Christopher Villano
Connecting the dots between restaurant, catering, and retail operations, Donald Link is continually on the move, stamping his impassioned brand of Southern cooking on his latest, live-fire concept.
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Cajun Cosmopolitan

Todd A. Price - September 2013

Connecting the dots between restaurant, catering, and retail operations, Donald Link is continually on the move, stamping his impassioned brand of Southern cooking on his latest, live-fire concept. Todd A. Price trails the Louisiana native.

At 10 a.m. sharp, Donald Link walked into Cochon Butcher. He was dressed down in a short-sleeved shirt with sunglasses and a pack of Camel Blues in the front pocket. He headed straight to the line, grabbed a pinch of pulled pork from a steam tray, and popped it into his mouth. He took out a Cajun boudin, sliced it into thirds, and tasted a bit to check the texture of the rice inside the sausage. As he went along, line cooks in black Butcher T-shirts greeted him with, “Hello, chef.” Link would nod.

This is a sandwich shop that employs three butchers to make all the meats. It has a full bar. The music is always loud.

Almost at a trot, Link went over to the meat cases to make sure they were full and neat. The bacon, pork chops, sausages, and stuffed chickens turn over almost daily. What doesn’t sell after two days becomes the special. Link looked at a tray of homemade soft pretzels on the counter, flipping a few to check the undersides: “It’s just a spot check. I can do it real quick.”

The Link Restaurant Group owns the Cajun and Southern restaurant Cochon, Cochon Butcher, and the event space Calcasieu in one building, as well as the modern bistro Herbsaint, and the just-opened Pêche Seafood Grill. All are in the Warehouse Arts District, a neighborhood where condo dwellers must still dodge forklifts and semi-trailers. Every day, Link visits the restaurants, the iPhone in his pocket buzzing nonstop with calls, texts, emails.

Link must approve any menu changes. Chefs can run their own specials. But Link still tastes those, so he can kill a bad dish before too many customers have ordered it. “I have to be careful,” he says, “not to get tied down to one project during the week so that I’m away from a place for too long.”

A back hallway connects Cochon Butcher to neighboring Cochon. Link headed back that way and charged up a flight of stairs to the kitchen of Calcasieu above. As line cooks sliced Brussels sprouts and cleaned potatoes, Link reviewed a row of clipboards listing the week’s large parties and catering orders. Before leaving, he checked a piece of bacon off the line.

“There are so many little f---ing things all day that just creep up,” he says. “I try to make lists to get to them when I have a chunk of time. Today, I have a chunk between three and five.”

In the empty Calcasieu dining room, director of restaurant operations Heather Lolley has commandeered a table. “I don’t really have an office, which is fine,” Lolley said. “You shouldn’t be sitting down very long.”

Lolley was a bar manager at Herbsaint when it opened 13 years ago. Now she handles special projects. Today’s project is planning a trip to Italy for her, Link, and a half dozen other chefs and managers. On the detailed dining itinerary, there were notes like “recommended by Dana Cowin” or “John Mariani’s suggestion.” Link asked Lolley if it would be warm enough to swim. It wouldn’t.

The trip was something Link had always wanted to do for his staff, just to get them inspired and see hospitality in Italy. Now he had the money.

Link continued to the third floor of the 15,000-square-foot converted warehouse. Except for a small space rented to a wine collector, the building is fully occupied by Cochon, Cochon Butcher, Calcasieu, and the Link Group offices. And they need more space. Link gets pissed every time he thinks about that wine collector paying only $600 a month for space his operation needs. “Dumbass,” Link said. “See, I still make mistakes.”

Link and his partners bought the building for $1.75 million shortly after Cochon opened in 2006. Renovations would cost another $1.2 million. “Three million dollars is a staggering amount of money when you make $40,000,” Link says. “I couldn’t sleep at night. I tossed and turned. I thought I was going to be broke, living in the street.”

Bill Hammack, Link’s father-in-law and one of his business partners, explained that Cochon was generating enough cash to pay a bank note on the building. And since Cochon’s lease was tied to the restaurant’s revenue, the rent would only go up in the future. In the end, buying the building allowed the Link Restaurant Group to open Cochon Butcher, Calcasieu, and grow eightfold between 2005 and today.

Link peeked into the third floor bake shop, where executive pastry chef Rhonda Ruckman makes breads and desserts for all the restaurants. Next stop was down the hall to the “man cave”—the only patch of calm in the whole building.

The expansive corner space had high ceilings and polished wood floors. There was a bar stocked with good rum and Bourbon, a shelf lined with classic cookbooks, a shower, a dartboard, a ping-pong table that had only been played once, a desk for Link that he never uses, and another for Stephen Stryjewski, the chef de cuisine at Cochon.

