Creative projects come to life through myriad forms and processes. For local culinary entrepreneur Tres Barnard, owner and chef of soul food pop-up We’ve Got Soul, that project sprang from a makeshift kitchen sink and an empty orange juice jug.
Barnard’s journey to operating his own pop-up restaurant was, as with many culinary achievers, a gradual one. His kitchen experience began in Oxford, Mississippi, where he worked as a dishwasher for a 7-course prix fixe catering company that operated out of an art gallery. The meal’s unique location created a few logistical challenges, Barnard says, one of which was the sink situation; instead of washing dishes in an industrial-sized sink you’d find in a typical restaurant kitchen, Barnard managed to clean plates, pots, and pans from a single hand sink. After six months of working as the company’s dishwasher, Barnard was promoted to manager and quickly developed a passion for culinary arts. Subsequently, the young culinary achiever left his job in Mississippi and moved to New Orleans, where, in fact, his mother was born and raised, to attend Delgado Community College’s culinary program.
Shortly after he relocated to The Big Easy, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city, which forced Barnard and fellow New Orleanians to evacuate. Following the hurricane, the chef ventured to Colorado and found a job through the American Culinary Foundation working for a master chef at a local country club, Cherry Hills, a job which Barnard kept for five years.
In 2010, Barnard returned to New Orleans for what was supposed to be a temporary visit. During his trip, Barnard says he realized the extent to which New Orleans had revived itself since the disastrous hurricane. Mere months later, Barnard returned to NOLA as a permanent resident.
During the next few years Barnard hopped among some of the best kitchens in the city — from Brennan’s to K-Paul’s to the Royal Sonesta, where he acted as a culinary Jack-of-all-trades — overseeing special events; working at the hotel’s Desire Restaurant and Gallery Café; contributing to employee meals, room service and banquets.
Eventually Barnard, yearning to flex his creative muscles, got an itch to pursue his own pop-up restaurant, a plan that quite literally grew into material reality from an empty organ juice jug that the chef reserved every extra dollar in. When Barnard had amassed enough savings, he juiced his makeshift piggy bank, so to speak, and opened his foodie brainchild, We’ve Got Soul, which he planned to operate from his own favorite neighborhood watering hole, Marie’s Bar in the Marigny.
The pop-up took off slowly, Barnard says. However, with some opportune media coverage in Garden & Gun Magazine as well as a role in the Top Chef: New Orleans web series competition, We’ve Got Soul began selling out, from the bar’s modest 25-square-foot kitchen, nearly every Friday night. The pop-up’s popularity encouraged Marie’s Bar owner to renovate and expand the kitchen, where Barnard planned to continue operating. However, the strenuous permit process proved to be more of an obstacle than the pop-up/bar duo had anticipated, so Barnard relocated his mobile restaurant to quaint Bywater cafe Jim’s (3000 Royal Street), where he currently pops-up every Friday night from 6 – 10 PM. Folks can expect to dig into comforting soul food staples including tender slabs of ribs, mounds of mac and cheese, sliders made with golden slices of fried green tomatoes in place of the roll, and the occasional pig ear — the last Barnard attributes to his affinity for unusual ingredients.
As the pop-up’s name suggests, the food is not only “Soul” but also has soul. Soul food, like most broadly defined culinary genres encompasses a range of regionally specific iterations; We’ve Got Soul concentrates in soul food from the Mississippi Delta area, which, as Barnard’s hometown, has special sentiment to the chef.
But the soul doesn’t stop there. Barnard, a firm believer in creating every element of his menu from scratch, refuses to cut culinary corners. In fact, Barnard mentions that the timely method of braising is his favorite way to prepare meat, a partiality that is evident in each bite of his fallin’-off-the-bone rib meat.
Of soul food’s reputation, Barnard says he hopes to change the way eaters think about it. A lot of folks envision collard greens and mac and cheese when you say soul food, but Barnard argues that soul food is fundamentally founded upon the principle of resourcefulness — cooking what’s available when it’s available. The social aspect of the meal, cooking for and eating with other folks, is also a critically important aspect of Soul Food, adds Barnard.
You can get yourself some extra soul this Saturday at a special We’ve Got Soul pop-up/open studio event from 6 – 10 PM at Jim’s. The aptly named upstairs collective studio, The Studio, home to two dozen artists’ studios, whose mediums range from glass to metal to pottery to canvas, will be holding an open house as Barnard fills the bellies of attendees with a bite of soul.
Check back Thursday for an original recipe from the kitchen of We’ve Got Soul.
This series of stories about New Orleans food trucks, pop-ups and culinary entrepreneurs is made possible through a partnership with My House NOLA, a production planning company for culinary events in New Orleans.