Rising through New Orleans’ restaurant ranks, Mimi Assad first came on OffBeat’s radar as the gifted baker behind the yummy pies at the recently shuttered Noodle & Pie on Magazine Street. Her creams were creamier and her crusts crustier than what should be possible without actual magic in the heat and humidity.
Before Noodle & Pie, Assad worked briefly as a sous-chef for Whole Foods, having held the same job at Le Foret under chef Jimmy Corwell and shouldering much of his job after his dramatic departure in 2011. Before then, Assad worked for the chef she describes as her mentor and role model, Sue Zemanick at Gautreau’s. This was Assad’s first job in New Orleans after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in 2009, so she started as a lowly line cook and garde manger—in charge of cold foods, such as salads and desserts—where temperature and timing don’t necessarily make or break a perfect meal. She was quickly promoted to the sauté station, marking her permanent move to the hotter side of things. Once done manning the ovens at Noodle & Pie, Assad returned to work with Sue Zemanick, helping her open Ivy as chef de cuisine. Chef Alex Harrell then lured her away to help him open Angeline in the French Quarter, where Assad—once again sous-chef—found herself in charge of mostly everything, along with the daily seafood special.
“As sous, you do everything,” Assad says. “You’re organizing the walk-in [refrigerator], doing prep, and you’re also doing the dishes if the dishwasher doesn’t show up to work that day. You’re slogging through, seventy hours a week, and it’s thankless, except that you take pride in actually getting it done so things can run smoothly for the executive chef.”
Assad chuckles at the suggestion that sous-chef (French for “under-chef”) basically means “slave chef,” but with a fancy name.
“I had to literally put out a fire one time,” she recalls. “It was in the middle of brunch and we were serving something called Eggs in Hell of all things, eggs in a spicy tomato sauce. One of the guys spilled a pot of sauce that got into an electrical outlet and caught on fire. It was a good thing Alex wasn’t there or he’d had a heart attack and died… Anyway, all the kitchen guys ran to the opposite end of the room so that left me, running towards the fire. I was able to put it out once I managed to snap the plastic ring off of the fire extinguisher; it was brand new. So we didn’t miss a beat. We immediately went back to serving steak and eggs.”
Assad then brought her skills as chef-cum-plumber-cum-carpenter-cum-electrician to the spiffy Ace Hotel until this past April when she was asked to come on as executive chef at the fresh Freret Street eatery Bar Frances. She now turns out plates such as roasted chicken with sautéed greens, field peas, grilled lemon, green garlic jus and harissa (the North African red pepper paste), or tender tofu-stuffed squash blossoms with roasted eggplant, red pepper and tahini.
“My worry level is higher,” Assad says. “I have more responsibility, but also, being here six or seven days a week makes a lot of sense to me now. Finally, I can have my own menu and have my own identity in that menu. It’s as if all of my hard work led me here. I really look forward to talking with purveyors, like the pig farmer in Mississippi, or Michelle [Posey] at Pelican Produce. I learned so much from both Sue and Alex, and I hope they’re proud of me.”
Assad describes “her food” as reflecting her own Middle Eastern roots, Lebanese mixed with French and Portuguese: Southern ingredients coming together in a Mediterranean way. As far as the increased time commitment, Assad never seemed to have much of a problem with putting in extra hours—when she was working full-time as a cookbook editor (it was reading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential that catapulted her to the CIA) up in Boston 2004-2007 she also volunteered at the East Coast Grill three nights a week—for free—because it was “so much fun, and they gave me a lot of beer,” she explains:
“Working on a book, I would sometimes not see my work paying off until after a year, or many years. The controlled chaos of the kitchen is much more results-driven. If you do your part, you stand out. There’s a lot of mediocrity and you don’t really need an education to be a cook—you don’t need to go to culinary school at all—but you have to work hard and if you do, you get rewarded, because if you don’t have the skills, it’s obvious to everyone. Restaurants are very hierarchical, and that can really work for someone who has the desire.”
Now as executive chef, Assad sometimes has to fight her well-deserved reputation as “the girl who bakes great pies”—sometimes from people who’ve never even heard of her pie-making prowess.
“When you tell people you’re a chef, they go, ‘Oh, you do pastry?’” Assad says. “As if you have to be working in desserts because you’re a woman—that’s an annoying one. Also, when are we going to not have to be ‘woman chefs,’ but just chefs? Maybe in five years—what do you think?”
The future is hard to predict, but history informs us that Mimi Assad likely will be working in a restaurant, sending delicious food into crowded rooms. Whether it’s pies or eggs or chicken—to Assad, excellence always came first.