Michael Gulotta knew he wanted to be a chef from as far back as he can remember. The Louisiana-born cook says as early as seven he was having his mom tape cooking shows for him – “Great Chefs, Great Cities” and “Yan Can Cook” – and then asking her to buy specific ingredients so he could try them at home, albeit with her help. Among one of his early creations: a pork dish with plum sauce served over cabbage which he proclaims now as “pretty good.”
One of his most vivid food memories is when his stepdad, a firefighter who was also a shrimper and crabber, taught him how to clean soft shell crabs in preparation for cooking. This involved dealing with removing the face and gills of the very alive and kicking-mad crustaceans, dredging them in corn flour and spices, flash frying them, and then seasoning them with a little salt and lemon juice – a few simple ingredients to make something tasty and memorable.
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While in high school, he got a job as a line cook at Planet Hollywood in the French Quarter courtesy of his older brother who also worked there. His aptitude for the craft led him to other positions including rising through the ranks of John Folse’s Lafitte’s Landing. A scholarship at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux followed, as did work post-graduation with Chef Pete Vasquez at Marisol and John Besh’s August.
Besh was among Gulotta’s first mentors, encouraging him to head to Europe where he worked under Chef Marco Ballo on the Italian Riviera, and later in Germany under Karl Joseph Fuchs. When Katrina hit, Gulotta returned home to New Orleans where he rejoined August, becoming chef de cuisine in 2007.
In 2014, he partnered with his brother, Jeff, who so long ago helped him get that Planet Hollywood line job, and business partner Jeffrey Bybee to open MOPHO, a Southeast Asian-inspired eatery that mixes Louisiana flavors (think roast duck po’ boys with banana barbecue sauce, fermented black bean-braised Louisiana blue crab, or pepper jelly braised Cedar Key clams with smoked pork jowl, mint, crispy shallot and annatto beignets). In the restaurant’s short two-year tenure, it has already received numerous accolades, among them “Restaurant of the Year” by New Orleans Magazine, as well as nominee for Bon Appétit’s “Best New Restaurant.”
MOPHO, says Gulotta, was always intended to be a place where people in the service industry would go on their day off. To get the kind of attention his casual eatery has gotten – along with the praise – has been incredibly humbling and rewarding.
“At the end of the day, we’re really just a bunch of cooks sweating it out in the kitchen wanting to know we’re doing it for a reason,” he says. “To know people respect and appreciate our food is the ultimate compliment.”
CLICK HERE to view our interview with a fellow NOLA chef: Isaac Toups
Gulotta says he gets his inspiration from eating and constantly “tasting, tasting, tasting.” He also relies on certain aromas and experiences from both his past and present to kick start ideas. “I’ll then use the ingredients I have on hand which often leads to interesting variations,” he says.
He describes his cooking style as honest, even if the cooking is not traditional. “I aspire to always stick to the spirit of the law if not the letter,” he says, admitting he loves experimenting and playing around with items he’s never used before. Case in point: fermented bean curd, which is now found in many of MOPHO’s recipes, even though Gulotta says it’s rather intense on its own.
Two of his favorite ingredients, in fact, are crab and shrimp paste which he says fit well with Gulf Coast cuisine. “I use them in everything, even in the pasta dishes at our Italian pop-up Tana,” he says.
One look at MOPHO’s menu, much of which Gulotta admits took a lot of trial and error, is an illustration of his philosophy of melding different cultures and flavors.
He says the house-made curry sauce, and more specifically, the curry paste hand ground in a mortar and pestle from scratch, is something he had never prepared until opening day. “I just never had the time with all the other things that go into opening a restaurant,” he says. And so, he and his team hammered it out over time — adding specific techniques and amounts of fish sauce, coriander, cumin, shrimp paste, lime leaf, galangal, and fresh turmeric — to finally get it right.
Timing of each ingredient is key, says Gulotta. “If you saw it on the stove you’d think it was just a pot of curry,” he says, “But if you taste it and all those specific marks and flavors haven’t been hit at the right times, you can tell a step was missed, just like making a rich, dark, complex gumbo.”
Which is why, he says he always tells his staff that they need to step outside the box and cook beyond their classic culinary school training. Stresses Gulotta: “It’s important to me that we aspire to cook with a little more soul.”
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