It's been more than two years since chef Allison Vines-Rushing left MiLa, the celebrated restaurant she and husband Slade Rushing opened in 2007 inside the Renaissance New Orleans Pere Marquette hotel. Vines-Rushing brings her pop-up Port City to Jacques-Imo's at 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11. Vines-Rushing spoke with Gambit about her time off.
What have you been doing since you left MiLa?
Vines-Rushing: I've been raising my toddlers. I have two little ones; one is 4 and one is 2. Since Slade (Rushing) is also a chef and had a few jobs at the same time and re-opening Brennan's (New Orleans) was a major commitment, we knew that both of us doing chef work wouldn't be ideal for our young family. So I took a few steps back to focus on them, but I've done some consulting and started my own catering company where I do little dinner parties at people's homes ... things that give me a lot of flexibility (that) I (am) able to do once and a while.
I've realized that I'm a chef that doesn't want a lot of restaurants and that doesn't want a lot going on, because I have a family now and that's still my primary focus. It's not an easy thing to do, especially when both parents work in the restaurant business, and certainly when both parents are chefs with late night hours and commitments. It's been hard for me to figure out where I fit in now, and certainly nerve-wracking, because I don't want to lose my career. I think the pop-up is a great way to get out there and have fun and be in a restaurant for one night. I'm not ready to step back into a restaurant.
Has taking time off changed your cooking?
V: With a pop-up, I always felt that I could get out of the box that I've always been in: French, Southern-inspired food. Since I've been at home, I cook a lot — my toddlers don't always necessarily dig it — but I've been experimenting a lot. Working like I did, I never really had the chance to just sit down and read and be inspired by (different cuisines) the way I do now. I've had a blast cooking a lot of ethnic food at home. It's really broadened my horizons. I make Thai and I make African, I make Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Peruvian — it's been really fun.
I thought doing a pop-up would be a great way to do things that I've never done before. With a restaurant you're really set in this one theme. With a pop-up, I can do a different theme every time.
With the first menu, it's going to be kind of Cuban and a little bit Chinese-influenced. I lived in Florida in high school, so I've always loved Cuban (food). My favorite dish is chicken with yellow rice, so I'm doing sous vide chicken with turmeric root and ginger. Cuba has a little bit of Chinese influence, so instead of just doing black beans, I'm doing fermented black bean sauce and collard greens. I'm doing mojo shrimp, kind of like barbecue shrimp-style but with mojo.
Did your outlook on the New Orleans dining scene change?
V: Definitely. I haven't owned my own restaurant in a long time, and I only owned one once, and that was Longbranch... and that was a pretty rough go of it. I've always had some trepidation about getting back into food. The restaurant scene here has just exploded from when we first moved here in 2005, and it's just so different.
I think that the restaurant industry in general is so competitive — not only here, but everywhere. Staff is really hard to find. There are a lot of new challenges in restaurants that have taken place in the last five years. There's also so much more ethnic food here now that people are embracing. That's a really great inspiration.