Photo by Lucie Monk Carter
At BRQ Seafood & Barbeque, Jonathan Nunez (left) and Chef Justin Ferguson (right) vow a menu that respects Baton Rouge's traditions while answering its cravings for more.
The capital city’s culinary scene by no means screeched to a halt when Chef Justin Ferguson decamped for New Orleans and then Chicago … yet a certain frisson follows the news that the Michelin-acclaimed chef is coming home, after a string of successes in Chicago, to open BRQ Seafood & Barbeque, as a backdoor neighbor to the Louisiana Culinary Institute. Along with front-of-house sage Jonathan Nunez, another hometown boy returning with years at New Orleans’ best bars and hotels under his belt, Ferguson vows a menu that respects Baton Rouge traditions while answering its cravings for more. The grand opening comes in late May, but Ferguson and Nunez were happy to pull back the veil for a few glimmers of what they’ve got planned:
Expect frog legs, boudin, and rabbit ... but no salmon.
Ferguson: I really want to draw a circle of about 150 miles around, within the South. I consider Mississippi and what’s around us as local, and I want this menu to reflect what is local. You’re not going to see salmon on the menu. I love salmon and it’s good, but salmon’s not indigenous to South Louisiana. If you look at most restaurants in town, everybody’s got a salmon dish. I want it to stay true to what South Louisiana is.
But what are some things that are South Louisiana that you don’t see? Country chicken fried frog legs or a smoked rabbit pot pie—those are things you’re going to see on my menu. Taking duck and going a little crazy with it. From the seafood portions to homemade pasta ... we’re a BBQ spot, but you’re getting everything else here too. Making our boudin from scratch and getting the pork livers from the hog.
With our boudin, I’ll take a bowl and, on the bottom, I do caramelized onions and peppers, then I do a smoked chicken jus and a butter, I hit it with fines herbes, then I drop three boudin balls on top and I pipe this ravigote sauce around it with a crumble on top. Now you’ve got this beautiful dish that on the menu just says “boudin”—but it’s totally different. It’s presented in a much more fashionable way. But guess what? We’re still going to sell it for seven dollars.
Each cocktail tells a story.
Nunez: I like to use what was built before and then expand upon it. On our cocktail menu, we’ll have The Countess. I started with the Roffignac. The Roffignac, if you’re not familiar, is named for the mayor of New Orleans in the early 1800s. He was a count. This drink is cognac, raspberry shrub, and soda. It’s a refreshing drink with a little bit of sweetness to it, a little bit of vinegar, done in a Collins glass, with a lemon twist or a raspberry.
For The Countess, I wanted to do a shrub with a seasonal fruit. At the time [of the last BRQ pop-up dinner] it was March, so I went with a blood orange shrub. Instead of cognac, I did apple brandy. It’s a little more fruit. It’s interesting. It’s lower cost, so I don’t have to make the cocktail super expensive. I have this wonderful calvados from Normandy. The shrub was the sugar content and instead of soda we did champagne. I thought, “OK, how am I going to name this?” Well, if the Roffignac is his drink, what would his wife drink? They’re French. And it’s a little classier, a little nicer. We’re getting inventive with the fruit side, we can talk about it, and there’s a direction as opposed to just throwing booze together.
Writing the menu took months’ worth of cigars and Sinatra.
Nunez: I love where some chefs will take three days to write a menu—
Ferguson: It’s taken me months and months—
Nunez: I think I remember seeing something in October, if not September. Even now, we’re like “OK, this is the final menu.” We send it off to the menu designer ... and then we send an email yesterday, going, “Hey, remove this and we’re going to add this…”
Ferguson: I like to sip on bourbon and have a cigar, and I like to get in my own world. I get a pen and paper down. I put music on, whether it’s blues, sometimes it’s Frank Sinatra, and once I start getting into my happy place, then I’m ready to write a menu item. It’s kind of crazy, but that’s what works for me.
The chef is all but handcuffed to the stove.
Ferguson: “Chef-driven” means my ass is on the line cooking it. It’s my reputation. There are a lot of restaurants here that aren’t chef-driven. They’re very corporate-driven or very “I’m a kitchen manager and we’re buying this gumbo that’s already made and we heat it up and we serve it.” Nothing here is pre-made. Even for the barbecue—the rubs and the sauces are made in house. I’ve spent years working perfecting this stuff.
You’ll save on gas money.
I feel Justin’s and my place for the food and the drink is to create the railroads for the pioneers in Baton Rouge. We need to set up the means. Let’s bring the railroads, let’s bring an infrastructure of cocktails and cuisine that gets Baton Rouge to the next level. But you’ve gotta buy tickets, no one’s forcing you to get on.
BRQ Seafood and Barbeque
10423 Jefferson Highway