DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:
OK, we've all got those nostalgic recipes that we love and others, not so much. New Orleans chef Mason Hereford takes his childhood favorites and fancies them up with his fine dining expertise. With his first cookbook coming out next week, NPR's Debbie Elliott stopped by his Turkey and the Wolf restaurant to see what his style is all about.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Most days, there's a lunch line waiting to place an order at Turkey and the Wolf, a quirky corner joint with counter service and outdoor picnic tables.
LAUREN: How can I help you today?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We would like a fried potpie.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A ham sandwich.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Crinkle fries.
ELLIOTT: Mason Hereford's wife, Lauren, takes orders at a stand near the front door. Food comes out on cartoon-themed plates you might find at a thrift store. Dishes like the collard melt, a distinctly southern twist on the Reuben, or the double patty Mama Tried Burger, named after the Merle Haggard song or Hereford's favorite cover of it by the Grateful Dead. The Deadhead vibe abounds in the shop's merchandise and from Hereford himself. His hair is in a wavy mullet. He's got a handlebar mustache, and colorful tattoos decorate his arms and legs.
MASON HEREFORD: I mean, it's just an honor to be in an NPR program, and I know my mom listens in the car, so, Amy Hereford (ph), hey. Mom, what's up?
ELLIOTT: Mason Hereford grew up in rural Virginia and moved to New Orleans right out of college. He got his start as a doorman at a bar but soon moved to the kitchen. After a stint as chef de cuisine at a high-end Garden District bistro, he broke out on his own in 2016. The next year, Bon Appetit picked Turkey and the Wolf as the best new restaurant in America, and it started showing up on all kinds of foodie lists. Hereford says it's been gangbusters since.
HEREFORD: I think that it was right place, right time for our concept, being people with fine dining experience doing something casual and kind of getting away from the average restaurant grind.
ELLIOTT: Along with Turkey and the Wolf, Hereford also has a breakfast spot in New Orleans, and he says he's working on opening another restaurant. Meantime, he's put to paper some of the magic in a new cookbook called "Turkey And The Wolf: Flavor Trippin' In New Orleans." He's amped up familiar recipes in a way that's accessible to the home cook, like serving caviar atop a fast food hash brown.
HEREFORD: So much of what I used to do when I was creating dishes for higher-end dining is I was taking these nostalgic ideas and kind of, like, fancying them up or taking fancy ideas and sort of making them a little bit more redneck-y (ph), for lack of a more appropriate term. And the idea is you can have something really, really fancy, and instead of serving it on a pomme dauphine, you can go to the local fast food place and get a couple of hash browns to go and put two ingredients on top and have a - you know, a high-end dish.
ELLIOTT: We visited in his home kitchen to learn more. He bribes his dog, Darla (ph), with a giant, chewy bone to stay quiet for the interview.
HEREFORD: ...The brightest way to go about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
HEREFORD: Darla, good job, I guess. I got an idea. Darla, why don't you go eat this on the couch? We bought ourselves 5 minutes - maybe 5 seconds. We'll see. And the question was...
ELLIOTT: It appears from reading your cookbook that a lot of what you do is inspired by the kind of food that you grew up with, right?
HEREFORD: So a dish can come about by any number of ways. It's usually a conversation in the kitchen by whoever is there that day. And a lot of the original ideas are like, oh, something you ate last week that got you really excited. More often, it's something that you grew up with 'cause that's what really makes you excited.
ELLIOTT: So talk to me about when you start, like, conjuring up nostalgia from your younger days. What are the things you think about?
HEREFORD: Well, the dish I'm going to cook today is a bologna sandwich. And it's also the cover of the cookbook and one of the two most popular items ordered at Turkey and the Wolf. And that originally was - I can't remember which country store outside of Charlottesville, Va., we would get it at - it would be two slices of white bread, bologna and yellow mustard, maybe American cheese, and I could not stand it. So that was nostalgia in a different way. It wasn't, like, a happy memory, but it was a core memory. And to choke that one down, we'd shove potato chips in there. We took that idea, and we created something that was perhaps not more memorable than the original but definitely more delicious.
ELLIOTT: Our cooking lesson starts with making a sweet and spicy mustard from scratch. He starts a double boiler on the stovetop.
HEREFORD: We're going in with the vinegar. Looks like a cup. I'm allowed to eyeball it.
ELLIOTT: He adds sugar, salt, dried mustard powder and a couple of eggs.
HEREFORD: It's almost like a super spicy honey mustard. I'm whisking it all up. It's over the double boiler, and now it is just a waiting game. Oh, baby, that's hot.
ELLIOTT: As we wait on the mustard to thicken, he gathers what will be stacked into the sandwich - bologna from a local butcher, deli-style American cheese, white bread from a local baker, butter, Duke's mayonnaise, housemade chips and a head of iceberg lettuce. Nothing fancy.
So you just put a big, fat cast-iron skillet on the burner.
HEREFORD: I did. I'm going to go three slices of this stuff. If you want more bologna, have more. Choose your own adventure. So that delicious noise is the bologna frying off. I'm just going to get a little bit of color on it, flip it over, and then add two slices of American cheese and kind of glue it all together. And that's going to go on our sandwich.
ELLIOTT: He slathers mayo on the bottom piece of toast, the homemade spicy mustard on the top slice and starts stacking.
HEREFORD: Next up is a big pile of our chips. And the most fun part of building a sandwich is when you press it down and it breaks all the chips, so here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCH)
HEREFORD: And there you have it - a bologna sandwich.
ELLIOTT: With texture and crunch, recurring themes in the Turkey and the Wolf cookbook, along with that refreshing, no-fuss approach. He gives us permission to use boxed cornbread mix for spoonbread, for instance, or sprinkle Cheez-Its and roasted peanuts over ice cream.
HEREFORD: If there's a way to get to point A to point B, having, you know, the most amount of fun and the answer to that is to cut corners, cut the corners, right? Part of cooking that's exciting is making everything from scratch, and part of it is having the meal made so everybody can hang out together and have a good time. As far as, like, high brow, low brow, I think that the pandemic has made a shift in so much, right? All these fine dining restaurants had to do chicken sandwiches to go.
HEREFORD: Hereford co-wrote the cookbook with J.J. Goode. He calls the process a labor of love. His wife and colleagues helped test the recipes while his brother took mouthwatering photographs of the final dishes. And there are lovely sections about the influence of his family and friends, including how he came up with the name Turkey and the Wolf. His late father used to call the kids turkeys when they were causing mischief, wolf because at the end of a long shift, Hereford and his crew were prone to howl when the final plate left the kitchen.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News, New Orleans.
KURTZLEBEN: This story was produced by NPR's Hiba Ahmad and edited by Melissa Gray.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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