Colleen Quarls admits she’s anal when it comes to making sandwiches. “I hate for people to come to the end of their sandwich and not have enough meat left, or bread or mayo,” she says, and so she’s very methodical about how much of each ingredient she layers on.
Her exacting nature — everything has to be even — is something Mason Hereford, who worked with her at New Orleans’ Coquette noticed. At the time he was the Chef de Cuisine and she had worked her way up to Sous Chef.
When Hereford told her he was planning on opening a sandwich shop, she reminded him how good she was at making them.
That’s more or less the short version of how the two came together to craft Turkey and the Wolf, recently rated among the best restaurants in America by Bon Appétit Magazine. Hereford may be the visionary behind his quirky, nostalgic sandwich shop, basically an ode to the foods of his early-’90s childhood complete with mismatched vintage china and collectible McDonald’s plastic plates, but she’s the one who’s helped him elevate his dreams.
Among the killer sandwiches — the menu is small — fried bologna (Leighann’s bologna, hot English mustard, potato chips, shrettuce, mayo, American cheese on white), the collard green melt (slow-cooked collards, Swiss cheese, pickled cherry, pepper dressing, cole slaw, on rye bread) and Wendy’s spicy chicken salad (roti fried chicken salad, cayenne, arugula, celery, red onion, chive, lemon on a roti). (The baloney is Quarls’ favorite).
Quarls, a graduate of Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana who also did a brief stint at Cochon, says what makes Turkey and the Wolf so special is that everyone is technically trained with sous chef experience which means there’s a lot of talent, skills and knowledge in the kitchen. “I love that we’re still doing some prep on a fine dining scale but now with more fun and on a causal scale,” she says.
For her, sandwiches mean a certain freedom and openness. “You can put anything between two slices of bread and create something with lots of textures and flavors,” she said. “Just playing with the breads changes everything too.”
Though she and Hereford initially talked about mixing up the menu on a more regular basis, they’ve gotten into a routine of sticking to what they do well.
“We’ve found our groove,” she says. “We’re small so sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the prep. For us, it’s important to keep the food consistent. We want our sandwiches to taste the exact same every time you come here.”
Which is one reason why Hereford nominated her for Eater’s Young Guns 2017 award. “I remember him saying I might be mad at him which I was a little bit,” she says (he nominated her without her knowledge). Though she finds the accolades humbling — and she’s honored to receive them —she’s quick to point out there are many chefs she knows that work harder than she does that don’t get the recognition. “I’m just happy behind the wall doing my job,” she says.
Working at a small place with Hereford as her mentor, certainly helps. “I don’t think I’d be as noticed somewhere else,” she admits.
As for where she gets her inspiration? She says it comes from all over— eating with friends, eating at home—what’s in season. “I’m all about whatever tastes good to eat.”
Living in New Orleans fuels her creativity as well. “We’re very lucky to have so many different people here from so many different cities and cultures. Everyone brings different things to the table — and we tend to talk about food a lot,” she says.
Because Quarls was born in Florida, lived in Ohio for eight years, and then came back to Louisiana where her parents are from, she also has a sense of what folks like to eat in different geographic areas which facilitates in shaping her style.
Among her favorite ingredients –— mayo. “It’s amazing because you can use it on almost anything,” she says.
The 27-year-old is also a big fan of herbs and how a little herb here or there can make a dish pop. “All have a purpose and a different character,” she says. Case in point: Dill, which they use a lot at Turkey and the Wolf. Quarls herself says she wouldn’t use it much in her personal life but on the restaurant’s menu it works. “I appreciate its flavor,” she says.
Being part of a team is what makes the sandwich shop so successful — and for Quarls, so enjoyable. “I really want to stay here forever,” she says. “I know Mason wants me to spread my wings and fly but I want to stay with him and grow.”
Asked where she may be in five years, she says she hopes to be part of Turkey and the Wolf’s possible expansion. “Eventually we may open new spots — it all depends on timing and the situation.”
Frankly, she couldn’t be happier where she is now and for the opportunity Hereford has given her. As for where you might find her when she’s not at work, her go-to NOLA spots are Pizza Delicious for pizza, the Taceaux Loceaux (taco) food truck and some of the Vietnamese joints on the West bank. “Just nice comfort food,” she says. “I’m a casual person.”
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