Along with Link and Hammack, Stryjewski is one of the three partners in the Link Restaurant Group. Cochon is the only restaurant that Link doesn’t include on his daily rounds. Stryjewski runs the menu there as he sees fit, as long as he doesn’t take off Link’s grandparents’ chicken and dumplings.

Link worries over every detail at his restaurants, from the wood for the custom tables to the 401K match for his managers. These days Stryjewski takes part in all those debates.

Link started planning Cochon in 2004. He wanted to honor the cooking of both his grandparents from Louisiana and from Alabama. He wanted to have an answer when tourists asked where to get good Cajun food in New Orleans. And he didn’t want to lose Stryjewski.

“If I don’t do something else,” Link thought at the time, “all this talent is going to leave, and I’m going to be stuck here yelling at cooks to empty the trash and wipe their station down until I’m 60 years old.”

When Katrina hit in 2005 and the levees failed, the slab had been poured at Cochon. The Warehouse Arts District stayed dry, but Link’s home in the middle-class Lakeview neighborhood took 10 feet of water. The flood waters didn’t drain for a month. Link and his family lost everything they owned. Eventually, they demolished the house.

Link, Stryjewski, and his father-in-law were only $100,000 in at Cochon. Walking away from Cochon wouldn’t have been a fatal financial blow to them individually. They considered tossing away the $100,000 invested as no worse than each of them going out and buying a luxury car. It would pinch their personal budget, but they could pay it down without going broke. They could walk. “This is one of those moments when everyone has to make a gut check,” Link said. “Cochon was the best investment I ever made.”

Outside the building, Link hopped into his Toyota 4Runner for the trip to Herbsaint. In New Orleans’ June heat, even six blocks was too far to walk. The SiriusXM radio was tuned to Ozzy’s Boneyard, which was playing a track off Def Lep­pard’s album “High n’ Dry.” “This was huge in seventh grade,” Link said.

Link parked and entered Herbsaint through a backdoor. Even though he gets more attention for Cochon, Link still feels closest to Herbsaint. It was his first restaurant.

When he was 15, Link started cooking professionally. He grew up in the heart of Cajun country, where farming, fishing, hunting, and cooking are all part of life’s daily rhythm. But he didn’t plan to make cooking his career. He enrolled at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and studied finance. In 1993, a semester before graduating, Link and soon-to-be wife Amanda Hammack decided it was time to get out of Louisiana, and headed to California.

“I left Louisiana,” says Link, who at the time had always lived outside of New Orleans in the more conservative parts of the state, “because I was tired of the politics and the religion.”

Working in restaurants was the skill Link had, so he found a job at The Spaghetti Western in San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighborhood that paid $7.50 an hour. “Those were the days when you worked in sh--ty restaurant jobs just to make money,” he says. The restaurant, popular with area junkies, got about eight customers a night. Link started running a Cajun menu at dinner, and suddenly they were doing 100 covers. That’s when Link realized cooking was how he wanted to earn his living. He soon enrolled at the California Culinary Academy.

In 1995, Amanda was admitted to a social work master’s program at Tulane University in New Orleans. Link found a job working for Susan Spicer at Bayona. When Amanda graduated, though, Link still didn’t see any opportunities in New Orleans. The restaurant scene was staid. “There wasn’t a single other restaurant I wanted to work at in New Orleans.” And Link felt as if he’d already hit a ceiling at Bayona.

So the Link family went back to San Francisco. Traci Des Jardins hired Link to help her open Jardinière as the new restaurant’s purchaser and forager. Other high profile jobs followed. Link’s career was going well in California. The Links had a daughter, Cassidy. And then they started to wonder how they could afford to stay in Northern California. Amanda’s father, who lived in New Orleans, was visiting and asked Link what it would take to get them to move back. Link said he’d like to have his own restaurant.

When Link returned to New Orleans, he found that his old boss Spicer was also looking to open a new place. Their concepts were similar: modern French bistro fare, in the vein of Bistrot Paul Bert or Le Comptoir du Relais. It’s the food Link most likes to eat. So Spicer and Link opened Herbsaint in October 2000. Although Spicer maintained a financial interest, Herbsaint soon became Link’s restaurant.

Link still expedites at Herbsaint at least once a week. “This is the last bastion of hanging on to that chef’s coat, the idea that I can work the kitchen when the rest of my day is overwhelmed with running the business.”

Back when Herbsaint was Link’s only restaurant, Saturday afternoon was the one time he had to think about food. He would sit at the empty bar with a stack of cookbooks and make notes. Now he travels. He eats around the country. He talks to fellow chefs. He writes cookbooks. His second, Down South, explores outdoor cooking and will be released in the fall of 2014. Link figures he’s more a chef now than before: “I’m still cooking all the time. I’m just not doing it on the line.”

