“I always get offended when people don’t have chocolate on their dessert menu.”
Vibrant, assertive, playful and talented, Chef Kristen Essig already has definite ideas about the food and ambiance at Sainte Marie Brasserie, though she only took the position a little over two months ago. Kicking off her new job with gradual implementation of small changes like product sourcing, Essig is ecstatic about her work at the CBD restaurant, exclaiming through a genuine, heart-warming smile, “I feel really lucky, and I am so thrilled to be here.”
Growing up in Seminole, Florida, Essig was one of the lucky ones who knew right away what she wanted to be when she grew up. She has been cooking for friends and family since she was 14 years old, and her greatest inspiration in the kitchen was her grandmother. Every weekend, Essig and her younger sister would spend time with their grandparents in Tampa. “We would cook Sunday dinner when my parents would come to pick us up. Grandmother was second generation German, so we did Sauerbraten with Gingersnap Gravy and fried chicken made with Vigo breadcrumbs.”
With her eye on the prize, Essig leaped straight from high school into culinary school at Johnson & Wales College in Charleston, South Carolina. While working at a “Salute to Southern Chefs” benefit, Essig was approached by famous chef and TV personality Emeril Lagasse. She told the celebrity chef that her “mother would kill her if she dropped out of culinary school,” but Lagasse was not to be deterred. “He [Emeril Lagasse] gave me his cell phone number and said, 'If you ever want to move to New Orleans, I've got a job waiting for you.'”
After graduating culinary school, Essig was anxious to leave Charleston. “It's a great town, just a little vanilla, and I was ready for a change.” She immediately called Emeril, packed up her belongings and hopped in the car. “I called my mom while I was actually on the way,” Essig laughed. That was 13 years ago, and New Orleans has been her home ever since.
Her first job in the Crescent City was at Emeril's eponymous, flagship restaurant on Tchoupitoulas Street where she remained for almost a year. “I learned a lot at Emeril's,” Essig said, though at first she was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of food she was working with. “Volume teaches you speed and consistency, which are very important.” While working at Emeril's, “the other woman” working in the kitchen, a chef named Kamili Hemphill, became good friends with Essig but left to work at one of the hottest restaurants in town, Peristyle. When another position opened up, Kamili encouraged Essig to join her.
“Peristyle will always be the most amazing restaurant I've ever worked at. Anne [Kearny] was my mentor, my friend, and I just love her to pieces,” Essig recalled. “Everyone wanted to work there.” Although she worked with Chef Kearny at Peristyle for four years, Essig also had the opportunity to work with another one of New Orleans' finest female chefs - Susan Spicer.
“I remember I had been at Peristyle for a month, and I went home for Thanksgiving, and when I came back, I found out there had been a fire at the restaurant. I remember thinking, 'I finally get the job I've wanted since I moved here, and there's a fire!'” While Peristyle was being remodeled, Chef Spicer “stepped up” and offered the restaurant's employees work. So, for 9 months, Essig found herself working in the kitchen at Bayona. “She [Spicer] does everything with this tiny little knife,” Essig recalls with admiration. “I was always so impressed, I was like, 'She just worked on eight ducks with a paring knife. How does she do that?'”
Working at Peristyle offered Essig great challenges and rewarding accomplishments, but after several years Essig found she was ready for something different. Chef Kearny's brother Patrick had been working as a private chef and suggested that Essig take over, and she did. “I worked as a private chef for a family in Montana for ten summers, and every time I came back, I would start a different project.” After her first summer, Essig returned to New Orleans and was hired to manage the Tuesday and Thursday markets for the Crescent City Farmers Market, which also turned out to be a great way to meet local vendors and fishermen. “It was another great way to sort of tie in another element of cooking, like, 'How can I broaden myself and do something a little bit different each time?'” Essig said.
At the tail-end of summer in 2005, Essig was driving back to New Orleans from Montana when she heard about the approaching storm. When she arrived at her house in the Irish Channel, she and her boyfriend deemed it was time to evacuate, so they made their way out to her family's home in Tampa where she stayed for a while. It was in Tampa that she started selling prepared foods at the local farmers markets, and she continued doing so when she returned to New Orleans six months later.
In 2006, Essig launched her own business entitled NOLA Bean, which provided private chef services, catering and in-home cooking lessons. Her passion for cooking never faded and always offered great satisfaction when diners would sing her praises. “With cooking, everyone loves it right away. There's so much instant gratification.” Essig greatly enjoyed cooking for the families who employed her, but after over five years, she was ready for the next big thing. “I loved the private chef business, but I was ready for my reach to go beyond the ten families I was working for.”
Alex Harrell, Executive Chef at Sylvain, and Essig worked the line together “way back when” they were at Bayona, and though she lived in the French Quarter and visited Sylvain on a regular basis, she had no idea it was Harrell at the helm. “I knew I loved the food, I loved the bar and I was in there all the time, and one day I was walking out and I was like, 'That's Alex!'” When a position opened up at Sainte Marie, Harrell called up Essig and offered her the job.
“I really think we're going to do something great here, I really do, but it will take some time,” explains Essig regarding her plans for Sainte Marie Brasserie. Essig is pulling all her knowledge and experience together to re-invent a restaurant that she's incredibly passionate about. “We're trying to use as much local, indigenous product as we possibly can,” she mentions enthusiastically, “Whenever we can buy Louisiana citrus, we're gonna buy Louisiana citrus. Just little things like that can really make a dramatic change. You can taste the difference.”
During this year's Tales of the Cocktail “Spirited Dinner” series, Sainte Marie Brasserie will host “Hennessy Paradis Imperial Dinner at Sainte Marie.” Chef Kristen Essig and Bar Chefs Jordan Bushel, Giuseppe Gonzales and Steve Schneider offer “an exquisite evening of Hennessy Privilege cocktails” paired with Essig's unforgettable cuisine.