Photo by Lucie Monk Carter
Chef Jourdan Fulbright
She can’t take it back now, but Jourdan Fulbright was a painfully picky eater as a kid. “My mom think it’s hysterical that I’m the one who became a chef,” laughed Fulbright. With a father in the military, Fulbright lived and traveled overseas; even her slim palate was stirred by the world’s flavors. “I still remember the bread from Egypt and just the fruits in Panama. I got sick off the mangos that grew across the street.”
Fulbright has matured, as have her taste buds. Now chef de cuisine of downtown Baton Rouge’s new Cocha, she’s the one convincing the city’s hesitant diners to open wide for bibimbap, cachapas, gnocchi, and dolmas. We sat down recently to talk about food that won’t weigh you down, the rarity of female chefs in Baton Rouge, and where Cocha’s menu will travel next. Find excerpts below.
On attending the Culinary Institute of America:
It’s like Disneyland if you like food. I can’t even believe how lucky I am that I got to go there and meet the chefs I did. I basically just didn’t want to close myself off to anything. So I tried all the weird things that I never thought I would try. I ate a goat eyeball once, when one of the chefs offered it. I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” Monkfish, anything crazy. I just wanted to learn as much as I could. I still think that way. There’s so much to know. You can’t possibly know enough about food.
On Cocha’s future menus:
I’d like to see a little more Middle East. I don’t have a ton of knowledge on a lot of the Asian countries, so I tend to shy away from it a little bit unless I really know what I’m doing. Of course Western Europe’s always fun, and I would like to try my hand at a few more of the Scandinavian countries. I’ve got a soft spot for Spanish food. My dream vacation is to go to Spain. Anything that’s got that sofrito in it, the peppers and the garlic. Whether that’s paella or octopus. We were looking at doing some octopus dishes up here—that’s next. We can’t wait to throw some octopus on the menu. But it probably wouldn’t have gone over particularly well as a debut. I think if you start out of the gate with all these weird ingredients and these names on the menu that people don’t know how to pronounce, it can seem unfriendly. That’s the opposite of what we’re going for here. We would like to start building a trust and then transitioning into ingredients that people aren’t necessarily exposed to but know that we’re going to do a good job.
Photo by Lucie Monk Carter
On women in the kitchen:
I don’t necessarily think it’s malicious, but I think that restaurant owners tend to be men—and there are more men cooks in the city, so first of all the pool is larger. But you tend to hang out with people who have similar interests and know people with similar interests. A lot of times, these relationships are built. Either they know the chef that they hire or they get the recommendation from someone they know, so it tends to run in a lot of the same circles. It is a little bit more difficult as a woman, but it’s getting less so. There’s been a lot of headway for women in the kitchen. It’s a hard road to get to be a chef anyhow. I think a lot of women get disheartened and will go into different places rather than restaurant kitchens.
Nationwide there is a cook shortage, so it’s getting harder to find talented cooks for pay that works for a small business. I think actually that kind of opens it up for the women who have stuck around, because the pool is much larger. Running a restaurant right now is really, really hard. The margins are slimmer than ever. It’s hard to find good workers. It’s just tough. Chefs are having to do a lot more things now, managerially. Owners are much more dependent on chefs right now to run things in a very tight manner. That means in addition to finding these really creative, talented cooks, you have to make sure that you’re also hiring somebody who’s got the management chops, which a lot of times means education. And the Louisiana Culinary Institute’s been doing a great job of turning out educated cooks who have that knowledge.
One of the things I talked about a lot [with owners Saskia Spanhoff and Enrique Pinerua] was putting the focus on vegetables and grains. The world is using less meat. We’re not putting giant hunks of protein on a plate and a few vegetables. Like the steak roulade: it’s not an eight-oz. steak, but it’s filled with other things and served with a fair amount of vegetables and farro. That helps. Galen [Iverstine] over at Iverstine Farms has been great. I talk with him about what’s not selling, what cuts can I use that are cost effective for me, and trying to be smart about using things that aren’t necessarily used a lot, in addition to putting less emphasis on meat.
My favorite compliment, by far, has been that people leave feeling full but not weighed down, which is something that we try to accomplish. I wouldn’t say that we’re a health restaurant, but we are trying to make sure it’s better for you.
Photo by Lucie Monk Carter
On leading her kitchen:
In addition to putting better food in people’s bodies and using better ingredients, which is better for the community, one of my top three favorite things about a restaurant is that it hires anybody. It doesn’t matter if you’re a young college student, if you’re recently out of prison—restaurants will take anybody. That means opportunity. Obviously I lose my patience. Everybody does. It’s a fast-paced, high-stress environment. Right now we’ve just been trying to tread water to keep up. But nobody’s making mistakes on purpose. If you only concentrate on what people are doing wrong, they’re going to lose heart. There are definitely things they’re doing right too. I try to remember that everybody’s human. One of the things I told my cooks is “When you leave here, I want you to be able to get hired anywhere.” People don’t stay in one place forever, and they shouldn’t. I can only teach them so much.