As mourners at Lake Lawn's chapel room in Metairie last Tuesday fought back tears, Jamie Shannon's sister quoted Rudyard Kipling's famous poem "If": "If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you ...."
The lines pretty well describe the life of a chef in the kitchen -- one part battle zone, one part artist's studio.
Jamie Shannon, executive chef at Commander's Palace since 1990, succumbed to a year-long battle with cancer on Nov. 23, the day after Thanksgiving. He was 40, and leaves behind a wife and son. During his tenure at one of New Orleans' most honored restaurants, Shannon -- who began there in 1984 as a saucier under a young Emeril Lagasse -- reaped several awards both for himself and Commander's.
In 1995, Food & Wine named Commander's the No. 1 restaurant in America; the following year, the restaurant won the coveted James Beard Foundation Outstanding Restaurant Award. In 1999, the foundation dubbed Shannon the best chef in the Southeast while the Robb Report called him the No. 2 chef in the world.
Last year, Shannon co-authored a cookbook, Commander's Kitchen. He also starred in top-rated Off the Menu at Commander's Palace, a cooking and outdoorsman TV show.
But for all his accomplishments, perhaps Shannon's greatest accomplishment was doing for others what Lagasse had done for him: teach. Richard Benz spent a year at Commander's before moving on to Upperline and eventually opening up Dick and Jenny's. He joins Smith & Wollensky's Robert Bruce, the Palace Cafe's Gus Martin, Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse's James Leeman, and Foodies Kitchen's Greg Collier and Tom Robey, as some of the many who graduated from Commander's kitchen with Shannon as the headmaster.
Shannon is also credited for helping streamline a system that helped train aspiring chefs, using an "extensive career" ladder, as he called it in a 2000 interview. The ladder required everything from cutting vegetables to cooking the crew meal and moving on to the dessert station, saucier and beyond. Eventually, he said, "you have someone who's well educated and knows about the customer and the product. Not too many restaurants are able to offer that, and we're still building on that."
But that system didn't come at the expense of Shannon's equal passion for life. "He was just a good Jersey boy," recalls Benz, who would join Shannon at the Chef's Fishing Rodeo organized by Muriel's Devlin Roussel. "He was super outgoing, funny, friendly, very blue collar. Some chefs are real prima donnas ... or finicky. But he was a lot of fun."