Sizzling in New Orleans

Anne Kearney came for the 1991 Mardi Gras and never left. Now the hot chef is making her mark in the food world.


NEW ORLEANS — With its Creole-Cajun-Deep-Southern roots, New Orleans sizzles with creative cuisines and larger-than-life chefs. You may have heard of a guy named Emeril who cooks here or Paul Prudhomme or the Brennan family who runs the famous Commander's Palace restaurant.

You may not have heard of Anne Kearney or her French Quarter bistro Peristyle if you live outside Louisiana or even the Big Easy.

But in the food world, the 32-year-old chef is making an impact. In the past year, Kearney -- a perky, blond-haired cooking whiz -- joined the ranks of Food & Wine magazine's best new chefs, won a Robert Mondavi Award of Culinary Excellence and was nominated for a prestigious James Beard award.

She and her charming 90-seat restaurant -- named after a gorgeous mural in the bar featuring a peristyle, an oval pavilion of columns -- have been praised in a number of publications and travel guides, including Southern Living and "Frommer's '99 New Orleans." She also has the blessing of Emeril Lagasse, the flamboyant chef, restaurateur and TV personality who has become a household name.

Not bad for an Ohio native who came to town for Mardi Gras in 1991 and never left. Kearney, who trained at the Cincinnati Culinary Arts Academy, settled right into the city's lively restaurant scene.

The down-to-earth chef with the engaging blue eyes eventually was hired as a cook at Lagasse's restaurant, Emeril's, after interviewing for the job three times. "There was a testosterone environment in the kitchen," she says with a laugh.

Soon, Kearney began assisting Lagasse in cooking demos, developing recipes for his cookbook, "Louisiana Real and Rustic" (William Morrow, 1996), and writing segments for his food show.

"He's wonderful. He's very charismatic," Kearney says. "He taught me how to network. I learned a lot."

Now, Lagasse is one of her biggest supporters. In a recent interview in Playboy, he called Kearney one of the country's up-and-coming chefs.

"Annie is going to make a significant contribution to the movement of American cuisine," he told the magazine. "It's classic Provencal cooking mixed with New Orleans."

Not long ago, Lagasse and Kearney cooked together at an Aspen, Colo., festival, wowing the audience.

"She's all things for all people," says Kate Krader, a senior editor at Food & Wine, which sponsored the event. "She is outstanding. She's lovely as well as being a great chef."

Kearney, a newlywed who traces her work ethic to her meat-and-potatoes Midwestern upbringing, has a simple strategy for success.

"I'm not in the business for the fame of it all," she says. "I'm very grateful for the attention. When I was nominated for the James Beard award, I cried. It's a flash-in-the-pan world. I just want to maintain a level of excellence."

A visit to Kearney's restaurant gives a glimpse into her jet-propelled life as a chef/restaurant owner trying to make a mark in a city filled with skilled chefs. The day usually starts at 8 a.m. and continues until after midnight. She sees her husband, Tom Sand, whom she met in high school, regularly only because he is her business manager.

This day, she's making desserts because her pastry chef quit unexpectedly. Despite interruptions, she hangs onto her sense of humor, mugging for a visitor and joking that her new short haircut makes her look like bombshell actress Jenny McCarthy.

But Kearney is all business when it comes to cooking. She relies on classical French techniques, local game and fish, and seasonal produce like Creole tomatoes, haricots verts and peppery arugula to turn out her brand of Southeastern American food. Even with a staff of 16, including brother Patrick, 25, she is very much involved in every dish, every utensil, every garnish, every nuance.

"I tend to cook from my heart," Kearney says. "The food I create is my food."

She puts her signature on such menu items as poached Louisiana oysters; fennel shrimp and celeriac; lump crab and roasted beets, pan-roasted squab; duck in a molasses-scented reduction; and seared striped bass with lemon and caper beurre noisette.

By 6:30 p.m. on a recent night, the restaurant on the fringes of the French Quarter is filling up -- and this is during the slow season, when the sultry heat melts the tourist trade.

Margrit Biever Mondavi, vice president of cultural affairs at Robert Mondavi, who sat on the panel that picked Kearney for the company's achievement award, explains the allure. "She is a hands-on chef who chooses her menus carefully and presents the dishes with style and grace," she says. "Whatever happens on her beautiful plate is a culinary adventure to remember."

While Peristyle's setting isn't fancy, the restaurant in the 19th-century building is subtly chic with a red-and-white tiled floor, romantic lights around the ceiling and mirrors everywhere. It has been compared to a Left Bank brasserie. It also has a past as a one-time swanky hangout for literati like Tennessee Williams.

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