LIFE ON TOUR PRESENTS
“I’m kind of ad-libbing all this,” Chef Michael Gulotta says with candor and a smile. “I don’t always know where it’s going.” Waves of grey smoke sweep through a canopy of oak trees and across the nearby lake as Gulotta dances from his prep table to the blackened, make-shift outdoor grill covered by some forty or so whole chickens being cooked. Like some outdoor concert, the buzzing of insects from the nearby pond accompany the cracking chorus of burning cherry wood.
The sun has long set into the acres of City Park in New Orleans, leaving the only light source – aside from the breathing fire – coming from a lantern held by a bearded assistant. It looks like a medieval cook-out, which is fitting since many of the trees in City Park are over six hundred years old. But it’s just another day-in-the-life of New Orleans-native Gulotta. He and his staff of eight are preparing an outdoor four-course meal for a charity fundraiser. Gulotta, 37, has the command of his kitchen, despite the absence of one in the traditional sense, as he makes sure the aluminum foil-wrapped potatoes sitting in the burning ambers are cooked to perfection while he constantly applies a turmeric glaze to the chickens. “Being in the kitchen so much, I forget how much cooking on open fire is an art form,” says Gulotta, wiping the sweat from his brow.
Tonight is a rare moment for Gulotta to be outside of the kitchen. It’s not due to this unique outdoor fundraiser, but because the chef spends upwards of 100 hours overseeing Maypop and MoPho, two of the best new restaurants in New Orleans that he co-owns and operates with his brother and an additional business partner. “I wouldn’t mind taking a vacation with my kids and unplug for a week,” Gulotta says with a sense of humor, if not hope.
Since opening up his first restaurant, MoPho, in January 2014, Chef and New Orleans-native Gulotta has risen in the local and national culinary world. “Our industry loves ethnic food, it’s what we eat on our days off,” Gulotta mentions as he recalls the decision to open a Vietnamese restaurant in a city steeped in traditional French, Cajun and Creole cuisine. “I wanted to give people a break from New Orleans food and I wanted it to be a neighborhood joint run by people who care.”
And “neighborhood joint” it is. Located in a strip mall next to a Burger King, MoPho provides a casual dining experience that people all over the city visit for what Gulotta calls “authentic” food. “I didn’t want the menu to be kitsch. Look, I’m not from Southeast Asia so our menu isn’t traditional, but it’s authentic and real.”
Weeks after opening, MoPho received its first honor. “Our chicken wings were named “Best Stoner Food” by a local publication,” laughs Gulotta. The wings at MoPho soon became the reason to make a reservation weeks in advance. “I was classically trained, so I never thought chicken wings would put us on the map but they are a great example of our food. The idea for MoPho was big flavors. Taking the spices of New Orleans cuisine then upping it even more with Southeast Asia flavors with the brightness of ginger, lemongrass, and galangal. The heat from Thai chilies, and the umami from crab paste and fish sauce.”
It’s clear that flavor is what drives Gulotta, who started his career as chef de cuisine for six years at the esteemed Restaurant August, widely regarded as one of the top restaurants in New Orleans. “I like to eat more than I like to cook. I’m a sensory person so I like to taste.”
It’s a few minutes before 8 AM and outside of Maypop, Gulotta’s newest restaurant, and it is a rare moment in which New Orleans is quiet. The rain from the night before has left the streets damp and only a few people can be seen strolling in the business district. But inside of the restaurant, several hours before it opens for lunch service, it’s a different story. Gulotta has already been hard at work preparing new ideas for tonight’s menu with his team of cooks. Vendors scurry in and out of back of the house to drop off fresh seafood and produce as line cooks prep ingredients, including various curries.
Gulotta is a proud New Orleanian, with his mother’s family tracing back over two hundred years in the city. “Since Hurricane Katrina, the city has been expanding. Old New Orleans is new again and we want nothing more than the food industry to grow here.” While he doesn’t consider his cuisine to be farm-to-table, Gulotta uses as much of the local produce and seafood as he can.
“We care about our food and it’s the way we treat our food,” Gulotta says mid-chop of lemongrass. “If we make curries, we use a mortar and pestle to hand grind them as they would in Southeast Asia. I love the “tink tink tink” sound you can hear in our kitchen when we’re making spices and aromatics. I never did that coming up in really high end restaurants.”
The parallels between Southeast Asia and Southeast Louisiana make almost too much sense from an outsider. Many fishermen and shrimpers emigrated from Vietnam to New Orleans because the deltas of both locals mirror each other. Gulotta pays homage to the similarity with a beautiful giant accordion-style mural in Maypop. From one angle, a map of the Mekong delta in Vietnam is visible. Make your way to the other side of the open restaurant and it shows the Mississippi delta running thru New Orleans.
And when the people came to the Crescent City, so did the flavors of Southeast Asia. Gulotta, a clear advocate of this ethnic cuisine, mentions that their som tum salad, instead of using the green papaya that is found in Vietnam, uses cucuzza squash. “It grows everywhere here. It has the same texture when you shred it, then we pound it with the same traditional flavors: garlic, Thai chilies, fish sauce.”
Chef Gulotta credits his mom allowing him to cook at a young age and growing up watching cooking shows, showing him that a career in the culinary world was a possibility. “When I was ten or eleven, I would love sitting in front of the TV to watch Great Chefs - Great Cities, The Galloping Gourmet, Julia Childs,” says the chef in fond remembrance. In a bit of irony, it’s come full circle, as Gulotta would eventually appear on television, participating in Food Network’s Iron Chef Gauntlet.
While Gulotta didn’t win the televised competition, he continued to win accolades. MoPho would end up being named 2014 “Restaurant of the Year” by New Orleans Magazine and nominated the same year by Bon Appétit for the prestigious “Best New Restaurant” award. Two years later, Food & Wine named Gulotta “Best New Chef” and in 2018, he is a nominee for the James Beard Award, considered by most the highest individual honor in the culinary world.
“I don’t need any big awards,” Gulotta says honestly. “Success to me would be the respect of my peers. I want other cooks to know “What Michael is doing is cool, honest food done right.”