Fourth of July in Canberra: Tory McPhail's New Orleans flavour

Natasha Rudra
Commander's Palace restaurant in New Orleans
Commander's Palace restaurant in New Orleans Photo: Supplied

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Tory McPhail wants to show Australia a good time. He's an award-winning chef who runs an iconic New Orleans restaurant. He has been flown here by the United States Embassy as a culinary ambassador for the Fourth of July to share his love of southern cooking - and throw some major parties.

He couldn't have come at a better time, when Australia is gripped by fever for barbecue and southern food - a fever that he admits has taken him a little by surprise.

Commander's Palace restaurant in New Orleans.
Commander's Palace restaurant in New Orleans. Photo: supplied

"Everyone is trying to tell me, 'Man, Tory, you've come at the perfect time', because there's a huge surge in barbecue," he says with a laugh.

"I went to this place called Le Bon Ton in Melbourne last night and it's all about New Orleans cooking and I was like, 'I just travelled halfway round the world and I'm at a New Orleans themed restaurant?' And the food was good, I was like, 'Holy cow, that's amazing'."

McPhail knows what he's talking about. He's the executive chef at Commander's Palace, an iconic New Orleans eatery that boasts US celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme as alumni. Last year he won the James Beard award for Best Southern Chef.

For the embassy's Fourth of July party McPhail is creating a southern feast, moving away from the traditional hamburgers and hotdogs.

"I wanted to cook something a little more indicative of Louisiana. So we're going to make a huge pot of chicken and fresh mushroom gumbo," he says.

It's not any old gumbo - it's going to take a few days of prep. McPhail says his team of helpers will roast chicken bones to make a stock which is reduced to concentrate flavour. Then they make a dark roux, cooking flour and fat or oil for an hour or more until it becomes a chocolate colour.

Chef Tory McPhail
Chef Tory McPhail Photo: Supplied

"And then we start adding garlic, onions, celery and green bell peppers, I guess ya'll call them capsicum. All that stuff goes into the pot, with the good roasted poultry stocks and the dark roux and then you start folding in pounds and pounds and pounds of fresh mushrooms, then a ton of roasted chicken meat and season that with a bunch of spicy Louisiana hot sauce, blackening spice. It's a great soup," he says.

To accompany this gumbo, McPhail is also making boudin, the spicy Cajun sausage stuffed with rice and meat. 

"With the popularity of American food, southern food and Cajun and Creole, I'm just down here to answer a bunch of questions. I wanna teach people how to have fun, how we hang out and throw parties," he says.

The foyer at Commander's Palace in New Orleans
The foyer at Commander's Palace in New Orleans Photo: Supplied

He's particularly happy to spruik New Orleans, with its hallmark Creole and Cajun food, which McPhail describes as America's only indigenous cuisine, and its huge food culture. "It's had a huge resurgence since that little wind and rain storm about nine years ago. We have more than 400 brand new restaurants."

Commander's Palace, a family-owned restaurant that opened in 1880, is not one of those brand new places. But like the city, it suffered greatly in Katrina. The cheerful blue-and-white historic building was wrecked in the storm. It had to be ripped back to its studs and rebuilt. McPhail says the kitchen staff, which normally numbers about 60, were reduced to four chefs at reopening.

"But I love that city and there was no question in my mind that we would go back and open up Commander's Palace," McPhail says. "That restaurant was closed for about 13 months while we did repairs. But it was passion, dedication and love and heart and soul that make restaurants special no matter where you're at."

Tory McPhail is in Canberra for the US Embassy's Fourth of July celebrations on Wednesday, July 2.