On this morning, Herbsaint’s chef de cuisine Rebecca Wilcomb was testing possible new menu items. Link and Wilcomb talked about what was in season. Tomatoes aren’t ready. That one plate will get better when more interesting peppers arrive. Link gave detailed notes, down to how large vegetables should be cut, on dishes that were often on their third iteration.

Link’s final stop of the morning was Pêche Seafood Grill, which opened in April of 2013. Pêche is led by chef de cuisine/partner Ryan Prewitt, who had previously been the chef de cuisine at Herbsaint and the corporate chef for the entire restaurant group. The building, once a mortuary that embalmed Jefferson Davis, was still surrounded by scaffolding and construction workers. Despite the obstacles, the 160 seat dining room was nearly full.

Pêche is an experiment in cooking over live fire. Link, Stryjewski, and Prewitt have been playing with fire for the last few years. They’re all members of the Fatback Collective, a group of old-school pitmasters and modern Southern chefs who set out to shake up the competitive barbecue circuit. Other members include Sean Brock of McCrady’s (Charleston, SC) and Husk (both Charleston and Nashville), John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, and John T. Edge, the food writer and head of the Southern Foodways Alliance. In 2011, the Fatback Collective placed third at the Memphis in May cook-off.

The Fatback Collective took a trip to Uruguay in December 2011, and Link and his partners saw how an open fire could be used for far more than barbecuing. “We really fell in love with that style of primitive soul food,” Link said. “Watching them work with that fire was unbelievable.” Link, an avid fisherman, had always wanted to have a seafood restaurant. But he didn’t want to run the same fried seafood found everywhere in Louisiana. “There’s a lot of that already,” he says. “What we’re looking to do is a new method of seafood.”

On the menu at Pêche, there are dishes like gumbo and gulf oysters that are closely identified with Louisiana. But there are also royal red shrimp with garlic butter, baked drum with ginger, tomato, and crispy rice, and a daily fish served whole so the table can fight over the cheeks. The wine list, which runs to 110 bottles, focuses on European whites and rosés from small producers, although the heartier flavors added by the grill allow for many pairings of seafood with red wines. In addition to a number of local beers and a cocktail list heavy on rums, Pêche also offers eight different ginger ales and ginger beers. They find those sodas also work well with the seafood.

The influences at Pêche come from around the globe as much as from down in the bayou. “I want a new perception for New Orleans,” Link says. “I don’t want to be the New Orleans of second lines, red beans and rice, and jambalaya. That’s not my New Orleans. My New Orleans is a little more metropolitan.”

The thread that unites the menu at Pêche is the monster six by four foot open fire grill. Nearly half the Pêche menu, from mussels and eggplants to lamb skewers and tuna, comes off of it. “We’d have a grill at any restaurant,” Link says, “this one just happens to be bigger.”

Initially, they looked at a commercial model from Grillworks. “It didn’t seem big enough to me,” Link remembers. The Grillworks model allowed for the grates to be raised and lowered to control the cooking temperature. Link thought it made more sense to fix the grates at three levels and control the heat by adjusting the amount of coals.

Working off photos taken in Uruguay and at Etxebarri in Spain’s Basque country, Link, Prewitt, and Stryjewski roughed out their ideal grill. Then they turned to Link’s cousin, Dwane Link, who makes custom steel smokers, tables, and decorative panels. It cost $6,000 to build, about the same price as a commercial grill.

The wood burns in a chamber on the left, which is shielded from the cooking area by a thick steel plate. On a busy night, Pêche will use a quarter cord of oak and pecan. The coals drop to the bottom and then are raked under the three levels of grills as needed. Temperature is determined by feel. The grill requires both a separate exhaust hood and the Ansul fire suppression system. The rest of the equipment in the closed kitchen is standard: a Southbend fryer, two stoves, and a double stack convection oven.

Right now, Link and his partners are focused on Pêche. Even though he’s gotten three hotel offers this year alone, Link won’t work with outside investors. He doesn’t want to lose control. But Link and Stryjewski always think up a few new concepts when the Bourbon bottle comes out. Some of the ideas still seem like good ones in the morning.

Even good ideas, though, can go bad. In 2011, they opened a branch of Cochon in Lafayette, the capital of Cajun country. It lasted a year and a half. They learned not to copy what they already had. They learned to avoid smaller markets. And mainly they realized that a new restaurant needed a chef with an ownership interest. Prewitt was the right person for Pêche, but it took a long time before Link and Stryjewski were sure.

“You have to have a deep, personal relationship with your staff,” Link says. “That’s why I take them to Italy. That’s why I get drunk with them. You’ve got to get drunk with them. It’s very important.”