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Guess who's in the kitchen with Outback?

Anne Kearney, star New Orleans chef and, by her own assessment, "not a real corporate kind of girl,'' joins forces with the formidable chain to create a gourmet restaurant in Tampa.

By CHRIS SHERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 22, 2000


TAMPA -- At the new Louisiana-style restaurant called Zazarac, diners can't look directly into an open kitchen. Instead they look through overlapping panels of swirled amber to see white jackets hunched at their stations or rushing back and forth.

In the first weeks since Zazarac opened, a careful eye could distinguish a secret ingredient in that bustle of white: the bright triangle of a bandana on the back of a head full of wavy blond hair, the signature of New Orleans star chef Anne Kearney, former assistant to Emeril Lagasse and for the past five years owner of the tiny but acclaimed Peristyle.

Blue bandana one night, pink, orange or lavender the next night. "Anything but red; it's so boring." She's not boring.

A chef who's boring doesn't add barbecued shrimp to pain perdu -- the original French toast, griddled in molasses -- or nestle summer-fresh cherries in a creme brulee. A chef who is painstaking, which she is, would reduce stock for 48 hours to make a perfect demi-glace, slice dozens of mirlitons (also called chayotes) for lyonnaise or turn away produce before it gets in the back door.

Only a risk-taking chef would bring her reputation from New Orleans to a Tampa side street and the kitchen of a prototype gourmet restaurant partnership cooked up by Outback, the colossus of chain restauranting. Kearney was on hand this month to guide the restaurant staff.

"I'm not a real corporate kind of girl," Kearney says. Her own restaurant, Peristyle, has only 56 seats and family-oriented management: the sous-chef is her brother, the manager is her husband.

How did such an odd partnership start?

Three guys from Tampa were in New Orleans and knew that Peristyle was one of the city's reigning new restaurants. The woman who owned it had helped John Neal start the modern French restaurants and had assisted Lagasse for three years, and then returned to buy Peristyle before she turned 30.

But the restaurant was closed for a private wine tasting when the Tampa crowd stopped by. The chef herself had been pressed into service setting up the room. Nonetheless, she let them in, showed them a menu and volunteered to get them a reservation elsewhere.

The folks from Tampa liked her hustle, and when Outback emissaries John and Trudy Cooper eventually got to eat Peristyle's exquisite food, they loved it.

Getting another chance to talk to her took longer, no matter how often they said, "Outback, Outback."

Or maybe because of it. Even now, eight months into a partnership that has produced its first upscale restaurant and may or may not grow to include other outlets, it's an odd match.

Kearney doesn't want to be a snob about her initial reluctance. There's simply a big divide between corporate restauranting and a small restaurant where the chef is the owner, the kind she's always worked for and now owns herself.

"There's an integrity, a meticulous quality, so people (diners) have a real connection to the person in the kitchen," Kearney said. That person has a close connection to suppliers, a farmer in Thibodeaux, La., who grows especially for her, a spearfisher who brings his catch straight to her and an oysterman two blocks away.

"The people I respect the most are in their restaurants every night. People of New Orleans expect that figurehead to be there."

Yet last fall, at 32 years old, Kearney was looking for a challenge. She and her husband had talked about opening a different kind of place, maybe a bistro open late at night. But the more she talked with Outback, creating a new restaurant in partnership with the megachain became the challenge.

Challenge of rebuilding

Then last November, fire shut down Peristyle, and she and her husband had another challenge, rebuilding their restaurant (which will reopen Aug. 15). In the meantime, she's spent many days in Tampa, sending recipe prototypes through Outback's test kitchens, and for the last month working on the line with a crew that will have to carry on without her.

Has it been a Faustian deal with the devil?

"I don't feel I've had to compromise anything," Kearney says. "They want quality, fresh ingredients; so do I. They want to have happy employees; that's another parallel."

Outback brings big resources and operational strength to the partnership, especially in the human element. The group that created Outback 11 years ago with a steakhouse a block away on Henderson Boulevard made their chain a success largely by avoiding the mistakes they had experienced as managers of Steak & Ale and Chili's in the 1980s.

