Colin Mallet, chef of Sassafras, on his squirrel supper
This is part one of my interview with Colin Mallet, chef of Sassafras; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
"Hey, I'll be back in a sec. I've got a fire to put out," says Colin Mallet, who utters the words with remarkable nonchalance. In ten minutes, he's back in the dining room at Sassafras, sheepishly asking if he stinks of grease. Turns out one of the cooks had spilled some of the slick lubricant, sparking a fire -- with flames -- in the bay of the grease trap underneath the flat-top. "I filled a squeeze bottle with milk and sprayed it in there and then had the guys clean up the mess," Mallet reports with the same degree of reserve.
It's just another day on the line for the Sassafras chef, who's extinguished quite a few fires during his 33 years. Despite his relatively young age, he's already had 27 jobs, most of them in restaurants.
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Born and raised in Morgan City, Louisiana, home of the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival and located "right in the middle of everywhere," according to the town's website, Mallet, who still speaks with a mellow drawl, grew up surrounded by the same Southern-style food that's made Sassafras an insanely popular breakfast-and-lunch destination. "In Louisiana, food is the center of all socializing. You wake up and eat breakfast and talk about what you're having for lunch, and then at lunch, we talk about what we're having for dinner, and at dinner, we talk about what's for breakfast. It's always about what we're going to eat next," laughs Mallet, who, despite his impressive list of restaurant gigs, insists that Sassafras is his home away from home.
But the chef, whose food focuses on biscuits and gravy, beignets, Benedicts and barbecued shrimp, took the long road to get there, going to college to study psychology before dropping out to cook full-time at a 24/7 breakfast joint on Bourbon Street, in the heart of New Orleans, where he attended college. "I was super-passionate about cooking, but I knew that cooks didn't make much money," explains Mallet, "so I went to school to study psychology, thinking I'd graduate and have a career, but I got a job as a short-order cook in the French Quarter, and my boss said that I had some serious cooking potential and should stick with it, so that was that."
He bounced around restaurants in the Big Easy -- fourteen, to be exact -- cooking, bartending and working the front of the house. "I've been a cook, a bartender, a server and a busboy -- I've pretty much done it all except being a dishwasher; I was lucky enough to avoid that. I always thought the grass was greener on the other side," explains Mallet, admitting now that "the grass was never greener" -- except at Sassafras. "It's not that I didn't like my jobs; I did, but there's always high turnover in the restaurant industry, and there's not a lot of money, and I needed money to survive, so I kept moving from job to job, especially server jobs, hoping that I could make enough money to make a life for myself," he admits.