Chef Michael Gulotta (Photo: Joshua Brasted)
Even in a city with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to culinary talent, Chef Michael Gulotta stands out. The 34-year-old put in some serious cooking time with legendary local chefs like John Folse, Emeril Lagasse and John Besh. Then, Gulotta got taste buds salivating when he struck out on his own to open MoPho, an ambitious Southeast Louisiana/Southeast Asian fusion restaurant in the Mid-City neighborhood.
Just over a year after its opening, MoPho has gained a fiercely loyal local following and received national accolades. Here, Gulotta shares his vision, his challenges and what he has up the sleeve of his chef’s coat at MoPho.
After your years of fine-dining training, what made you decide to open a restaurant like MoPho?
I wanted to do something way outside my comfort zone. It’s hard, when you come from a really well established restaurant that you’ve run for a long time and watched grow. It’s hard to leave that restaurant and not do something very similar. I find it happens a lot. It gets into you and becomes a part of you, so that when you leave, we naturally want to go back to the things that make us comfortable. And, I wanted to go way outside of that. I wanted to do something upscale/casual, the kind of place I’d really want to go to on my day off, with all the comforts of a good restaurant, with great service, and quality products and tableware, craft cocktails; but to mix it with what I like to eat when I’m not working, which is Southeast Asian cuisine, usually Thai or Vietnamese.
So, how would you describe your dining concept for someone who has yet to eat at MoPho?
When I first hatched the idea, it started to make sense because of the parallels between Southeast Asia and Southeast Louisiana, both being French colonies, and having a similar geography and resources as far as being on a river delta with brackish water, great seafood, great estuaries, and really great climate zones for growing a wide range of produce. All of these things sort of came together and I was able to ride those parallels and find these intersections and begin to put together a menu.
We always want to make sure we’re pairing some Southeast Asia products with some Southeast Louisiana products, or sometimes we’ll substitute one for another. For example, Thai pepper jam is made from chilies cooked with shrimp paste, palm sugar and tamarind, and they use it to cook their clams. Well, we get good Florida clams and we cook them down with Louisiana pepper jelly. So you end up with a similar endgame: this wonderful hot, sour, salty, sweet, umami thing going on — the brine from the clams, the spice and sweetness from the jelly, and a natural salinity. You have all of these really great flavors happening, using products from two different ends of the globe.
Pepper Jelly Braised Cedar Key Clams (Photo: Joshua Brasted)
What were some of your challenges when you opened up?
In this business, you really have to listen to your guests and make sure they’re happy. When we first opened, we had a dish that I really love, which was a slow roasted and grilled pig’s trotter, served with a spicy crab broth with a crabmeat Meyer lemon and cracklin salad over the top. In my mind, it was awesome, but the only people who came in and really seemed to understand the dish were these young local Vietnamese kids, because you literally have to dig in with your hands without even using a spoon. But your typical New Orleanian would say, “Um…this is a whole pig’s foot.” And they’d just send it right back. So we had to scale back on some of those kinds of dishes.
Have you had any notable kitchen disasters?
I try to block those out! We haven’t really had a big one here, except for that one time that a cook overflowed a batch of Nuoc-mam caramel, which created a giant fireball in the kitchen. There’s not a whole lot you can do except for throw sheet pans on top of everything to starve it of oxygen, because you never want to use a fire extinguisher in your kitchen, if you can help it. Thankfully we haven’t had too many problems here, thank god, but I’ve seen a ton of them in my career. All I’ll say is: “Never have fat on the grill. Ever.”
What’s next for you?
The idea for MoPHo is really to move it back to more of the original concept, going back to some of the dishes that we were toying with in the beginning, like our crispy glutinous rice cake topped with lardo and uni, which people didn’t seem to really get at the time. Now, as we slowly garner more attention and people understand what we’re about, we can take the menu back towards those initial menu ideas. It was originally supposed to be fun, funky stuff for people to enjoy, but local folks are just getting to know us, I think.
Roasted Quail with Black Cardamom Red Bean Gnocchi (Photo: Joshua Brasted)
I really want to push back in that direction, and to do more in-house. We’re now making batches of fermented red beans and black eyed peas, because they use a lot of bean paste in Southeast Asian cooking and those are the beans that we have down here. One of the new dishes that I’m really excited about is Mississippi quail with black cardamom, set over fermented red bean gnocchi with a beautiful, spicy red bean jus and a pickled pork kimchi salad over the top. It’s just awesome.