Phillip Lopez, the Chef/Owner of Root in New Orleans is a self-taught chef who first trained under John Besh of the New Orleans-based Besh Restaurant Group, and later, under Michel Richard at Citronelle in Washington, DC. He admits, however, that much of his culinary experience comes from literally soaking up the world. An Army brat, he spent his formative years in Germany, France, Spain, Austria, Holland, and Puerto Rico tasting, sampling, learning, absorbing.
Named both a Louisiana Cookin' "Chef to Watch” in 2011 by the Times-Picayune as well as a 2012 StarChefs Rising Star, the former computer science major who dropped out after his first year of college, opened Root in November 2011. He said he fell in love with the intensity of the kitchen when he was three-years-old and always knew in his heart he wanted to focus his attention on cooking.
“Cooking and food have always been a huge influence in my life,” he said. “My mom is half Mexican and half Spanish and my dad is half Mexican and half Cuban so I like to say I’m 100 percent Mexican. My mom always cooked Latin food growing up while my dad, because he was in the Army, always did more worldly cuisine. Dinnertime was very important in our house; it was where we would come together as family and talk about our future and our goals, so food was always a source of comfort and a form of relaxation.”
In fact, he says, the first memorable dish he ever made was for his family soon after dropping out of school. “I was trying to convince my parents that I wanted to be a chef and the only way to do that was to cook them dinner,” he says. “My father always loved Italian and my mother always loved having someone else do the cooking so I figured it was a great opportunity. I was new at this so I spent hours in the kitchen prepping and they got excited when they saw the processes that went into my dish. I ended up cooking a beautiful pasta dish with salad and garlic bread, and at end of meal my father, who is a very stern military man and didn’t quite get why I’d leave college to be a chef, said this might not be such a bad decision for me after all and that I seemed to have skills and talent. And so, that was the acceptance I needed which allowed me to let myself go and be free.”
In fact, he admits, it became almost a natural transition to go from “Yes, sir, no sir” at home to “Yes, chef, no chef,” in the kitchen.
And though guests at Root will find a lush charcuterie board and entrees like Crispy Pork Belly, Chilean Sea Bass and a Whole Fried Chicken Dinner, Lopez says his cooking style is a fusion of elements. Look closer at his menu – the Crispy Pork Belly with Smoked Eggplant, Charred Onion Soubise, Pork Jus Caramel and Baby Turnips; the Sea Bass with Celery Root Purée, Heirloom Carrots, Tarragon Emulsion, and Field Pea Salad and you’ll start to see the mixture.
“People always ask me, what kind of chef are you?” he says. “I find that a very broad question and in return, I like to say, ‘What kind of food do you like to eat?’ And someone will invariably answer: ‘Well, I like good food.’ And that is the kind of chef I am. I make good food.”
He stresses that he doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed into any kind of technique. “I pull influences from all over the world,” he explains, though he does like to use ingredients sourced as close to his restaurant as possible. “I’m on a trek every day to find the freshest, most available products. I believe it’s our main goal as chefs to source the best.”
That means catering to the seasons in a more agricultural way, as in the strawberry season, watermelon season, radish season, etc. It’s partly why he has no specific ingredients he likes to use. “It’s always changing,” he says, depending on what’s available. To that end he got involved with a project two years ago called Pelican Produce that works with Habitat for Humanity to lease lots in the city’s ninth ward area, among the areas left blighted following Katrina. Here, approximately four acres of lots are freshly composted using reliably sourced soil, and a host of herbs and vegetables. The harvest is then sold on a weekly basis to Root.
Lopez says the project has been a labor of love, especially when someone comes to him and says: “We have this really great black radish we are growing, what can you do with it?” “It’s gotten to the point where instead of me trying to source product, they are giving me ingredients to create dishes.”
This approach utilizes the industrial engineer part of his brain– Lopez says he’s an analytical thinker and problem solver – and this gives him that, “here’s the vessel now create the tools” philosophy that harks back to those college days. It also helps that he relishes the idea of taking random ingredients that are normal to everyday people and cooking them in a way so they change them into something extraordinary. That includes his charcuterie program which raises pigs and chickens on the North Shore and continually pushes a new level of experimentation with fermentation and curation.
He says it’s hard to understand the processes when you’re working with a farm 100 miles or more away but when you’re working and building relationships with those closest to you, you understand just how much work it takes to put a carrot on a plate or a freshly cut piece of meat onto a dish. Stresses Lopez: “This approach gives more ownership to us as chefs – my staff can stake pride in knowing where stuff comes from and it gives them the background to tell their story.”
As for where he gets his inspiration, a lot comes from those ninth ward gardens, as well as the local farmers he and his crew rely on. A lot also comes from past travels and everyday occurrences. “Whether, it’s a smell, a color, a conversation, an old factory scent, we want to be able to create experiences based on telling a story,” he says. “We can’t just create a dish and not have any meaning behind it. As chefs, we’re not only skilled laborers; we’re also artists and storytellers here to relay that message to a guest without saying a single word.”
He says coming back to New Orleans after seven years away both in Europe and the East Coast, especially right before Katrina, felt like stepping back in time and was a great time to be in the city and help play a part in its rebirth.
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“Just over the past decade, New Orleans has seen a huge revitalization in the arts and food and it’s been a very enlightening and very intense feeling that has allowed me as a chef and my crew to really grow and blossom."
At the end of the day, he says he’s an artist at heart — though as a chef owner he’s also the general contractor, the butler, and the priest. “The freedom of creativity is what initially pulled me into this business and made me fall in love with my career,” he says. “It can take a painter many years to create a masterpiece or a musician many months to compose a song, whereas with me, it can take me a day to create artwork on a plate and put an instantaneous smile on a person’s face.”