DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:
OK, we all have those nostalgic recipes we love and others, not so much. New Orleans chef Mason Hereford takes childhood favorites and refines them with his fine dining expertise. With his first cookbook out next week, NPR’s Debbie Elliott stopped by his restaurant Turkey and the Wolf to see what defines his style.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Most days, a lunch break waits to place an order at Turkey and the Wolf, a quirky corner eatery with counter service and outdoor picnic tables.
LAUREN: How can I help you today?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We’d like a fried pot pie.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A ham sandwich.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Crinkle fries.
ELLIOTT: Mason Hereford’s wife, Lauren, takes orders at a booth by the front door. The food comes on cartoon plates that you might find at a thrift store. Dishes like the Collard Melt, a distinctly southern twist on the Reuben, or the Double Patty Mama Tried Burger, named after the Merle Haggard song or Hereford’s favorite Grateful Dead cover of it. The Deadhead vibe abounds in the store’s wares and in Hereford itself. His hair is in a wavy mullet. He has a mustache and colorful tattoos adorn his arms and legs.
MASON HEREFORD: I mean, it’s just an honor to be on an NPR program, and I know my mom is listening in the car, so, Amy Hereford (ph), hey. Mom, what’s up?
ELLIOTT: Mason Hereford grew up in rural Virginia and moved to New Orleans right out of college. He started out as a porter in a bar but soon switched to the kitchen. After a stint as head chef at a high-end bistro in the Garden District, he set up his own business in 2016. The next year, Bon Appetit voted Turkey and the Wolf the best new restaurant in America, and it popped up on all kinds of foodie lists. Hereford says it’s been gangbusters ever since.
HEREFORD: I think it was the right place, the right time for our concept of being people with fine dining experience doing something casual and somehow breaking away from the average restaurant buzz.
ELLIOTT: Along with Turkey and the Wolf, Hereford also has a breakfast spot in New Orleans, and he says he’s working on opening another restaurant. Meanwhile, he’s penned some of the magic in a new cookbook called Turkey And The Wolf: Flavor Trippin’ In New Orleans. He’s spiced up familiar recipes in ways accessible to the home cook, like serving caviar on a fast-food hash brown.
HEREFORD: When I was creating fine dining dishes, I’ve mostly taken these nostalgic ideas and made them kind of outlandish, or taken outlandish ideas and made them a bit pretentious -y (ph), for lack of a more appropriate term. And the idea is that you can have something really, really fancy, and instead of serving it on a pomme dauphine, you can go to the local fast food joint and get some hash browns to go and put two ingredients on top and have one – You know, a high-end dish.
ELLIOTT: We visited his home kitchen to learn more. He bribes his dog Darla (ph) with a giant tough bone to keep him calm during the interview.
HEREFORD: … The wisest way to go about it.
HEREFORD: Darla, good job I think. I have an idea. Darla, why don’t you eat this on the couch? We bought 5 minutes – maybe 5 seconds. We will see. And the question was…
ELLIOTT: It’s clear from your cookbook that a lot of what you do is inspired by the kind of food you grew up with, right?
HEREFORD: So a judgment can come about in different ways. It’s usually a conversation in the kitchen by whoever is there that day. And a lot of the original ideas are like, oh, something you ate last week that got you really excited. Most of the time it’s something you grew up with because it really excites you.
ELLIOTT: So talk to me about when you start conjuring up nostalgia from your younger days. what things are you thinking about
HEREFORD: Well, the dish I’m going to cook today is a bologna sandwich. And it’s also the cover of the cookbook and one of the two most popular items to order from Turkey and the Wolf. And that was originally – I can’t remember which country store outside of Charlottesville, Virginia we would get it at – it would be two slices of white bread, bologna and yellow mustard, maybe American cheese, and I couldn’t take it. So that was nostalgia in a different way. It wasn’t a happy memory, but it was a core memory. And to choke that down, we’d slip in potato chips. We took that idea and created something that might not be more memorable than the original, but definitely more delicious.
ELLIOTT: Our cooking lesson starts with making a sweet and tangy mustard from scratch. He starts a water bath on the stove.
HEREFORD: We’re going in with the vinegar. Looks like a cup. I can look at it.
ELLIOTT: He adds sugar, salt, dried mustard powder and some eggs.
HEREFORD: It’s almost like a super hot honey mustard. I open everything. It’s over and now it’s just a waiting game. Oh babe, that’s hot.
ELLIOTT: While we wait for the mustard to thicken, he gathers what’s going to be piled into the sandwich — charcuterie from a local butcher, American deli cheese, white bread from a local baker, butter, Duke’s mayonnaise, homemade fries, and a head of iceberg lettuce . Nothing special.
So you just put a big, thick cast-iron skillet on the stove.
HEREFORD: I have. I’ll go three slices of this stuff. If you want more bologna, have more. Choose your own adventure. So that delicious sound is the bratwurst. I’m just going to get a little paint on it, flip it over and then add two slices of American cheese and glue everything together. And that goes on our sandwich.
ELLIOTT: He smears mayo on the bottom slice of toast, homemade spicy mustard on the top slice and starts piling.
HEREFORD: Next comes a big stack of our chips. And the funnest part of building a sandwich is when you push it down and all the chips break, so let’s get started.
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HEREFORD: And there you have it – a bologna sandwich.
ELLIOTT: With texture and crunch, recurring themes in the Turkey and the Wolf cookbook, along with this refreshing, no-fuss approach. He gives us permission to use things like cornbread mix in spoon bread boxes or sprinkle Cheez-Its and roasted peanuts over ice cream.
HEREFORD: If there’s a way to get from point A to point B that’s the most fun, and the answer to that is cut corners, cut corners, right? An exciting part of cooking is making everything from scratch, and part of that is preparing the food so everyone can hang out and have a good time. As far as high brow, low brow goes, I think the pandemic has changed so much, right? All of these upscale restaurants had to make takeout chicken sandwiches.
HEREFORD: Hereford co-wrote the cookbook with JJ Goode. He calls the process an affair of the heart. His wife and colleagues helped test the recipes, while his brother snapped delicious photos of the finished dishes. And there are nice sections on the influence of his family and friends, including how he got the name Turkey and the Wolf. His late father called the children turkeys when they caused mischief, wolf because, at the end of a long shift, Hereford and his crew tended to howl when the last plate left the kitchen.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News, New Orleans.
SHORT LIFE: This story was produced by NPR’s Hiba Ahmad and edited by Melissa Gray.
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