Tapping Chef Philip Whitmarsh to head the kitchen at their French Quarter restaurant Jewel of the South was culinary kismet for business partners Nick Detrich, Chris Hannah and John Stubbs.
Tucked along the edge of the French Quarter in a Creole cottage mere steps from Rampart Street lies Jewel of the South, a tavern opened almost a year ago by a couple of tremendously talented bartenders. It was the second collaboration between James Beard award-winner Chris Hannah and Nick Detrich, nationally acclaimed bartender and co-founder of Cane & Table, and after the successful launch of Cuban-inspired Manolito, the duo were ready and raring for more. While a lot of planning and preparation goes into the launch of any business, serendipity seemed to lend a hand when they selected Philip Whitmarsh as executive chef of Jewel of the South.
Born in Eastern London, Whitmarsh grew up as many kids do, eating only because their bodies (and their moms) tell them to. “I come from a family of pretty average cooks,” says Whitmarsh. “I used to love my Mum’s liver, bacon and mashed potatoes. I mean, it was overcooked every single time, but I really liked it.” After graduating high school, Whitmarsh was inspired to try his hand in the kitchen when an older friend that he grew up with finished his chef apprenticeship. Though he began his own apprenticeship at Michelin-starred London hotel The Connaught, he honed his education “popping” in and around kitchens in both England and France; working as an unpaid intern for almost a year. Then, in 2002, Whitmarsh set out for a whole new experience “down under” in Australia.
After a stint as head chef in the Lochiel House, a sort of country inn and restaurant outside Sydney, Whitmarsh headed west and took a job as sous chef inside the now defunct Daniel O’Connell Irish Pub & Restaurant in Adelaide. With head chef Aaron Gillespie, Whitmarsh explored cooking sustainably, embracing “nose-to-tail” cuisine and striving for zero waste, which at the time was a fairly new concept in the industry. It was while he was working there that Whitmarsh met his wife Mollie, a Louisiana-born-and-bred woman who moved to Australia during the levee failures in 2005.
After several years, Mollie was yearning to return home and Whitmarsh was more than willing to follow her. “It’s a lot different from where I lived before,” he explained. “New Orleans is very unique.” Currently, the couple live in Bywater, but Whitmarsh still holds great affection for Bayou St. John, the first neighborhood in which they resided when they moved from Australia.”I still go to my old bar [Parkview Tavern] in Mid-City to watch Saints games.”
Here in New Orleans, Whitmarsh began working as sous at Compère Lapin with James Beard award-winning chef Nina Compton. At one of the restaurant’s anniversary parties, Whitmarsh was introduced to Chris Hannah by mutual friend Stephen Torres, founder of the “Bill of Fare” events aimed to harvest connections between art, cuisine and music. Torres told the young chef about the restaurant Hannah and Detrich were launching, piquing Whitmarsh’s interest. “It was almost surreal,” he mused. “That’s when I realized how small New Orleans is and that everyone actually knows everyone, especially in the industry, which is kind of great.”
Hannah and Detrich’s concept for Jewel of the South revolved around its namesake, a late 19th century restaurant owned by Joseph Santini who was known (among other things) for his invention of the Brandy Crusta, a Curacao and maraschino cherry liqueur cocktail served in a sugar-rimmed glass. The Crusta was one of the first New Orleans-created cocktails that became nationally known, even predating Peychaud’s famous Sazerac. Envisioning a space that would embody an old-timey, tavern-esque quality, Detrich and Hannah held interviews and tastings with several different chefs, yet Whitmarsh stood out far and above the rest with superior presentation, organization skills, and a background working in London and other parts of Europe, not to mention a familiarity and willingness to work in a small kitchen, a crucial expertise needed for almost any French Quarter restaurant. “He also had the sort of chops we were looking for to bring the cosmopolitan nature of what we wanted to accomplish with Jewel of the South,” says Detrich. “Which is a tavern that hearkens back to the 1870s and 1880s that were meeting places where a lot of different cultures were coming together.”
As is evidenced over the past year, Whitmarsh has brought a unique global perspective to Jewel of the South’s menu, sprinkled with just the right amount of local flair. Consider dishes like his peppered Wagyu beef with celeriac remoulade, smoked ham with red cabbage kimchi and “Bourgeois Blood Boudin” with quince, chestnut and Seckel pear. “The plan for the bar was inspired by the people who come to New Orleans, the migrants and what not, and that’s what I try to think about with the food,” explains Whitmarsh. “It kind of occurred to me that I don’t know everyone’s story, and I don’t think I can do it justice, plus I know what I know.”
Most evident is Whitmarsh’s heavy hand with offal and, of course, an infusion of modern British cuisine. His sugar-crusted, currant-filled Eccles cake, for example, has been a huge hit since Jewel opened and is likely to remain on the menu. The bone marrow crème with caviar and madeleines was inspired by a dessert he made in Australia with blood meringues and macrons; and diners are snapping up his dishes of ox tongue, veal sweetbreads and roast chicken hearts. “We like the food that we’re making. We have an open kitchen and people come up to say hello and say how much they like the ‘weirdness’ of some of the dishes,” says Whitmarsh. “It’s all very rewarding. Inspiring and rewarding.”
Both Whitmarsh’s heritage and Detrich’s time spent living in the United Kingdom heavily influence the fare at Jewel of the South, from the introduction of fish and chips Fridays – a happenstance that caught fire last year during Lent and never really went away – to their still-on-the-drawing-board plans for brunch. Their idea is to present a Sunday Roast, sort of the British version of brunch. “In the UK, it’s pretty common for pubs and gastro-pubs to have a Sunday Roast where it’s usually roast beef or Beef Wellington or a whole chicken … served for the whole table and portioned out with Yorkshire pudding and smothered greens,” says Detrich. “It’s certainly a much more civilized affair than most brunches” he adds jokingly.
At the tail end of last year, Jewel of the South became fully realized with the launch of its upstairs dining room, making the tavern a multi-story “dining and drinking destination.” Hannah reigns over the 19th century bar on the ground floor, or what’s now dubbed as The Grove, where guests can drop in off the street to enjoy cocktails and small bites, reserving the courtyard and upstairs dining room for diners seeking a full-fledged meal. Both travelers and neighborhood residents alike are responding quite well to the new hot spot on St. Louis Street, dazzled by the eclectic cuisine and superior cocktail offerings. “We have a lot of great regulars already, I feel like we have more everyday,” says Detrich. “We also have a kind of uncommon occurrence where someone comes in for a drink and then cancels their reservations elsewhere to stay and dine with us. That’s kind of the best kind of thing we can hope for.”
*Article was due to be published in March 2020, but y’all know what happened! Jewel of the South was forced to close. Thankfully, it has reopened since and Chef Philip Whitmarsh is back in the kitchen. The menu has changed, but the quality has not.
**Chef photo courtesy of Denny Culbert