I am one minute late to meet Chef Scott Boswell. Immediately the cell phone, Twitter, and my email begin alerting me to this fact. When I finally walk up to the exterior of Stella!, his fine dining restaurant on Chartres Street in the French Quarter, Boswell is already walking towards the Ursuline Convent a block away. “Hurry up, I have a lot to show you today.”
The previous tenants of the Old Rocheblave Market in Mid-City have left: a meat cutting market, a stone company, and the auxiliary meeting place of the church across the street. Plans are unfurled onto a table for what Boswell has dubbed The Paint Factory. Peering over them are a contractor, a mechanical engineer, a craftsman who will fabricate the hood, and Boswell. “Why you decided to call it the Paint Factory?” asks the hood guy in perfect New Orleans patois.
“Because I am an artist who paints with food, and this is where our primary colors—stocks, mother sauces, general prep—will take place. A painter needs his yellow to be exactly yellow, his red, exactly red, everyday,” Boswell says.
Having the Paint Factory handle most prep will remove the daily frustrations that can bleed into the basics of cooking while also freeing up space in tight French Quarter kitchens. No longer will a stock pot constantly simmer on the stove at Stella!. Gone is the daily requirement for a cook to make gallons of gumbo for Stanley while also clarifying butter, brunoising vegetables and butchering fish.
Quickly it becomes clear that every minute detail of this project has been thought over, obsessed and chosen by Boswell himself. He explains the height of the counters and how the kettles will instantly chill stocks and soups with childish enthusiasm. Talk comes back around to the exhaust system and Boswell interjects: “Listen, don’t believe the bullshit the air vent people are going to tell you. These steam kettles aren’t ever going to be above a bare simmer. We don’t need that big of an exhaust.”
Later, he says, “The more you are not involved in the project, the more money goes out the door.”
As we ride back to the French Quarter, Boswell mentions that the Paint Factory will also allow him to create again. But this time rather than creating foie gras BLTs or poached eggs laced with hollandaise and fried oysters, he wants to figure out a way to make healthy foods trigger the same chemical reactions in the brain as fried or fatty foods. “A chef has a role to provide healthy, edible food to his customers, so I want to spend the next few years figuring out how to make really good healthy food,” he says.
Boswell gets a call from the industrial psychologist he has hired. “You get people who are saying they are looking for a job, but really they just want a paycheck. We don’t want those people,” Boswell explains.
The elegant bar of Stella! has become a holding cell for the contents of the kitchen. A liquid nitrogen tank the height and width of a collegiate wrestler stands next to speed racks, hip-high steel refrigerators and a futuristic microwave that cryovacs foods into air-tight pouches. A team of cooks stands at the bar sipping espresso. Boswell walks into his newly re- floored kitchen with just the range standing in the center, turns on his heel towards the cooks, and says, “Let’s put it back together.”
After service on the previous Sunday, Stella! closed for business to allow cosmetic touch-ups in the kitchen and the dining room. In three days, the kitchen floor was re-epoxyed, walls were painted, and other maintenance issues were addressed. Stella! won’t open for dinner service for another day, but it takes two days to get the beast back on line.
As two cooks roll that liquid nitrogen wrestler back in, a third checks in produce against carefully arranged clipboards hung on the wall. Jumbo carrots? Check. Huckleberries? Coming tomorrow, Chef. Iberico ham? Check. Boswell notices they have completely sold out of caviar. With a few swipes on his iPad, more is ordered. Tomato season in Louisiana has ended, so red, green, yellow and purple tomatoes are shipped in from Ohio. He instructs the sous chef to get more involved in the selection and screening of foods coming in the kitchen. “I want you tasting everything all the time,” he says.
Boswell notices a new cook looking a little rough this morning and tells him, “You are French; you should be used to this.”
The cook responds, “Yes, but I am from the South (of France). We are used to sleeping in.”
Stanley is not quite humming yet. There is a steady stream of rain which is keeping the tourists and lunch crowd away from Jackson Square. The initial business plan called for Stanley to be doing 500 covers (restaurant speak for diners) after three years of being open. They hit that number within two months; Stanley now does 700-900 covers a day. “Hence the importance of the Paint Factory,” Boswell notes.
