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A Flair for Flavor

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Gautreau’s acclaimed young chef, Sue Zemanick, competes on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters

Like the sexy, Victorian-era socialite for whom the restaurant is named, Gautreau’s is a study in contrasts. The refined dining room feels secluded, even on an Uptown block, and well-heeled diners delight in a menu that’s youthful, confident and chic.

Credit Sue Zemanick, the lauded executive chef who just celebrated her 30th birthday. While collecting accolades from the James Beard Foundation and Food & Wine, Zemanick has crafted rousing dishes rooted in the French classics. “Clean, fresh and fragrant flavors,” Zemanick describes her cuisine. “The food speaks for itself.”

This spring, the New Orleans chef will be introduced to a national audience as a competitor on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, premiering April 6. Filming the show was “intense,” says Zemanick. “Most chefs … don’t choose to become chefs because they like to cook competitively, but do it to make people happy.” Taking on “bizarre challenges and ingredients” in a makeshift kitchen, with lights and camera crews, was especially tough.

If she’s the one left standing, Top Chef Masters will donate $100,000 to Zemanick’s chosen charity, the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. (Zemanick says Top Chef Masters has pledged $3,000 to each contestant’s charity, regardless of how well the chefs do; the winners of intermediate challenges will score even more money for their charity.) Zemanick is a “huge animal lover” and became a fan of the LA/SPCA after the 2005 levee breaches. “They did such a great job of rescuing animals,” Zemanick says.

Stay tuned to see what Zemanick cooks on Top Chef Masters; in the kitchen at Gautreau’s, her playful skill shines in dishes like foie gras, where she draws out the fattened goose liver’s nuttiness by topping it with peanut brittle. A side of sweet smashed grapes and thick toasted brioche turn the plate into a brilliant take on the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Zemanick also has a flair for layering flavors. A precise round of olive oil cake is infused with citrus instead of the standard almond; that essence shows up instead in a side scoop of almond ice cream. A tangle of warmly spiced kumquat marmalade deepens the cake’s citrus notes.

“It’s nice to have a cake made with olive oil rather than tons of butter,” says Zemanick, who adds flour, eggs and sugar to the omega-rich oil to get the cake’s texture. (Last year, her recipe for grilled pork tenderloin—with a curry made of coconut water and sour cream—landed in Food & Wine’s annual healthy cooking issue.)

Zemanick slips in other light flavor-boosters at Gautreau’s, like a sultry sherry vinegar that adds sex appeal but few calories when it’s drizzled into a broth of petite lentils and figs. It’s all crowned with succulent duck confit.

Rather than consider vegetables an afterthought, she relies on them to challenge and excite the palate. “Anyone can make a steak that tastes good,” says Zemanick, who intensively studied seafood and fish at the Culinary Institute of America. Her pan-seared grouper gets a lift from buttery beams of carrots, zucchini and yellow squash. The fish and veggies are splashed with a soulful, truffled beurre blanc. “Americans tend to overdress and oversauce everything,” Zemanick says.

Her advice to home cooks who want to get skinny? Drain off the oil or butter from your sautéed vegetables before serving. A few times a year, Zemanick goes on a liquid cleanse, a two-week fast of puréed raw vegetables (kale, celery, fennel, cucumbers) and fruits (apples, pears, watermelon). Protein and good fat on the cleanse come from coconut oil, almonds and macadamia nuts.

“It gives the digestive tract time to rest,” says Zemanick, who loves her $100 Breville juicer for its affordability, easy cleaning and a wide mouth that lets you throw in whole vegetables for easy juicing.

Just as she shakes up her off-hours diet, Zemanick changes the Gautreau’s menu often, trying new techniques and foods (lately, quinoa and raw kale). She draws on local ingredients, though “we have weird seasons here, and things only last a short period of time,” she says.

This spring, Zemanick looks forward to working with crawfish, as well as baby lettuces and carrots —”the things that have just started growing,” she says.

It will be equally exciting to see what this young chef, a master already, creates next.

-Anne Berry