November 29, 2004
Greg Sonnier (A&S '83) chose Tulane for its sailing team, and when he graduated he had little idea of what to do next. All he knew was he didn't want to sit behind a desk. So his sister suggested he consider one of the classic occupations of creative misfits everywhere-- cooking for a living. There was reason to think it would be a good fit.
Their father, Earl Sonnier (A&S '54, M '58, '64), an ophthalmologist, is also an aficionado of classic New Orleans cuisine. His kids learned to love it, too. "My dad's favorite pastime was to go out to eat at different restaurants in the city," Sonnier said. "We used to eat at all the old Places--Antoine's, T. Pittari's, a whole bunch of them. Even back in the '70s this was a great restaurant town." So Sonnier decided to give the restaurant business a try. He enrolled in the culinary arts program at Delgado Community College, which required that students actually have a job in a restaurant.
"Nobody would hire me because I had no experience. But I decided I'd take a shot at the best restaurant in New Orleans at that time, which was K-Paul's. And sure enough, Paul Prudhomme hired me--because I had no experience. That way he could train me to do it exactly the way he wanted." Sonnier fell in love with the restaurant business while at K-Paul's. "You get great gratification because people love what you do. And I love the creative side of it. You're an artist every night."
He also fell in love with a fellow apprentice, Mary Blanchard, and married her in 1987. After two years at K-Paul's, he moved to the Grill Room and then Brigtsen's, where he was sous chef for six years. He and Mary began to think of opening a place of their own. "I wanted to have a place that was kind of small in a neat part of town," Sonnier said. It took two years of looking to find the right Location--a tiny triangular building on the corner of Esplanade Avenue and Mystery Street, with room at first for only 42 seats.
The Sonniers named their new restaurant Gabrielle, after their first daughter, and opened for business in March 1992. Greg is the chef while Mary supervises the baking and manages the front of house. Gabrielle is most definitely a New Orleans restaurant. It was conceived as a little restaurant for the locals. The cooking is inspired by the love of local ingredients.
"One thing I love about New Orleans is that it has an annual cuisine, where things come in season and go out of season. I always try to use as much local food as possible. One of the greatest things to happen to New Orleans restaurants is the revival of the farmers' markets. I get a lot of my stuff there." Sonnier's menu bears the influence of all those meals eaten with his father in New Orleans' classic restaurants and of all that he learned from Paul Prudhomme and Frank Brigtsen.
He serves crawfish bisque, chicken gumbo, roasted duck and grilled redfish. But he puts his own unique stamp on the classics. "I see myself as carrying on the tradition. If you start off with a basic New Orleans dish and try to make it better, I don't think you can go wrong. Still, our food is different. It reflects tradition, but it evolves it." That element of surprise is what helped capture national and international attention for Gabrielle.
The tiny restaurant has attracted favorable attention from The New York Times, Bon Apetit, Esquire, Gourmet and Food & Wine. Sonnier has twice been invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York; his first trip was documented by "CBS Sunday Morning." He enjoys the attention and success and loves feeding and socializing with his customers, whether they're old friends from high school or visitors from out of town. He knows he's been lucky.
The work can be physically challenging. He's on his feet all day. But he's also eating all day, literally tasting everything the kitchen sends out. He finds being around food all day makes him crave it. "I exercise as much as I can and try to limit how much I eat, but it's really hard. I've been on the Atkins diet, and it's great for chefs because you can eat meat, butter and fat." Lately, he's been thinking about what's next. He wants to put his creativity to use by inventing something that will allow him to get out of the kitchen.
"Eventually I want to stop cooking," he said. "I don't think physically I'll be able to do it in 10 or 15 years." Still, he appreciates all the success he's had. "I feel like I'm very lucky to work in the best city for food in the world and have some of the best ingredients in the world. Chefs in other cities dream about having a restaurant in New Orleans."
He thinks New Orleanians appreciate that they've got it good, but they're also very demanding. "I think the locals always want to see something new, then they compare everything new to what was. But that's just New Orleans. It's a city with such character. I've never wanted to leave."
Favorite comfort food?
I like to go to some of the Vietnamese restaurants in town and eat pho. It has so many flavors. It's just wonderful.
Greatest food fear?
I don't have a lot of worries. More than anything, I feel very lucky.
I'd have to say, it's a person who no longer is living, who started the transition from older to newer style food in New Orleans, and that's Warren LeRuth. He had a restaurant over on the Westbank called LeRuth's. Then I would have to say Paul Prudhomme and all the people who came after him.
Who would you like to serve in your restaurant?
I'd rather feed the families of the people who died on 9/11--those are the people I'd like to feed. Or the families of the people serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
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