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One on One: Duke LoCicero
By James Wright
July 01, 2008
New Orleans and the state of Louisiana are famous for
fabulous food, eccentric entertainment and colorful politics
and personalities; Chef Duke LoCicero is the combination of all
of the above. At his inspired Italian restaurant, Café
Giovanni, which has anchored the same French Quarter real
estate for nearly two decades, opera singers enchant the guests
three nights a week. LoCicero is also co-host of a local talk
radio show (with brother Rock) on which almost no topic is
forbidden. He is the founder of the Chef Duke Foundation for
Kids, which provides Christmas gifts to ill and underprivileged
children, and he's also the president of the Upper Decatur
Street Association, which has spearheaded desperately needed
neighborhood revitalization. Balancing career and community is
his recipe for happiness.
Restaurant life is all LoCicero has ever known - he began
washing dishes at age 12 and hasn't worked anywhere but in a
restaurant. Having done pretty much every job there is to be
done has earned him a keen understanding of the team concept,
which he says is essential.
"I think that's the only way to come into the business,"
says LoCicero, 47. "You understand the feelings of the guy
washing dishes and the valet guys parking the cars. You know
what their job entails."
Despite the considerable Sicilian contingency living in New
Orleans, Café Giovanni brings additional cultural cuisines to
its tables, an amalgamation he's dubbed "New World Italian."
The Creole influence is undeniable, and LoCicero says seafood
stimulates the menu's identity. Shrimp, crabs, crawfish and
oysters all hold marquee spots on the bill of fare, depending
on the season.
I spoke with LoCicero in June, a couple days after the
Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off, which he was disappointed to not
win. "I used six Louisiana seafood ingredients and the
presentations spoke for themselves. I got robbed, believe me,"
he says with a laugh. We talked about his career, family,
neighborhood and why he loves them all so dearly.
How important was the family
dinner when you were growing
Food was always real big; it was a way to get together. On
Sunday, it was a big thing. My grandfather had a restaurant in
New Orleans, and I always had restaurants in my blood. Don't
ask me why - I knew what I wanted to do when I was 13. My
inspiration is my parents. My dad gave me the work ethic and my
mom gave me the love of cooking. We're a close-knit family.
Family, love and respect: You can't go wrong with that.
What unique challenges are there working in New Orleans?
Everybody's mother's a good cook. They compare everything
they get when they eat out to their mother's. "We'll, my ma's
gumbo's better," they say. Red beans, gumbo - it makes it hard
to be a restaurateur in New Orleans. A person has a good meal,
they tell two people. They have a bad meal, they tell 15.
They'll put up with bad service. Bad food? No.
Who is your mentor?
Emeril Lagasse is my idol. Anybody who can take being a
chef, build an empire and then give back as much as he has is
just outstanding. He may not be the greatest at food, but I
love him as a chef and as a person. Also Paul Prudhomme. He
will always talk to every student. I know them both well and
they've both come to the restaurant.
What's the "Dig In with Chef Duke" radio show like?
We talk about everything that goes on: politics, sports,
food. We do wine tastings and have bands on. If you're in
Louisiana and we think you're making a difference, you'll be on
the show. It's our sixth year on 1350 AM.
Are you known more for your work in the kitchen or on the
People know me from the show, but I've been at Giovanni for
17 years. I'm also one of the guys who reinvented Decatur
Street. That area was one of the worst. I mean, you ran down
Decatur Street. You're laughing, but that's how bad it was.
Crazy, there were hookers everywhere. Now it's a whole
different story. You go to Bourbon Street once; you go to
Decatur Street twice. We got the House of Blues, the Hard Rock
Cafe, a lot of history, the French Market, Margaritaville,
Jackson Square - it's a fantastic street to come down.
I'm a chef and a civic leader. I love my city. I'm not
afraid to say what's on my mind and I like to see things get
done. They just may not happen as quickly as I'd like them
How much time do you spend
in the kitchen?
I'm there just about every night. My name's on it; my
reputation, my house, so I'm there.
What does New Orleans cuisine mean to you?
It's the only city in America that has its own cuisine.
Creole and Cajun food - the first word is flavor. Extreme
flavor. Not so much spice, that's a misnomer. It's flavorful.
It's Mardi Gras in your mouth.
How important is local seafood
to your menu?
We change our menu to the seafood [that's available].
Crawfish season is ending so we'll phase that out. Shrimp
season begins at the end of August. We stick to the season, and
that changes our menu.
Do you use seafood vendors
from outside Louisiana?
Honolulu Fish Co. - their fish is great. And it's all next
day, at your door, fresh as can be. It's something I like to
play around with and incorporate into my menu. But I also get
salmon and tuna from different places. I'm a big scallops guy.
Any kind of seafood I can get.
What's the difference between
a good chef and an executive
I always say a good chef isn't the guy who can put foie gras
on a filet. A good chef is the guy who takes a cheap piece of
meat and makes a great meal. An executive chef is a different
animal - they buy, manage, etc. I compare running a restaurant
to [fighting] a war. He's the sergeant. If you don't follow him
over the hill, you're in trouble.
Assistant Editor James Wright can be