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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 up?

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 radio?

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 to.

 

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 chef?

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 
e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com

 

 

 

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