How the First Female Chef at a Historic New Orleans Restaurant Celebrates Mardi Gras
Here’s how Meg Bickford faced the roaring return of carnival season at Commander’s Palace — and her recipe for an "obnoxiously good" shrimp po' boy.
In a multi-faceted place like New Orleans, it can be difficult to pick just one thing that defines the city. But at the start of each new year, while it’s the dead of winter elsewhere, it’s carnival season for Louisianans — and all conversations begin and end with Mardi Gras.
"You can feel the music in the air, whether you can hear it or not," says Meg Bickford, executive chef of the iconic New Orleans restaurant, Commanders Palace. "It’s a very exciting time in the city."
The festive season kicks off on Three King’s Day on January 6 and packs in a series of celebratory events until Mardi Gras, which falls on — and in French, literally translates to — Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. The days prior are packed with parties, parades and plenty of good eating.
At Commander’s Palace in the picturesque Garden District, celebrations are in full swing, and for the executive chef, it’s a time to shine. Bickford is a NOLA native who began her career at the lauded restaurant working garde manger (aka the salad station), and has since earned the title of the first female executive chef in the company’s 128-year history. While it sounds daunting, the young chef is more than comfortable in her role. She grew up enjoying a combination of Cajun and Creole food, a mix that she says melts beautifully together. "The food at Commander’s Palace fits for me — it feels like home."
Bickford follows in the footsteps of longtime Commander’s chef Tory McPhail, plus many men before him who have gone on to make big names for themselves. "I stand on the shoulders of giants," she says. "It’s incredibly humbling, but also an amazing challenge." And part of the challenge has been prepping for the return of a full-blown carnival season, after a two-year hiatus due to Covid-19. Locals and out-of-town visitors alike are more amped up than ever to let the good times roll, and Bickford is fully focused on making sure they are well fed.
"Street food and one pot meals are very popular during Mardi Gras — dishes that sit on the stove as people parade in and out the house," she says, explaining that hearty eats are essential during a full day of alcohol-fueled roaming. "It’s the kind of food that sticks to your ribs!" At the restaurant, she remains true to tradition making her own rendition of classic dishes, like jambalaya, shrimp Creole and, her personal favorite, grillades and grits, a dish of thinly sliced braised veal in dark roux with peppers and mushrooms atop a bed of grits.
During this time, she gets to stretch her creative muscles too. The menu is given a makeover to reflect the playfulness of the season. Guests can get the party started with a "Throw Me Somethin'" salad with strawberries, golden beets and lettuce, flavored with Meyer lemon beads and green goddess dressing, situated in a crisp pecan tuile to mimic a parade float. It’s also crawfish season, so Bickford incorporates the freshest bounty into dishes like Mardi Craw bread, a brioche dough filled with grilled crawfish, cheese and tomatoes and topped with smoked tomato butter. "It’s fun and whimsical, but it’s still really good food."
While Bickford leads the pack, she credits her entire team with bringing innovative ideas to the table. "There are a lot of great chefs in New Orleans doing amazing work, and the city itself is inspirational, so as a culinary team, we dine out as much as we can to learn and grow." Her office and home is well-stocked with cookbooks and magazines, and they peruse pages often to get the creative juices flowing. "We are a very collaborative team, and there is a lot of conversation always happening," she says.
One conversation resulted in a tasty Mardi Gras addition to the menu, the Parade Route po' boy. "The shrimp and tasso henican is a favorite of all of ours," she says, referring to a famous Commander’s dish — wild Louisiana white shrimp tossed with ham, okra, onions and a five-pepper jelly with Crystal hot sauce beurre blanc. "We put that dish into po' boy bread, and it made a really good po' boy. Obnoxiously good." The sandwich began as a snack among the kitchen staff, and during Mardi Gras, they would hand it off to chef Tory McPhail, who rode on a parade float each year. When the pandemic hit and celebrations halted, they decided to make it available for purchase at the restaurant, and it continues to grace the menu today. "It’s made in the style of a traditional po'boy, but it’s spicy, sour, sweet and salty and packs a juicy and fulfilling bite."
As far as life after Mardi Gras, Bickford promises equally thrilling eats at Commander’s Palace moving forward. "It isn’t just red beans and rice here," she says. "We are always evolving, and while our history is so strong, we don’t feel held back by it." Of her making history as the storied restaurant’s first female executive chef, she expects more of the same in the future. "Changes that have happened over the last several years have really welcomed the diversity in this industry," she says.
"And more change is happening. We are in that stride."
Want to create your own version of Meg Bickford’s festive Parade Route po-boy? Check out her recipes for pickled okra mayo, pepper jelly and Crystal hot sauce butter to add to your favorite shrimp sandwich.
Pickled Okra Mayonnaise
- 6 oz housemade or heavy duty mayonnaise (Bickford likes Blue Plate or Duke’s)
- 2 oz pickled okra, chopped
Fold pickled okra into mayonnaise. Cover, and refrigerate until ready to use.
- 1/3 cup white vinegar
- 1/3 cup light corn syrup
- 1 tbsp bell peppers, finely diced
- 1/8 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/8 tsp crushed red pepper
- 1/2 tsp chopped parsley
- Heat the vinegar and corn syrup over low flame until 1/3 cup volume remains. Remove from heat. Garnish with bell peppers, black pepper, crushed red pepper and chopped parsley. Set aside until ready to use.
Crystal Hot Sauce Butter
- 2 cups Crystal Hot Sauce (reduced to 1/2 cup over low flame)
- 1 cup cream (reduced to 1/2 cup over low flame)
- 2 oz unsalted butter (at room temperature)
Whisk reduced cream into reduced hot sauce. Add butter 1 tbsp at a time. Keep warm until ready to use.