Ashley Locklear, the foraging mastermind behind some of the best meat and produce procured for the Link Restaurant Group (Cochon, Butcher, Herbsaint, and Peche) has always tilted towards the kitchen. Whether it was baking and then frosting a “psychedelic” checker board pattern on a cake for her high school art instructor’s return from the Venice Biennale or waitressing and bartending through college, she has always been interested in food.
Locklear’s love of all things food clicked when she moved to the Pacific NW for college. She joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), drank delicious microbrews, and discovered the nuances of fresh produce and seafood through both the Portland, Oregon and Olympia, Washington farmers markets.
One of the most memorable experiences at the markets, she says, was connecting with a fisherman from one of the nearby Indian reservations who sold salmon filets less than 24 hours out of the water. “I’m not gonna lie, there were times I ripped open the package and took a bite of this just-caught neon red orange fish. You don’t get that salmon quality here, that oily freshness, the color…it’s not the same as being at the source. Sushi heaven without the fanfare.”
Locklear moved to NOLA in 2008 as an Americorp Vista volunteer (like a domestic Peace Corp). She worked at Hollygrove Market and Farm where lots of chefs shopped, and over time, she became friends with Stephen Stryjewski (2011 winner of the James Beard award for Best Chef of the South). When she decided to move on, Stryjewski asked her why she would leave NOLA after doing all the hard work of finding farmers with great products and connecting them to local restaurants. Would she do what she was doing but for LRG (Link Restaurant Group)? Yes indeed.
So while Locklear sat down and wrote up her dream job description,Stryjewski conferred with Donald Link, CEO and Executive Chef of LRG and 2007 James Beard award winner for Best Chef of the South. It worked out and Locklear is now like the Hindu goddess with 18 arms — not to ward off evil but to figure out the how, the where, and the when each food item will be delivered to each restaurant in their restaurant pantheon. It is a grave understatement to say she is organized.
It’s more like she’s playing 3D Scrabble with fresh produce.
The restaurants plan their menus three seasons in advance. Locklear sends out seed catalogs highlighting interesting varieties and making recommendations. If something was on Chef Ryan Prewitt’s (Executive Chef of Peche and ANOTHER Best Chef of the South James Beard award winner) wish list a year before, Locklear will ask if he’d like her to find someone to grow it next season.
Maybe it’s the Sour Mexican Gherkin the size of a thumbnail or a bright-tasting lemony cucumber or it could just be finding the perfect size head lettuce; she’ll take a photo and text her chefs, “you gotta get this…now.” She’s on the road twice a week in her truck, covering a 250-square-mile area, visiting farmers, walking in their fields seeing for herself how things are growing.
On Tuesdays, Locklear takes the orders from each LRG chef, calls the farms, placing the orders 36-48 hours in advance of pick up. On arrival at the farm, the produce is ready to be quickly loaded onto her truck and she’s off again to the next stop — all the while, keeping track of what each chef has ordered by delivery date/week/month/ and annually along with price points so she can track patterns, usage, and price changes. Clearly the girl is sweet on spread sheets.
Right now she’s all stirred up over local citrus like the blood oranges from English Turn and Poirier’s (“awesome”) cane syrup. (You can taste this citrusy goodness in The Oak Hills cocktail at Cochon or in the frequent offerings of citrus salads at Herbsaint and the other venues. And LRG chefs are playing with the Poirier’s Cane Syrup in marinades and vinaigrettes, so stay tuned.)
Locklear and the chefs are already looking toward the spring for baby and mature artichokes (late March/April) — perhaps prepared simply poached in a white wine flavored broth, halved then grilled and served with a classic aioli. And then there are New Orleans’ local Spring Onions. “Nothing, and I mean nothing, is better than a sweet spring onion roasted over a fire,” Locklear says.
On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, the pork comes in and is butchered (at Butcher, of course), the process open for folks to watch.
I pulled up one Tuesday as farmer Bill Ryals of Ryals Rocking R Dairy delivered two “dressed” hogs, about 400 pounds of primo pork. (He also sells at the Tuesday Farmers Market Uptown on Broadway and Saturday at farmers market on Girod and Magazine.) The pork is used primarily for Butcher’s charcuterie but also for Cochon’s cochon de lait.
Research for Locklear is like falling down a rabbit hole. Take these pigs: She didn’t just find an artisinal pig farmer and place an order. Her research led her to a 3-way Terminal Cross: the sire (daddy) needed to be a Berkshire hog and the mom needed to be half Hampshire and half Landrace. That’s why the pork at the houses of Link taste so damn good.
(Likewise, when Chef Stephen found a piece of enamelware he loved and wanted to sell at Butcher, Locklear began a treasure hunt with only bits of information — that the enamelware had come out of Europe, the business had survived WWII, and their products had a tiny design feature that set them apart. A three-month-deep dive into the internet ended with a chance sighting of the manufacturer’s stamp on the bottom of a vintage cup turned upside down on Etsy.)
But back to Butcher, where Eric Tirone breaks down about four of Ryals’ hogs a week. His cooking education at Johnson & Wales, where his concentration was in Wellness and Sustainability, fits in perfectly with the underlying mindset of House of Link. From one of the managers I learned that the group goal is to show you can run a successful restaurant using fine local products and farm-raised meats and, most importantly, do what you do in a happy work environment. “Happy employees naturally lead to happy customers.” It sure seemed as though everyone was relaxed and having fun — from Mindy Theriot from LaFouche Parish, who took some pics in the bar because I’d lost my cell phone, to bartender Kevin Augustine from DeRidder guarding the crystal skulls and Starwars paraphernalia, to Michael Valent who, coming from Boston, had a thing or two to learn down here about heat. And then there was the Mardi Gras Christmas tree lovingly decorated with sausage and hot dogs. Dat Pork!
Chef Stryjewski’s father was in the army (colonel of field artillery … things that go boom) so he moved around a bit as a kid. His mom, as an officer’s wife, entertained a lot, so Stryjewski spent time in the kitchen helping. By age 14 he was already working in professional kitchens and found that the eccentric and adrenaline-driven life of the restaurant biz suited him.
When Cochon was a month away from opening, that junkyard dog Katrina hit. It took another six months to open, but chefs Stryjewski and Link have never looked back.
It’s busy any time of day you walk into Butcher, which pays tribute to Old World bButcher and charcuterie shops — a place to buy cured meats, sides like mustards and pickles, to serve sandwiches and a few small plates. The charcuterie, which has more than doubled in size, includes local delicacies like Buckboard Bacon (traditional bacon cure, add molasses and garlic to the mix), Duck Breast Pastrami, coppa, and andouille as well as pork exotica like head cheese.
Cochon is next door to Butcher, and is on most people’s favorites list. Be hungry, be very very hungry, when you go there.
When I got back home after talking to Chef Stryjewski and watching Tirone surgically break down a whole hog, I turned on my TV to watch my favorite interviewer (Regina Meredith on Gaiam TV). Ordinarily the subjects are things like Edgar Cayce or the gnostic gospels, but not this episode. This one was titled “Pig Business with Lady Worcester.” The Universe works in mysterious ways … maybe pigs can fly!
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