60 Seconds With Chef Alex Harrell From Sylvain New Orleanians have always cherished their culinary options. We have the venerable granddaddy restaurants we can always depend on and the storefronts that seemingly change as often as the shifts of their staff. Some attract tourists, some attract locals and some walk the line and manage to do both. A few are timeworn favorites while others just feel old but aren’t. Sylvain restaurant, recently opened on Chartres, just off Jackson Square, is one of these. The interior, only recently built-out, has been revamped to emit a vintage vibe. With green-leather-covered bar stools, rough-hewn wood floors and Old World tin ceilings, this is a gastropub that nods to the past but is thoroughly modern in every way.
You could say the same for the food. Chef Alex Harrell brings back time-honored classics but improves upon them. Like the burger, in this case the Sylvain Burger, which is so tantalizing you won’t even consider reaching for the ramekin of ketchup. On the 10-item menu, the burger is sandwiched between the Braised Garlic Sausage and the Pappardelle Bolognese. All selections are hand-made by Harrell and his food reflects his personality: It is clever, laid-back and very, very easy to get along with. Hailing from small-town Alabama, Harrell has honed his skills and we are the ones to benefit. Restaurant owner Sean McCusker chose his chef carefully, and what a great choice he made: Harrell loves his food and his patrons. Why else would he pair Veuve Clicquot and hand-cut fries? Sylvain is an aria in the opera of the French Quarter. New Orleans Living caught up with chef Harrell for a one-on-one.
Why New Orleans?
My parents used to take me here as a child and I feel comfortable here. Plus I got to work at Bayona.
How did you decide on Sylvain?
Sean McCusker [the owner] and I clicked on the menu and the restaurant style.
What’s your most time-consuming dish to prepare?
The crispy pork shoulder is about a three-day process.
How do you unwind after a long day?
I like to spend time at home with my wife and two girls. Sometimes I go fishing or play soccer.
Favorite Sunday meal that goes well with the Saints?
I love chili or anything braised.
Favorite New Orleans band/musician?
I have been listening to Anders Osborne’s new album a lot.
The perfect fish?
I love flounder.
The perfect meat?
Who would you most like to cook for, dead or alive?
Dead? Antonin Carême. Alive? Jacques Pépin.
Where did you go on your last vacation? Favorite meal there?
I went to Seagrove Beach. We cooked roasted shrimp and maque choux.
Craziest thing seen in a restaurant kitchen—that I can put in print?
We went into Bayona at 8 a.m. during Mardi Gras for prep and somebody was passed out at the manager’s desk that nobody knew. He was covered in beads and eventually stumbled downstairs, through the kitchen and out onto Dauphine.
Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern?
The perfect wine for your braised beef cheeks?
Côtes du Rhône
Collard Green, Black-eyed Pea, Bacon and Bourbon Soup
Recipe provided by chef Alex Harrell of Sylvain
6 bacon slices, chopped
2 yellow onions, sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch collards, roughly chopped and rinsed well
2 oz. white wine
2 bay leaves
½ tsp. chile flakes
3 qt. pork stock or chicken stock
2 oz. good Kentucky bourbon (we use Four Roses)
1½ cups cooked black-eyed peas
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Slowly render bacon until crisp. Add onions and sauté until tender (about 5 minutes). Add garlic and sweat until fragrant. Add collards to the pot to wilt. Deglaze pot with white wine and add the bay leaves and chile flakes. Add stock and bourbon and bring to a simmer. Continue to cook until the collards are tender (approximately 20 minutes) then add black-eyed peas and thyme. Adjust to taste with salt and pepper.
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