Jamielyn Arcega helms the kitchen at CellarDoor (916 Lafayette St., 504-383-5583; www.cellardoornola.com), which marks its one-year anniversary this month. A self-taught cook, Arcega, who is of Filipino descent and grew up in New Orleans, started out catering and working gigs as a personal chef before she was tapped to run the CellarDoor kitchen.
How did you get interested in cooking?
Jamielyn Arcega: My family owned a restaurant that closed after (Hurricane) Katrina, and I was always around, helping out here and there. I grew up watching my family members cook, and my mom really wanted to instill that in me. Our house was the one that everyone always came to; it was the house that was really the place to go and eat for our entire family. Aside from her, it was also my grandma who inspired me. I still go there today to eat; she still cooks every day for my grandpa. It's a way of showing love.
I never really thought it would be a career that I would want to dabble with, but it just came naturally to me.
What's it like running your own kitchen?
J: It's hard to believe sometimes. Before my catering and personal chef jobs, I didn't really have a ton of experience. I would play around in my chef friends' kitchens, just kind of helping out. So I kind of taught myself. I took the fundamentals that I learned in catering and implemented them so they applied to what you would do in a kitchen on a daily basis, just on a greater scale.
Building our team together took a long time. There was a lot of trial and error. We started out with a lot of small plates, but we quickly realized it was almost impossible for us as a small business to handle the amount we were putting out.
There are so many components. You really have to have a thick skin and you have to be prepared for anything to go wrong. You name it, I've gone through it. But at the end of the day that's what really draws me to this field — the fact that you're able to overcome this and still be on your feet the next day.
How does your Filipino background influence the food you cook?
A: As hard as it is to believe, if you ask any Filipino it's hard for us to really articulate what our food is about. It's a complete hodgepodge of Spanish and Chinese culture, so there are a lot of influences, and while this might sound like a cliche, that's kind of the case with New Orleans food as well. There's a fusion of everything here, and that's what I grew up with and gravitated toward. It helped inspire the kind of food I wanted to cook for a living.
Most of the items I cook are locally sourced, and we work with a lot of Gulf fish and a lot of shellfish. I use the typical kind of Asian spices and flavors like lemon grass, ginger and different spices — simple things that make something a little different.
(At CellarDoor) I make a dish called sisig... which was something traditional that I had on any given night growing up. It's typically made with pork jowl, liver and just tons of pig parts. Here, I realized that using pig ears and other parts isn't really appealing to most people, but I wanted to give everyone an impression of what this dish means to me. So I use beef cheeks and liver, which works really, really great. We have to braise the meat for a long time and add vinegar and garlic. You can usually always find garlic, vinegar and soy sauce in every (Filipino) dish.