Chef Kristen Essig and her partner and co-chef Michael Stoltzfus own and operate Coquette—a timeless backdrop in the Lower Garden District (LGD), with exposed brick and chandeliers, where innovative Southern cuisine steals the show, with a focus on farm-fresh produce and product.
In August, she and Michael opened Thalia. Their second outpost has 37 seats, a love of zero-waste operations and will be a joint truly for the locals.
Chef Essig is no stranger to press. She was named one of Coastal Living magazine’s “5 Coastal Chefs to Watch” in 2015, as well as earning a nomination as “The People’s Best New Chef,” by Food & Wine that same year.
We sat down with Kristen to discuss the arc of her career, her least favorite ingredient and what we can expect at Thalia, now that she’s thrown the doors wide.
Are you from the city of New Orleans?
I am not. I’m originally from Seminole, Florida, a smallish town on the west coast of the state. I’ve been in New Orleans just over 20 years. I moved here on January 1, 1999, to accept a position at Chef Emeril Lagasse’s flagship restaurant, Emeril’s. I’d met Chef Emeril at an event while I was still in culinary school, and he offered me a job. I held onto his card and called him as soon as I graduated.
What surprises you most about New Orleans?
Actually, everything. There isn’t a day that goes by that you don’t discover something new or make a new friend. She has a lot of secrets and if you look for them, you’ll find them.
What’s stronger in New Orleans, the food or music scene?
That’s a question I’m definitely not going to answer! Ha. Thankfully there is enough music and food in this city that you can eat it all and hear it all anytime you want. New Orleans is one of the most culturally-diverse cities in the U.S.
Right now, what’s in your fridge?
A bunch of wine and water.
What’s one thing you’ll never eat?
Five words to describe a night in the back-of-house at Coquette?
Prepared, Clean, Questioning, Quality and Integrity.
What’s one thing you want to do in your career as a chef that you’ve not done yet?
I’d like to stop worrying, in general. I’m not expecting that to ever happen.
How would you describe your personal style?
I wear a Canadian tuxedo almost every day. I think Lauren Hutton is one of the sexiest people alive. Chambray all day.
Is there something missing in the Nola food scene?
More recognition and respect for chefs of color and what they’ve done and continue to do for the food scene in New Orleans.
Tell us what you are most excited about for Thalia?
Since the beginning of Thalia coming together, we promised our community that we would be creating a space that was “for the neighborhood” not “in spite of the neighborhood.” It’s extremely important to me that we are an affable, affordable and approachable space. I’m excited to continue to fulfill that promise.
Why is the Lower Garden District the ultimate place to live, work and play?
I’ve been extremely lucky to live in many parts of the city: French Quarter, Irish Channel, Bayou St. John…but the LGD is really one of my favorite spots. It’s extremely walkable, growing and just the right amount of quiet.
A perfect night out for you and Michael in New Orleans begins at what venue?
On our side porch with a Spritz or a glass of rosé.
Then the middle of the evening?
Dinner at La Boca.
What do you and Michael order at La Boca?
We always get the hearts of palm salad and the skirt steak. He gets fries and mashed potatoes when I’m not there. (Laughs) They do an awesome Morcilla, the blood sausage. Oh, and the coconut cake they make is insane. If we’re having dessert that day, which we are normally not because Michael’s cholesterol is high. It’s like an ice box cake your mom would make.
What’s your go-to bottle of rosé at home?
Whatever is on the list at Coquette that I can snag, but I’m a fan of the La Boutanche from France. It comes in a liter and is crushable.
Where did you land last and why?
Bakery Bar—for cake and martinis!
We saw you had followers on Instagram pick out your paint color for Thalia.
Actually, not exactly. What we did was select the yellow tones that we liked and we painted a little of each one on the wall. We had our friends and neighbors over for crawfish and beer and had a pick-a-color party. They scratched tally marks on the wall under the one that they liked best. You can still faintly see those marks on our painted wall.
What should we be excited about on the cocktail menu at Thalia?
Our program is run by Denzel Brown and Colin Williams, and they are both incredibly talented. We are a family, neighborhood-type place. We expect a lot of our guests will walk here and walk home. Our menu will focus on low-proof options, and we will have a Happy Hour from 3pm to 5pm. We are also doing a punch every day, and I have sourced vintage Depression glass. We are putting a little number on the bottom of each glass, so people can find a favorite glass and request it by number when they come in.
What are going to be buzzworthy dishes at Thalia?
We’re doing something akin to daily specials called Rituals. They’ll be themed each night of the week. We’re gonna have a schnitzel night, a sausage night, a baked pasta night, a steak night and a herbivore night that’s our vegetarian-vegan night. I think the Rituals will be a hit.