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Networking: Haley Bittermann

Corporate executive chef, Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, New Orleans

By James Wright
January 05, 2012

Haley Bittermann always knew she’d be wearing white for her profession. But instead of finishing her pre-med studies she detoured to culinary school, ditching the hospital scrubs for the high white toques in the kitchens of New Orleans restaurants. By choosing spatulas over scalpels, Bittermann embarked on a career path with the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, and in 1997 she became the first woman in the company to hold an executive chef title when she took the helm of hotspot BACCO. She eventually redesigned the entire menu based on a trip she took to Italy with her husband, Russell.

Bittermann, who hails from Cincinnati, has been with the company for 17 years, spearheading the culinary vision as corporate executive chef for the past five years. She enjoys the competitive and collaborative spirit of the New Orleans dining scene and entered cooking competitions for the first time this year. Of course, she won her first, at the Greenville, S.C., Euphoria Festival, with her stirring rendition of Shrimp Gumbo and Sticky Barbeque Shrimp with Savory Blackened Hanger Steak and Warm Ginger Snap Bread Pudding. Sounds like a Bayou feast to die for!

How challenging is it as a woman in the male-dominated restaurant world?

I get that question a lot. I don’t see it as being difficult at all. I don’t think that me being a woman has helped me or hurt me. I don’t feel that it’s been hard for me. We have great relationships with our purveyors; we’ve worked with them for years, long before my time. I never had an issue.

There are lots of great chefs in New Orleans, what’s the atmosphere like?

It’s extremely competitive. In New Orleans there’s a ton of restaurants, but it’s a small community. All the chefs are very tight. We’ve all grown up together in the industry down here. We’re extremely competitive but everyone has always been willing to help each other when we need it.

I’ve seen lots of cooks come into the company, then go out on their own and do great things. Our director of human resources sends me articles about people who were chefs for us and now they’re on their own doing well. There’s great camaraderie. We’ve always been close, but after [Hurricane] Katrina, everyone got even closer. A silver lining if you will. What we took for granted before the storm we don’t anymore.

How is the dining scene now?

You now, it’s funny because when the oil spill came along, I can remember sitting with Ralph and the other chefs [talking] about what we were going to do. Katrina made people in the city very strong, so the oil spill was like another speed bump. But we’ve had very few [sourcing] problems here, and no problems with the quality of the seafood we were getting. Our restaurant group uses almost solely Louisiana and Gulf seafood. There were five state and federal government agencies testing it and not once did it come back as anything but pristine. Oysters were the hardest hit and will continue to be a challenge.

Are guests still asking questions about Gulf seafood safety?

There are some concerns about shrimp seasons and the size of shrimp coming out and the condition of the marshes, which are the nurseries for shrimp and crabs. Our biggest worry was about the next generation. But no, the locals never wavered. You can’t stop Louisianans from eating seafood, I’ll tell you that. You’re not going to stop the locals. We’re so spoiled down here.

January 2012 - SeaFood Business 

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