divides his time, Fertel said that no matter when he eats he
seeks out the elements that made the original Ruth’s Chris a legendary success.

“Of course people knew they’d get a great meal, but they also got great service,” Fertel said. “The trend at the time was for the best restaurants to be very formal, and they all had male servers only. My mother hired people like herself: single mothers with spunk who she could count on to work hard. Her dining room was friendly and warm.”

Knowledgeable servers not only see to a diner’s comfort but
also ensure that they “see the chef’s hand on the menu.” The deft assistance that helps to define a chef’s inspiration – as well as suggest a satisfying appetizer-to-dessert experience – is the best way to cultivate regular customers, he said.

As for the dishes created in his own kitchen, Fertel described himself as “a typically male cook.” “I love to make classic New Orleans-style foods and things that cook in pots: braises and roasts. There is nothing quite like a good roast chicken,” he said. “I’m an intuitive cook but I find myself using cookbooks a lot more lately. I’ve realized I can stretch myself if I have a great book as a guide.”

There is only one recipe included in Fertel’s memoir, and it’s not a dish made famous at Ruth’s Chris. Instead, it was a meal prepared by
the maid he interviewed and hired at age 10, when his mother was too busy to get home for the appointment. Earner (“er-nah”) Sylvain worked for the family for 42 years.

“My mother liked to say she taught Earner how to cook, but she was a terrific cook when she came to us,” Fertel said. “Her crawfish bisque
was the best I’ve ever had.”

Fertel shared Earner’s Crawfish Bisque for Durhamfoodie followers, but be warned:  you’ll need about 40 pounds of bayou-fresh
crawfish, which is not exactly local or sustainable. This recipe will feed your family plus everyone in your neighborhood.

Jill Warren Lucas blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her on Twitter at @jwlucasnc.

EARNER’S CRAWFISH BISQUE

Recipe Courtesy Randy Fertel, from The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir

1 sack crawfish (about 40 pounds)

Scald crawfish in almost boiling water for about 15 minutes.  Drain and cool.  Peel crawfish and save the fat in a separate bowl. Grind the crawfish. Clean about 200 heads to stuff.

For the Gravy:

2 large onions

4 ribs celery

¼ bell pepper

4 cloves garlic

10 sprigs of parsley

1 cup cooking oil

2 cups flour (about)

4 tsp. tomato paste (heaping)

1/2 of crawfish fat

9 cups hot water

2½ cups ground crawfish tails

5 tsp. salt

2 tsp. red pepper

6 green onions

For the Heads Stuffing:
2 large onions

3 ribs celery

¼  bell pepper

4 cloves garlic

10 sprigs parsley

rest of ground crawfish tail

¼ cup cooking oil

rest of crawfish fat

2 eggs, beaten

2 cups dry bread crumbs (or more)

4 tsp. salt

2 tsp. red pepper

flour

6 green onions

To make gravy: 

Grind onions, celery, bell pepper, garlic and parsley.  Make roux with oil and flour.  Stir constantly until browned.  Add ground seasonings.  Cook on low fire about 30 minutes.  Add tomato paste and crawfish fat.  Cook about 30 minutes.  Add hot water and let cook on low fire.  Add ground crawfish tails, salt and pepper.  Cook on high fire about 20 minutes.

To make stuffing for heads:

Preheat oven to 400º F.  Grind onions, celery, bell pepper, garlic and parsley.  Fry crawfish tails and ground seasonings in hot cooking oil; cool.  Add crawfish fat and eggs.  Mix in bread crumbs, salt and
pepper.  Stuff heads.  Dip the stuffed part of head in flour and
place on cookie sheet.  Bake for 20 minutes.

Add baked crawfish heads to gravy.  Cook on low fire about one hour.  More hot water may be added if too thick.  Stir carefully.

Serve in soup bowls over rice.

Garnish with green onions.

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