For the first time in almost two decades, Commander’s Palace has a new chef. For the first time in the famous restaurant’s long history that chef is a woman.
Tory McPhail, executive chef since 2002, has resigned and is moving to Montana, where he will work with a local restaurant group in the mountain town of Bozeman.
His successor at Commander’s Palace is Meg Bickford, who was previously executive sous chef.
Bickford, 34, has risen through the ranks at Commander’s Palace and is now the first woman to lead the landmark restaurant’s kitchen.
To Bickford, that speaks to a culture of mentoring at Commander’s Palace and to its family leadership. The restaurant is run today by Ti Martin and Lally Brennan, cousins who grew up in the restaurant.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to grow here, and a lot of people who invested the time and effort and who believed in me,” Bickford said. “That’s what we do here, and that’s why I’m in this position today.”
Passing the torch
Bickford’s new position is among the most prominent in the New Orleans culinary world, with a role that goes beyond directing its sprawling kitchen.
Commander’s Palace is a byword for New Orleans fine dining and among the best-known restaurants in the region. Though its history goes back to 1893, it became an emblem of modern New Orleans cuisine in the 1970s after the Brennan family acquired the vintage restaurant. It pioneered haute Creole cuisine, which reshaped the national reputation of New Orleans food from a bulwark of tradition to a hotbed of innovation.
Commander’s Palace has produced some of the world’s most famous chefs, namely Paul Prudhomme and his immediate successor, Emeril Lagasse. At the same time, the restaurant has held a reputation as the “finishing school” for New Orleans culinary talent, for the generations of hospitality pros who have come through its doors.
Ella Brennan has an expression she uses to describe her favorite chefs, especially those she worked with closely at Commander’s Palace.
That role is foremost in Bickford’s mind as she steps into the kitchen’s highest position. She acknowledges the issues of equality and inclusion now running through American discourse, and she’s driven by the potential she sees to do more.
“We need to recognize our responsibilities to our people, in our community and in our workplace,” Bickford said.
“I love that our leaders have stepped up. Our business has to reflect our community. Diversity is incredibly important to me and to this business. I also think we need to do a better job than what we’re doing, and I don’t think you should be scared to say you need to do a better job. It has to be intentional.”
A long tenure
McPhail has had the longest tenure of any Commander’s Palace executive chef.
He started cooking at Commander’s Palace in 1993, at age 20, and worked for the Brennan family until 1997 before shipping off to cook overseas. He rejoined the family in 2000 at a Commander’s Palace offshoot in Las Vegas.
He was tapped to lead the Garden District flagship in 2002, at a harrowing time for the restaurant. His predecessor, the immensely popular chef Jamie Shannon, had just died of cancer at age 40. A few years later, McPhail was tasked with bringing the restaurant back through the travails and unsteady footing of post-Katrina New Orleans.
Highly visible in the restaurant under a formal, tall toque, McPhail also took his job far outside the kitchen. He served as an ambassador for New Orleans, traveling the country to cook at events and pitch the city as a travel destination again. This kind of outreach would become desperately important again five years later, after the BP oil disaster.
In 2013, he won the James Beard Foundation’s award for Best Chef: South.
McPhail is from a small town in Washington state and spent his summers as a kid in western Montana. His father lives in Montana too.
Now, he and his wife Britt, a local wine professional, are moving to Bozeman, where McPhail will work with a local company that runs three restaurants — Revelry, a breakfast restaurant called Jam! and Dave’s Sushi. The move has been on his mind for years, he said, as family ties called him back.
“I wasn’t lucky enough to grow up in New Orleans, but I’ll always be a New Orleanian now, the people and culture have absolutely changed my life,” he said. “This is an opportunity to be closer to family. I’ve always chased the career and dreams. This is an opportunity to bring that home.”
While he says his heart is heavy at leaving, McPhail said he’s excited to see where Bickford leads Commander’s Palace.
“For the folks who don’t know Meg well, they’re going to learn that she’s extremely talented, has an amazing palate, that she’s charismatic and a great leader,” McPhail said. “She has a fiery side, but she’s also caring and compassionate. Those are all the traits a skilled and successful executive chef needs.”
Past, present, future
Bickford is a Louisiana native with family roots along Bayou Lafourche. Her family moved around the South and as a teenager she worked as a bagel baker, a waitress and other jobs around the restaurant industry. She came back to Louisiana to attend the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux.
After graduation, she started working at Commander’s Palace and steadily moved up the ranks. She was executive chef at Café Adelaide, the family’s more casual downtown restaurant, before it closed in 2018.
She describes her own culinary style as a modern exploration of the roots of Louisiana flavor. For instance, her rendition of redfish blends Vietnamese influences with shrimp and roasted pork, fish sauce and miso aioli; her version of duck confit is an ode to autumn in Louisiana, with a sour orange pepper jelly and andouille jus.
“So many cultures make our food the most indigenous cuisine of the United States, and it continues to evolve, and that’s beautiful,” she said. “The goal is to keep looking at the future and moving it forward.”
While she’s proud to be the first female chef at Commander’s Palace, Bickford said the accomplishment has to be viewed in the context of the many other women working in and leading the restaurant.
“There are a lot of ladies here, and as a young woman starting in this industry, that was very inspiring,” Bickford said. “I saw how they did it, with such confidence, such poise, I knew I could do this too.”
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