Spotlight: Chef Michael Sichel

With a repertoire that includes stints from California to Provence, France, you would think that the executive chef of one of New Orleans’ most renowned restaurants, Galatoire’s, would be intimidating. And he would be, if he weren’t such an effortlessly cool, go-with-the-flow kind of guy. Listening to him talk about food is a lighthearted, enjoyable experience akin to devouring one of his crepes. It’s no wonder he’s a standout on this season of “Top Chef: New Orleans.”

First and foremost, help me solve one of the great mysteries of the world: Why is French bread from New Orleans so much better than from anywhere else? Several restaurants in Mobile get their French bread from NOLA.
I’m a New Yorker, and I lived in Napa Valley, Calif., and France. Each place had different types of bread that represent their area. The bread from Leidenheimer’s – that’s the bread at Galatoire’s – to me, it’s light, fluffy and it has the most beautiful crispy outside. I love the product! I love that it represents New Orleans. Maybe the humidity elevates the bread in New Orleans. But, Leidenhemier’s, they just nail it.

How in the world did you end up in New Orleans?
I was first introduced to the city via a friend of mine from culinary school, Tyler Kean, who now owns The Fairhope Inn. I was in Chicago, and he wanted me to  join him at The Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville (La.) in a business called Kean’s Carriage House. I fell in love with New Orleans.

Tell me a little bit about your connection to Tyler.
He’s a dear friend of mine. Tyler and I went separate ways after the business closed in St. Francisville. I went out to Napa Valley, Calif., and Tyler came to Fairhope. He purchased The Fairhope Inn, and I think it’s doing very well for itself. Tyler’s cooking is always inspired. He likes making people happy, and he does a great job. He’s just proud to be a part of this spot.

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And what about about Napa Valley?
Napa Valley was a great stop in my life. I spent five years there. At the time, I had met a Louisiana girl. I took her out there, and she wanted to come home. All Southern girls do, you know. So I opened a restaurant in New Orleans called Indigo, lost it in the storm and got divorced a year later.

Hurricane Katrina was very hard on many people. But you came back and ended up at the beloved bastion, Galatoire’s.
It was hard on people. It’s life, though. I focused on trying to get back into the city, working towards rebuilding it, and I’m here eight years later. After what I’ve been through, I feel like I’m invested. Oh, and now I’m a newlywed. She’s from Alexandria, La., and she’s a wonderful lady. We’ve built a home together, and I’ve never been happier. I think a lot of it has to do with me being a part of such a great establishment as Galatoire’s. I’ve found a home there, and a home with my wife. It’s just all pulling together.

Since I’m from New Orleans, people always ask me where they should eat there. Then, nine times out of 10, they choose Galatoire’s! What gives it that mystique?
Galatoire’s is a tradition. It has a refinement. You feel special. Galatoire’s sets itself apart. The menu stays fresh, never gets old, because we are using fresh product. That’s Galatoire’s. Think about a hundred years ago what it was like. It was extravagant, delicious, light, beautiful. More than a hundred years, and that hasn’t changed. It’s still appreciated. It’s still delicious. Galatoire’s is welcoming. The customer base feels like “welcome home.”

Where do you like to eat when you’re not at work?
Domenica (one of John Besh’s restaurants, in the Roosevelt Hotel) makes the best pizza. I go to Mr. Ed’s (in Metairie) for fried chicken. And, I cook at home a lot.

What do you cook at home?
I’ve been dabbling in Indian cuisine. I like the depths of flavor you can get with curries, and I’m getting really good at them. (Editor’s note: Sichel competed against nine other local chefs in an online series “Padma’s Picks” on to earn a coveted spot on this season’s “Top Chef: New Orleans.” In the final round of the tryout competition, it was a curry soup with fish broth, lemon juice and seared scallops topped with a tapenade and spinach puree, that sealed his place in the cast for the TV show. Tune in to Bravo on Wednesday nights at 9 p.m.)

What’s your favorite bar in New Orleans?
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. I love that it’s on Bourbon Street, but in the local area. Also, Erin Rose, just off Bourbon (on Conti). Now, when I take my wife out, we go to Cure (uptown on Freret) where you can get a real cocktail, a handcrafted cocktail.

How do you think south Alabama cuisine compares to the cooking in New Orleans?
I really haven’t eaten enough in Mobile to have a complete understanding, but I have a feeling there are a lot of New Orleans-inspired chefs. New Orleans is a food mecca. It’s one of the only cities in the U.S. that has its own cuisine, maybe the only one. Everywhere else is a melting pot of cuisines. Back in the early 1800s, New Orleans acquired its own style. It’s quite interesting being a part of the history. People come there for the amazing culture: the food, the jazz and the personalities. Jazz is from the heart and soul and so is the food.

Speaking of melting pots of cuisine, Mobilians love good gumbo and so do New Orleanians. Where do you stand on the longtime cooking controversy about whether or not to  combine land and sea in the same gumbo?
I’m not a Southerner and I’m not a born Creole, but from the purist point of view, you don’t want to mask the delicacy of the seafood. Seafood should be seafood only, and meats with meats. For seafood gumbo, I like a dark roux. For chicken, I like it light and brothy. We do a good duck and andouille.

I heard you ate at Callaghan’s last night. What did you think?
I love how that place feels. The warmth, the hospitality, the big smiles — they’re all over Mobile. This is a great place to be.

Click here to see Chef Sichel's must-have kitchen gadgets, cutlery and more. 

text by Sallye Irvine • photo by Matt Coughlin

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