Rebecca Wilcomb was named Best Chef: South at the James Beard Awards in Chicago May 1. Wilcomb describes herself as an Army brat, who was born in New York and grew up in Texas, Germany and elsewhere and traveled in her mother's native Italy. She moved to New Orleans nine years ago and started working at Donald Link's Herbsaint Restaurant. She spoke with Gambit about the award and her work.
How was the James Beard Awards gala?
Wilcomb: Monday night was crazy. It was overwhelming and exciting and a total surprise. Probably the best feeling in the world, actually.
We went with a big team: Donald [Link], Ryan [Prewitt], Stephen [Stryjewski], our director of operations Heather [Lolley], our CFO Humberto [Sauzo], my boyfriend Frank, Donald's business partner, Donald's parents and sister. I went later than everyone else. I walked the red carpet with our GM Joe [Briand] and my boyfriend. But I didn't get much attention because (actress) Sophia Bush was right in front of us. They all knew who she was. No one knew who I was. They snapped like 40 photos of her.
The award was toward the middle. It was a couple hours of sweaty palms and fidgeting and drinking bourbon from a flask. I don't think I've ever been so nervous in my life. It was pretty awesome.
It's not easy to take over a chef/owner's kitchen. How do you think you got noticed?
W: I never really was looking for attention. I was just cooking. You reach a position to be considered for something like this by working hard, doing a good job and making the right choices. I am a hard worker. I work honestly and truthfully and in consideration of the people around me. And then one day, something like this happens.
I became the chef at Herbsaint almost six years ago. It happens in steps. You learn how to manage people. You learn what food you like, what food you don't like, what's more your style. You meet other chefs and start doing events. The community was very open-arms with me. That's because of Donald. It's a community and they welcomed me. I am proud to be a part of it.
Where do diners see your style or influence on the menu at Herbsaint?
W: My most natural direction is toward Italian and Italian influence. On the menu, you see that with lamb and mushroom lasagna. You see that with Sicilian beef with anchovies. I am also a big fan of spices and spice mixtures. The curried shrimp callaloo is one of my favorite dishes. I put it on the menu eight months or a year ago. We have such great ingredients to work with — I don't feel like I am pigeonholed.
The key to (the lasagna) is that it's made in a traditional northern Italian way, with thin delicate sheets of pasta lightly dressed with lamb and mushroom sugo and bechamel. Lasagna by its nature is a heavy hitter, but this one, as lasagna goes, is pretty light. What makes it special is that it's a labor of love. It's a five- or six-step process. We get whole lambs in and break them down. We roast the lamb, we pick the lamb, we make sugo with it. We make bechamel and the pasta sheets. We blanch the pasta sheets. We bake them off and let them sit. It takes a lot of steps, but we figured it out. If you get behind, you are just done.