Patron Saint of Herbsaint
A hungry, nervous chef is a potentially lethal condition.
But there’s nothing like winning one of the country’s most coveted culinary prizes — The James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef South — to rapidly change the mood.
Here’s the early-May play-by-play from Herbsaint restaurant’s,, herself:
“When they called my name, it happened very quickly,” says Rebecca Wilcomb, chef de cuisine at Herbsaint. She is referring to the black-tie ceremony in Chicago that she attended with fellow (and some former) Herbsaint chefs like Donald Link, Stephen Stryjewski and Ryan Prewitt. Her boyfriend, Frank, was at her side. “We were all really excited,” Wilcomb adds. “We jumped up; I got a bunch of hugs before I went on stage. My brain was racing … ‘Don’t mess this up. This is happening. Don’t mess this up.’”
She couldn’t help think but think of everything that could go wrong. She didn’t have a speech prepared. She didn’t want to trip and fall. Or go the wrong way. “And talking in front of all your peers, all these people you’ve admired for so long … it was a lot,” she says.
Most first-time nominees don’t win James Beard Foundation awards. Only a handful are women. But those statistics don’t matter to Wilcomb.
“I’m just really grateful and honored to have gotten the award,” she says. “I think that getting it for Herbsaint is very special for me. It’s been my life for nine years. I’ve invested a lot in this restaurant, and it’s invested a lot in me. So I’m just excited and happy, and most of all very honored that my peers gave me this award.
“For your peers to say, ‘I see you, I like what you’re doing … good job,’ that means everything to me. I’m just trying to focus on that.”
You just won the James Beard award — are you going to Disneyland? “I’m going to go right back to work,” she says. (And in fact, she was back by Wednesday night the week of the Monday-night awards.)
A group effort: On stage at the awards ceremony, Wilcomb had about a minute to thank the many people who have gotten her where she is today. She thanked the team at Herbsaint, her former team, her former restaurant, former chefs, family … friends … family friends … her boyfriend. She thinks she got everyone but says it helps that in the restaurant business everyone knows that nobody does everything alone.
So you wanna be a chef: “I got in to cooking because I fell in love with restaurants,” she says. “I started working the front of the house in my early 20’s. I always knew I wanted to be in the kitchen. I knew I wanted to work in restaurants the rest of my life. I just love them … the sounds and the smells and the feeling of being in a really great restaurant. I go out more than I probably should.”
First-time diner’s must-have Herbsaint menu items: “Always get the gumbo,” Wilcomb says. “But there are a lot of favorites on the menu. Something else you can’t miss is the lamb and mushroom lasagna. It’s pretty awesome. The duck confit dirty rice is always a crowd pleaser — but definitely the gumbo.”
Home at last: Wilcomb’s mother is from Italy and her father was in the United States Army, so she has lived in many cities around the world. She built her early culinary career in Cambridge and Boston. So where does New Orleans fit on the food chain? “I’m definitely settled in and can’t ever see myself leaving,” she says. “The people here make it pretty easy to love it. There’s a celebration of life and everyone’s welcome. It was easy to slide in to a life here.”
Junk food secrets: Wilcomb stocks dried seaweed, nuts and other non-perishables for late night snacking. She’s obviously not big on vices. While she loves freezer pops, these days, hers are 100 percent juice. “I’m trying to be a responsible person,” she says, laughing.
Watch this page: Wilcomb admits there is a potential new project in the works but will only say, “Watch this page” for news in the “next couple of years.”
“For now,” she says, “I’m focusing on Herbsaint and playing with food. I’m working hard and teaching other folks how to run a kitchen. And I’m just going to keep on pushing.”
James Beard Foundation Awards on Local Parade
Rebecca Wilcomb isn’t the only local winner for 2017. Arnaud’s French 75 Bar took home the Outstanding Bar Program award and Zacahary Engel of Shaya was named Rising Star Chef of the Year. Wilcomb’s fellow local Best Chef nominees included
Slade Rushing of Brennan’s and Nina Compton of Compère Lapin. “After I won, they were super supportive,” she says. “They’re great people and great chefs. I love Nina’s food; I love Compere Lapin. And the food at Brenann’s, especially with the volume they do there, that restaurant is really special.”
Other local nominees –
Best Chef: Donald Link of Herbsaint
Outstanding Pastry Chef: Kelly Fields of Willa Jean
Outstanding Restaurateur: JoAnn Clevenger of Upperline
Outstanding Service: Galatoire’s Restaurant
Outstanding Bar Program: Cure
Outstanding Wine Program: Emeril’s New Orleans