Chef Eric LaBouchere took an indirect route to Martinique Bistro and is happier for it.
Chef Eric LaBouchere took a nomadic path to Martinique Bistro. Rather than move methodically through kitchen stations, he took the jobs he could get in beach and resort towns, whether it was fine dining or flipping burgers. He remembers most of his stops with some measure of enthusiasm, if not for the work than for the adventure. At one point and a friend owned a 14-room bed and breakfast outside of Asheville, North Carolina, but after two years he realized, “When you’re in your late 20s, innkeeping might not be what you want to be doing.” He sold his half of the business to his partner and moved to New Orleans.
There were a lot of moves before that, though. He was born in Australia, then moved to Belgium then France - where his father’s from - and finally the United States in 1980, where he grew up in Connecticut. His first kitchen experience came when he was 18 and hired at a fine dining restaurant in Cape Cod one summer. In the spring, he made the two-hour drive to apply at restaurants, envisioning days on the beach and work at night. When the owner of a restaurant asked him if he could chop vegetables, he said, “I don’t know. Let’s find out.” LaBouchere rented a house for the summer and showed up for his first day of work, only to discover that the owner had forgotten hiring him. They didn’t have a job for him, but instead of shutting him out, the owner made him the chef’s personal assistant, where he learned knife skills chopping vegetables first thing in the morning. “My skills were terrible,” LaBouchere says.
He came to understand the workings of a restaurant that summer and received a crash course in the classic French sauces. “It was awesome because none of the other cooks had ever got a chance to do that,” he says, but the experience came with a cost. “I didn’t see a lick of the beach all summer.”
Rather than return to the restaurant the next summer, LaBouchere moved on other adventures. He bounced from state to state, and was cooking in Burlington, Vermont in 1996 when Phish - then hometown heroes - were scheduled to play Jazz Fest. He and friends caravanned to New Orleans - his first visit - to see the show, Jazz Fest, and hang out for a few days.
“That may have been my first time in the South,” he says, but it wasn’t when he moved to town. There were a few more stops between that and the Asheville B&B. LaBouchere attended University of Denver for hotel and restaurant management, and he went to New York to study at the Culinary Institute of America. He used the money he made selling his half of the B&B to move to New Orleans, planning to take his time and strategically figure out where he should be to move his career forward. It didn’t happen that way, though. He’d been in New Orleans three weeks when he accompanied his then-girlfriend to Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar, where she was applying for a job. When it came out that he cooked, he was offered a job in the kitchen - one he took to be supportive then discovered that the chef running the kitchen had already given her notice. He wasn’t interested in the cuisine, but he stayed on for four and a half years, and he’s glad he did.
“It was the first time I was running a major operation,” LaBouchere says. “I did more covers on a Wednesday afternoon than I did in a week in North Carolina.”
When he left, he took time off from the restaurant business and worked with a friend doing architectural salvage. After Hurricane Katrina though, he found himself pulled back in when Martinique Bistro’s General Manager Jennifer Sherrod asked out loud in a bar, “Anybody want to work tonight?” Like so many restaurants at the time, Martinique found post-K staffing problematic, and LaBouchere went along to help when friends said they’d give her a hand. “I don’t think anybody in the kitchen knew what I was capable of,” he says.
Once again, he unknowingly walked into a kitchen in transition. During the evacuation, the chef had made connections in Portland and had plans to settle there when he returned to New Orleans when Martinique reopened in the fall of 2005. Meanwhile, LaBouchere re-found the fun of cooking as he connected again to the food he started with in Cape Cod. “I was on fire. It was wonderful.” When the chef left, the owners looked at LaBouchere’s resume and hired him.
Not surprisingly considering his wandering, he emphasizes the overall experience, not simply the food. “The whole experience of a restaurant is what matters when you go out with friends,” he says. “I feel like sometimes we lose track of that.”
The current menu reflects that belief. Written in honor of the restaurant’s 20th anniversary, it features bistro classics as you’d expect them as well as LaBouchere’s takes on them. The French onion soup is exactly what you hope it will be, while the coq au vin is updated and lightened as it’s served with less of the red wine sauce than you might expect. Crawfish, redfish, Pontchatoula strawberries and local citrus factor in the dishes, but not so much that they obscure the menu’s French bistro origins.
“If I’m going to do French, I’m going to do classic bistro dishes; if I’m going to do New Orleans, I’m going to do some really cool Creole hits,” he says. The écrivisse gribiche leans toward the latter as it veers toward a remoulade in taste and presentation.
To help write the current menu, LaBouchere went through a number of his previous menus looking for ideas. Some dishes seemed inspired in retrospect while others must have been good ideas at the time. He’s entertained by both and owns his good as well as his less-inspired dishes. He’s pleased with the mark he’s made on the restaurant and its cuisine, but he acknowledges that it’s not about him. “The twist comes with the time and place you’re at,” he says.