How do you respect the past and have one foot in the future? This would be the challenge for most chefs facing the new position as executive chef at Brennan’s, the seventy-five-year-old, much-lauded luxury New Orleans restaurant owned by Ralph Brennan and Terry White. Not in this case though, as a valued member of the original team and interim lead chef of six months, Ryan Hacker, gets the distinguished honor to take on the role. As of this week, Hacker officially takes over from his former mentor, Slade Rushing, who was by his side from the very beginning of Brennan’s reopening to much amazement and delight 5 years ago this month. In stepping into this role at age 35, Hacker becomes the youngest chef to helm the kitchen and the first to be promoted from within at Brennan’s. The restaurant holds high marks from The New Orleans Advocate, The New York Times, and Wine Spectator (among its many other accolades such as James Beard Foundation Award Finalist for five years). Hacker is aware of the pressure and has already been making moves to elevate the restaurant’s distinctive and ambitious cuisine while respecting Brennan’s esteemed legacy.
Changes had already begun to arrive on the menu by Hacker during his tenure with Rushing, starting with an inventive rendition to one of New Orleans’ most famous dishes, Blackened Redfish [a flashback to his childhood]. It is now poached in butter with spices, cooked separately. After delicately preparing the spice mixture, the entire fish is coated with it and the taste maintains its pronounced flavor. As the trusted voice in the kitchen these past few months, Hacker’s modern interpretation of quenelles, a classic French favorite in the city since the 1800s, features Shrimp Quenelles with New Orleans Style BBQ Sauce, Candied Lemon, and Rosemary Dusted Crostini. “We aren’t so much looking to reinvent the wheel when it comes to traditional dishes and Creole cuisine, but rather change its tires, refresh it, and offer a refined version that pleases our local diners beholden to a rich New Orleans heritage, as well as its next generation,” says Hacker.
Hacker first became interested in cooking as a kid growing up in Tyler, Texas seeing Paul Prudhomme’s cookbook on the kitchen counter at his grandmother’s house for Sunday suppers. Beyond the meal itself, his family instilled in him a respect for the act of dining and the importance of gathering around the table as a family.
Hacker spent a few years studying business at Texas Tech University, but he had a burning desire to get out from behind a desk. Hacker went on to attend the New England Culinary Institute and landed his six-month internship at Hamersley’s Bistro in Boston, MA, where he began to realize his culinary path in fine dining. From a youth spent watching his family grow vegetables on one acre of their five in rural Texas, it all clicked: the fundamentals of cultivating fresh produce are akin to the philosophies of an award-winning restaurant. Immersing himself in Chef Gordon Hamersley’s approachable food, smart sourcing, and a kitchen built around teaching – Hacker was effectively attending a graduate program. Hacker next set out to work with Kent Rathbun in Dallas, Texas. Hacker learned the valuable lesson that every dish tells a story and presents a sense of time and place. The crusade to work with chefs who have diverse backgrounds and are top in their field brought him to work with Andrew Weissman at Osteria Il Sogno. He credits Weissman for being the most respected and influential chef in his growing career. His direction was forever embedded in Hacker’s cooking style – a clean, aesthetically pleasing approach to the plate, while coaxing ingredients to present the most collaborative flavors.
New Orleans was the last place Hacker thought he would land, but when chef Slade Rushing offered him a position that was a challenge he could not refuse. Rushing was instrumental in running a successful kitchen that begins when menu development is initiated with a conversation amongst the team.
Hacker is the primary choice to lead the esteemed group of experienced chefs at Brennan’s, holding a strong reverence for the tradition and a determination to maintain the authenticity of all aspects of the restaurant, while integrating a creative and innovative approach to the menu. “Ryan Hacker showed leadership in the kitchen and his cuisine is imaginative, ingredient based, and builds on the tastes and flavors of the local culture,” says Ralph Brennan and Terry White.
Come this holiday, Ryan has one gift on his “shopping list” that’s personal, and it is seeing his family gathered around the table he now presides over at Brennan’s in New Orleans.