Photo by Renee Joseph
A young chef packs a lot of dreams into a little cottage.
Surprise number one: The restaurant. Zachary’s sneaks up on you, a low-profile cottage on an oak-shaded corner of Mandeville’s busy Florida Street. You might shoot past it before you notice the sign on the white picket fence out front. Surprise two: The menu. You might expect po-boys and fried seafood platters, but find instead a pretty (and pretty good) wedge salad, sautéed crab claws with a garlic pepper cream sauce, a double-cut pork chop stuffed with house-made boudin. The menu is concise but satisfying, creative and sophisticated. The third surprise? Executive chef/owner Zac Watters. He’s practically a kid. He graduated from Mandeville High in 2004, worked in his father’s construction business for a while, sold cars for a while, and oh yeah, got the cooking bug. He went to the Louisiana Culinary Institute in Baton Rouge (graduated 2008) and did turns at a couple of very good restaurants. He opened Zachary’s in August 2011, having just turned 26, and was named a Louisiana Cookin’ magazine "Chef to Watch" less than a year later. Watters’s thirty-seat restaurant serves beautifully plated food, both more upscale and thoughtful than you might expect from a young chef. He edits himself, understands building flavor, and enjoys pondering the possibilities of a dish.
Watters (pronounced Waters) cooks “contemporary Louisiana cuisine” with a focus on seasonal and local ingredients, and he tweaks the menu often. He also hand-picks the wine list, which is eclectic and extensive, with about thirty-five different wines, many available by the glass. Watters does the shopping, grows some of his own herbs out back and runs Zachary’s with the help of only three staffers—one in the kitchen and two front of house. He even decided on the décor. It’s charming and comfortable; white linen cloths top the tables and large, bold paintings by an artist friend, Alex Harvie, dominate the walls. “My mom helped me decorate this place,” he says looking around, “but this is me.” Watters would seem to have come a long way fast, chef/proprietor at 27, but he aspires to be a contender. He admits to being detail-oriented and hard to please. Yes, he got three stars from restaurant writer Tom Fitzmorris, who had great things to say about the chef’s food, but he wanted four stars. And he frets that Fitzmorris later mused about the viability of such a small restaurant. The cottage housing Zachary’s is small but not crowded, and it has character. It’s easy to miss, thanks in part to the Big Top Sno-Ball stand next door that announces itself in bright circus stripes. And yes, the cottage has been the site of at least two other restaurants in the past few years, both of which failed. But maybe third time’s the charm with Watters at the helm.
Despite not having advertised, the little restaurant and its young chef/owner have gained a following. Like Watters himself, the restaurant’s menu can be both serious and playful. The Fried Shrimp and Andouille Souffle Beignets with crawfish and corn maque choux are elegant, joined by dishes like Filet Mignon Beef Tartare, and NOLA BBQ Shrimp with an Abita Amber rosemary cream sauce. But then there’s also the Shrimp Corn Dog, an Andouille and battered shrimp appetizer, and what might be Watters’s favorite, an impossibly tall BLT that appears occasionally as a lunch special. Preparing dishes for a photo shoot, Watters beams as he begins constructing the BLT. Toasted wheatberry bread, crisp iceberg lettuce, slices of beautiful local tomatoes and an artery-shocking double handful of crisp fried bacon. Stack it all up, slather on a little mayo, and add the crowning touch: a perfectly fried duck egg.
Just the idea of the BLT makes him happy. He can hardly wait for the shoot to be over and, soon as it is, cuts the sandwich in half, watching the broken yolk drip golden goodness over its contents, and takes a big bite. “Mmmm,” he says. A big swig of beer follows. The world is good. Watters says his parents, and especially his father, Ben, were skeptical when he decided to go to culinary school. “My dad didn’t think there was any money in it,” he says. “And no one in my family was a cook or a chef. They’re good home cooks but not professionals. “Now,” he says, “they’re proud of me. They’re happy to see I’m going after it and were especially proud when I was named a ‘Chef to Watch.’” Each year, Louisiana Cookin’ chooses several chefs from across the state for inclusion in its “Chefs to Watch” issue. Chefs are chosen because they “possess an understanding and respect for Louisiana’s unique culinary heritage while exhibiting the creativity and energy to engage today’s diners.” Past winners have included Brian Landry, formerly of Galatoire’s and now with Borgne, Sue Zemanick of Gautreau’s and Justin Devillier of La Petite Grocery.
Ben Watters admits he wasn’t enthusiastic about his son’s ambitions to be a chef but says, like a wise dad, “you’ve got to let kids do what they want to do. I am very proud of him and yes, he’s my son and all, but he’s very talented.” After he had his “epiphany to become a chef,” Watters says, he applied to New Orleans’ Café Adelaide, a Brennan-family restaurant, and was surprised to get hired. Watters began as a prep cook and later worked the line. He credits then-chef Danny Trace with teaching him a lot about working in a restaurant kitchen. After culinary school, Watters did an internship at chef Scott Boswell’s noted French Quarter restaurant, Stella!, then worked in Covington’s respected Ristorante Del Porto. Watters obviously was paying attention. His dishes not only look pretty and taste good, they showcase Louisiana seafood, local ingredients and seasonal flavors.
And like the chef himself, they surprise you. Without being too precious, Watters embellishes dishes with little pops of flavor and color—tiny, edible yellow flowers (the blossom-tops of the tarragon plant) grace the barbecued shrimp one day at lunch. Watters expects to have a big place one day. He can’t wait to do more with molecular gastronomy and push the menu envelope a little bit. He knows his growing clientele appreciates what he’s doing now, but eventually he sees his cooking style evolving. “I feel like I’m getting better every day,” he says. “It’s going to be fun. I want to teach people to appreciate food as much as I do. Food is more than just eating. It’s about the whole experience.”
Details. Details. Details. Zachary’s Restaurant 902 Coffee Street Mandeville, La. (985) 626-7008 zacharys985.com Tuesday, 5 pm–9 pm; Wednesday—Friday, 11 am–2 pm, 5 pm–9 pm; Saturday 5 pm–9:30 pm