Thirty-three-year-old Mark Falgoust considers himself a “Cajun Chef” even he grew up in Algiers, the portion of New Orleans that lies on the west bank of the Mississippi River.
He quickly admitted he works to be able to be a sportsman — to afford a four-wheeler, a boat, a hunting lease and all the other equipment of a modern outdoorsman.
“Every day I am off from the restaurant (which is never on a weekend), I am either deer hunting, frogging, bow fishing or chasing speckled trout, redfish, sheepshead, as well as bass and sac-a-lait,” he said. “Sheepshead is my favorite fish — probably the finest table fare (What do you expect? He’s a chef) in the Gulf. And there is no limit on them.”
Falgoust got into pigs when the population exploded around Bayou Pigeon. He squirrel hunted a lot there because his mother’s family is from nearby Pierre Part.
“I love squirrel hunting,” he confessed. “It started as a kid. When we were kids, we would fight over the squirrel brains at the table. One person was not allowed to get them all. Being a chef in the finest restaurants, my fondest memories always go back to squirrel or duck in a brown gravy.
“That’s true cooking — not pretentious. It’s the way Cajuns cook — inexpensive. They don’t waste anything, and they get the most flavors from their food. We would always eat at Pierre Part or (Bayou) Pigeon growing up during the holidays and on weekends. I was a sponge. I always had a thirst for knowledge about old timers, especially with food.”
That desire to learn was fed by cable television later on.
“When I was a teenager, the Food Network came out,” Falgoust said. “Mom slowed down cooking because of a serious illness. Other kids played video games, but I would take Dad’s credit card and buy cooking ingredients. By my senior year, I knew how to make a hollandaise sauce, basic stews, and how to braise and smother.
“After graduation, I took a year to work for my brother, and then went to the Delgado (Community College) Culinary Arts Program. It was a three-year program, but I only went one year. I didn’t like tests. And I didn’t need some has-been cook telling me wrong methods. I was already working around world-famous chefs at Commander’s Palace Restaurant under Chef (Jamie) Shannon.”
Before working part-time at Commander’s Palace, Falgoust pulled a year at Foodie’s Kitchen, working everything from line cook to tournant, the guy who works at all the kitchen’s stations.
After leaving school, he bounced to Portabella Café in Metairie, a tiny 10-seater, where he studied under a very talented Vinny Bruno.
“It was just me and him,” Falgoust said. “It was the first time I got to work side by side with a well-trained professional. At Commander’s, I was just one of 50.”
Next stop was Peristyle Restaurant in New Orleans under Ann Kearney-Sands, a James Beard Award winner who he called a “very well-known chef.”
“She set me in the right direction with a true passion for food,” Falgoust said. “She was my mentor. Everything she did was everything I wanted to be. I try to treat my employees like she treated me.
“That was where I learned to make sausages, terrines (aka hog’s head cheese), pates and general basic charcuterie (cooking prepared meats).”
Then she sold the restaurant and moved back to Ohio.
It was on to New Orleans’ Herbsaint Restaurant, owned by Chef Donald Link.
“I learned pig under him — all things pig,” Falgoust said. “It was the first kitchen I’ve ever seen where whole animals came in and we had to take them apart. But it was true Louisiana fine dining at its best.
“His approach to cooking was to make delicious dishes out of the non-famous cuts of anything.”
Falgoust spent three and a half years there, polishing his French and Italian cooking, and then dashed off to California for a single month before returning as sous chef for one year at Stella! Restaurant, which specialized in what Falgoust called “Asian-French cuisine.”
Falgoust was moving a lot, but he felt that cooking under the right people was important because he hadn’t graduated from culinary school; he had to build his resume by learning from the best chefs at the best restaurants.
So it was only natural that in 2004 he would head for New York City. There he worked for TV celebrity chef Tom Colicchio at Craft Restaurant. Falgoust, exhaled explosively when asked what he learned there.
“Manhatten is the major league of cooking,” he said. “It was the most-intense and difficult job I’ve ever had. Everything had to be perfect or I had to start all over again. I was a line cook there.
“Each item on the menu was the best in the world. For example, the chickens were blue foot Bresse chickens. They cost $65 a bird, and a diner had to order a whole one. The côte de boeuf steaks cost $165.
“When I was at the meat station during the lunch rush, I would have $5,000 on my stove at once. I would have five different steaks from Kobe, Japan, and partridges from Scotland — things a boy from Louisiana would never see.
“It was a really good learning experience. I went up there to be the best chef I could be.“Then (Hurricane) Katrina hit.”
His parent’s home was damaged. All he wanted to do was come home and help. So he did. He worked for Chef Justin Devillier at La Petite Grocery in New Orleans while he waited for Donald Link’s Cochon Restaurant to open up. The restaurant, whose name means “pig” in French, seemed to fit Falgoust.
He described the restaurant as a scaled-down, rustic, country cooking version of Herbsaint. Falgoust started there as sous chef, second in command in the kitchen. It was where he learned how to run a kitchen.
And, in his own words, “It was where I learned pig cookery from nose to tail.”
Four years later came a call from Joel Dantis, one of the owners of Grand Isle Restaurant. On Justin Devillier’s recommendation, they wanted him as executive chef. He signed on and has been there ever since.