After a quick lunch at Stanley of muffaletta po-boys and croissants stuffed with Thanksgiving staples, we are next door at the Stanley Service Bar. Here, one can grab a cold beer, ready-made sandwich, or ice cream cone. But the real jewel is the caffeinated snowball. Yes, you read that correctly. Each of the Service Bar’s snowballs comes with the option to have it jolted with 124 milligrams of caffeine. Boswell sees this as a natural capture of the energy drink market. “You eat a burger, you may get tired,” he says. “But with a caffeinated snowball, you won’t get tired.”
Back at Stella!, the kitchen is back in place and prep cooks are busy at work making breads, frying plantains and zesting lemons. In the dining room, a painter touches up the walls while chatting idly on his cell phone. Seeing this, Boswell takes a photo with his iPhone of the yapping Michaelangelo. “I am going to send it to his boss and ask, ‘Is this why he is $45 an hour?’”
Boswell goes back into the kitchen and begins singing to the prep cooks. He will later tell me that if he is singing in his kitchen, his cooks are happy because it means things are going well.
We are driving across the Mississippi River and Boswell is telling me his path to becoming a chef. He grew up in and around the Lake Charles area, his mother only 17 when he was born. His childhood was one marked by “nothing much really.” There was lots of music in his house growing up and he played the piano, guitar and saxophone. After graduating from high school, he set out to become a dentist but dropped out of college. He went to work at a bank for the next eight years, but quickly saw that without a college degree the best he could hope for was Joe the Bookkeeper’s job.
He then bought a pet store but stopped after he couldn’t bear to part with animals he had sourced from around the world just because some five-year-old wanted a pet. His parents had divorced and his mom moved to Birmingham, so Boswell went there as well. While waiting for another bank gig to start, he took a job in a restaurant.
That led him to the Culinary Institute of America at age 31 with the goal of opening a restaurant by the time he turned 40. “I grew up without any real direction,” he says. “My parents never really instilled confidence in me. When I headed to the C.I.A., I was scared shitless and really doubted whether or not I could do it.”
After the C.I.A., he served as a stagiare—an unpaid cook—in a number of European restaurants, where again he faced self-doubt. Within 15 minutes of entering his first kitchen in France, he promptly cut himself while deboning a veal breast. After a year, he headed to Italy where the younger head chef had no time for this American who thought he could cook. The self-doubt crept in again. But in that kitchen was Masahiko Kobe, who would go on to become an Iron Chef. Kobe took Boswell under his wing.
Boswell came to New Orleans and worked in a few kitchens before he became executive chef of a resort in Montana. By late 2000, he was ready to come back to New Orleans. Stella! opened in 2001 on a shoestring budget of $100,000 and with one month to spare before he turned 40.
We pull off a service road in Avondale onto the palm tree-lined driveway of the future site of NOLA Motorsports Park, a 60 million dollar project financed entirely by a member of the Chouest family. When complete, 5.6 miles of track—the largest in the country— will ring luxury homes, lakes, go- cart tracks and another Stanley. Augusta meets the Autobahn.
Boswell will have a home there, complete with another test kitchen and a five acre farm. Also parked there will be Boswell’s Ferrari, which he takes on the road occasionally to compete against other chefs such as Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller. “I still worry even now: Can I do it? There is more coming. Failure is not an option anymore.”
We swing down Decatur close enough so Boswell can see a good crowd outside of Stanley. His phone rings. It is his forager on the Northshore who has peaches, chanterelles and other goodies. “I’ll take all you got. Can’t wait to cook with them,” Boswell responds.
I ask him if he still likes to cook. He begins to tell me how everyone who works for him wants to cook, so his role is now more of a teacher. This should allow him to focus more on creating, but as cooks move up in his organization, they want to show that they can create as well. But just last night around 10 p.m., he decided he needed to cook. He roasted a small chicken, steeped cous cous in the juices and some chicken broth, and then made some vegetables. Boswell pauses for a moment and then says, “Yeah, I still love to cook.”