Perfect timing

They benefited from the public swing back to beef, found an empty niche at a medium price point and had an Australian theme at the right time. Their real strength, however, was internal. As former managers, they made sure that on-site managers had a stake in profits and that lower-level employees, from bus help on, got fringe benefits, better rewards and a chance to move up and someday become a manager-partner, too.

Those principles, rare in a restaurant industry with a shaky work force, gave Outback a strong advantage, which was applied to Carrabba's and eventually to the next upscale generation of Outback ventures.

A large crew rounded up

For Zazarac's kitchen, Outback has mustered a large crew of more than a dozen people, slightly more than the average steakhouse and much larger than most independents can manage, and with higher skill levels (and payroll) than chains dream of.

Jayson Polansky, a South Florida chef who worked at SideBern's and Bern's in Tampa, will be a partner and the executive chef, overseeing food and daily menus. Beneath him are two sous-chefs inspecting incoming ingredients and supervising the kitchen.

There is a daytime staff, including a baker to make bread; a butcher to tend to stocks, make sausages and trim meats; and two production cooks prepping foods from ravioli to vegetables. At night, there are six cooks on the line at four cooking stations (vegetables and starches, grill, saute, hot appetizers) and two working the pantry (for salads and desserts) plus one expediter for appetizers and another for entrees to keep everything moving. As well-staffed as that is, the line at Peristyle may be larger proportionately, with four cooks and one expediter.

A matter of pride

Still, numbers alone are not sufficient. What Kearney and Zazarac's training director, Billy Clark (formerly of Emeril's), want to give the staff is the knowledge and pride that comes in her kind of independent restaurant.

"I wish I could stand right next to every one of them, to show them to cook as if you were the diner. Many of these kids have never had the opportunity to take ownership of their station," says Kearney.

"I want them to know there's a difference between putting food on a plate and placing it on a plate."

She doesn't demand frilly, but the plate's rims must be perfectly clean, the entree and its sauce centered on the plate, with a little height for interest, but not too much.

"I tell them to think, "Is this what you want for a salad if you were paying $5?' These are baby lettuces. You've got to treat them gently, like a baby.

"That's my job. I can set up the systems, and I'll come back every three weeks to see how it's going, but it's not my restaurant. I won't be here. It's theirs."

The recipes, of course, are hers. And though the style is a similar contemporary version of the old French cooking of New Orleans, the recipes are not the same as at Peristyle. There, Kearney says, "I don't use recipes."

Original touches

Zazarac's cooking has her original touches -- such as dressing up poor folks' breakfast cornmeal coush coush to go with duck breast or borrowing pickled beets and horseradish from Midwest Germans for crab salad -- and respect for classical French technique, in smooth soups and intense sauces.

If Zazarac can duplicate the care and the food of such a chef even once, it could start a chain reaction.

The chef's secrets

Anne Kearney is the owner and chef of Peristyle (1041 Dumaine St., New Orleans; (504) 593-9535) and executive culinary director of Zazarac (3207 W McKay St., Tampa; (813) 350-0481), the upscale Louisiana restaurant recently opened in partnership with Outback.

She is a native of Dayton, Ohio, and a graduate of the Greater Cincinnati Culinary Academy and has been cooking for 15 years.

Advice to women who want to be a chef: "It's never been harder for me because I'm a woman. I may have even got some jobs because of my appearance, but that's not what keeps you in the job. It's a hard business. . . . If you think you want to become a chef, work in a restaurant kitchen first."

Favorite late-night snack food: "Triscuits with cheddar cheese and pickle, bread and butter pickles."

Favorite meal: "Oysters Rockefeller with Champagne and my husband, then seafood, a nice piece of fish."

Favorite cuisines: "I've had a thing for Thai and Vietnamese cooking. New Orleans has a big Vietnamese community. I love rolling the little crepes and rice noodles."

Kitchen work habits: "There's nothing I don't like to do: I love to clean, I love to dice. I hate doing paperwork. I love the feeling of being on the line."

Tricks home cooks can use: "Buy produce that's in season. Look around the market to see what's fresh. If you can't buy fresh, buy frozen. I detest (prepackaged) chopped garlic; if you have trouble peeling garlic yourself, soak it in hot water for 20 minutes."

Favorite wine: "Domaine Serene. It's a pinot noir from Oregon."

Local produce: "We've had real good tomatoes from Ruskin."

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