Commander’s Palace in New Orleans has served as the culinary stage for leading New Orleans chefs, including Emeril Lagasse, Tory McPhail, and both the late Paul Prudhomme and Jamie Shannon, and it has served as a launchpad for many other chefs who have opened their own restaurants. Now, for the first time in the restaurant’s 128-year-old history, a woman is leading the kitchen: Chef Megan Bickford.
“Chef Meg,” as Commander’s Palace owners Lally Brennan and Tí Adelaide Martin fondly call her, is no stranger to this legendary restaurant. She worked closely with former executive chef Tory McPhail, whose 18-year tenure leading the kitchen was the restaurant’s longest. Last year, McPhail and his wife decided to move to Montana. McPhail was born in Bozeman and accepted a position working with a restaurant group. Many were surprised and sorry to see McPhail depart. At the same time, everyone was equally delighted to see Chef Meg assume her new role in October 2020.
Thanks to a father from New Orleans and a mother from “down the Bayou” in Cut Off, Louisiana, Creole, and Cajun, cooking is in Chef Meg’s DNA. Cooking was a centerpiece of family life with weekend seafood boils for 20 to 200 and fishing at her uncle’s camp in Fourchon. It’s still how Chef Meg enjoys spending days off with her husband and young daughter. After graduating from the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, she joined Commander’s Palace in 2008, advancing through the ranks over the years.
“Starting my professional career at Commander’s Palace where Creole and Cajun meet in a fine dining setting all felt very right for me, like being with family,” said Chef Meg. She identifies her mentors as her mother and father, Dale and Ora Ordoyne, Uncle Carl, Kenny Meyer, Tory McPhail, Chris Barbato, Tí Adelaide Martin, Lally Brennan, Dottie Brennan, and the late Miss Ella Brennan.
Stirring the Melting Pot Blending Creole and Cajun
Commander’s Palace Co-Owner Lally Brennan calls Chef Meg “the Ever-Ready Battery of chefs” and speaks of her in gracious superlatives. “Chef Meg has been part of our team for 13 years this June. She is like a sister to me and my cousin, Tí. She has always been a spitfire in the kitchen and a ball of energy. She is small in stature but mighty in talent with complete respect in the kitchen. There is a sparkle in her eyes and talent in her hands,” said Brennan. “It really was an extremely easy transition for us. When we gathered our team on the restaurant patio to announce Chef Tory was leaving, everyone became subdued since it was a surprise. But then the team stood up and cheered when we announced Meg would lead the kitchen.”
Chef Meg has upheld the restaurant’s “dirt to plate within 100 miles” food philosophy established by Chef McPhail. Ninety percent of ingredients used on the menu come from within 100 miles of the restaurant. A few examples include Gulf shrimp, Breaux Bridge crawfish, Louisiana duck and quail, and Ponchatoula strawberries.
Chef Meg has skillfully balanced maintaining perennially popular dishes while adding her special touch to the restaurant menu to keep it evolving.
“Creole cuisine by definition celebrates the rich melting pot of cultures here in Louisiana. For us, this has changed dramatically since the 1960s. We have seen a major influence of Vietnamese, especially among our southern Louisiana fishermen. There are a lot of Hondurans and a beautiful influx from the Caribbean to add to the French and German culture here. It is fun to identify these influences and go down that route with flavors,” Chef Meg shared.
Guests can taste chef Meg’s personal flair in dishes like wild Louisiana white shrimp curry and dry-aged and cold-smoked duck breast with Louisiana strawberry & jalapeño compote over roasted mirlitons, baby turnips, grilled collard greens, and Louisiana crawfish tails tossed in an herb-arugula linguini with shaved asparagus, fennel, red chilis, sugar snap, and English peas and miso-prosecco cream. For the summer menu, she’s working on mayhaw barbecue-glazed pork tenderloin with can-cured Creole tomatoes and lemon-grilled okra with Creole cream cheese and crusted eggplant croutons.
“While we will always keep our customer favorites items like turtle soup, shrimp and tasso henican, and Creole bread pudding soufflé, I never feel we are reigned in creatively,” Chef Meg underscored. “Here at Commander’s Palace, a collaborative spirit is encouraged, and we work with great freedom in the kitchen. With different flavors and ingredients that are shaping cuisine all over Louisiana right now, the possibilities seem endless. Creole cuisine always has and should always evolve, and I am eager to keep moving it forward with the Commander’s team.”