Love of Natchez brings chef to the Carriage House

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 17, 2009

NATCHEZ — Two years ago, Richard “Bingo” Starr made his first visit to Natchez as part of the annual Food and Wine Festival. And since that event, the chef said he has been looking for a way to come back.

“When I was younger I always traveled up (U.S.) 61 to hunting camps and lakes,” Starr said. “But until the food and wine festival, I had never been in Natchez. But I just fell in love with it.”

Starr, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America trained finally got his wish on May 1 when he stepped into the kitchen at the Carriage House restaurant.

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Starr, prior to coming to Natchez operated a catering company, Heirloom Cuisine, in St. Francisville, La., but missed the unique experience cooking in a restaurant provides.

“In a restaurant, the customer is right there and your food is right there,” Starr said. “It is instant gratification you can’t get with only catering.”

But, the experienced restaurant chef knew the long hours associated with working in a restaurant kitchen, so he wasn’t going to take just any job. He said the Carriage House, with its lunch and catering offerings, was just the fit he was looking for.

“When Regina (Charbonneau) sent me the e-mail about this opportunity, it was exactly what I had been praying for,” Starr said. “Natchez is all the things I loved about New Orleans but magnified because of the hospitality of the people.”

So Starr made the move to Natchez and hasn’t slowed down since his first day in the kitchen.

Starr said he quickly got to work making changes to the menu that would bring the restaurant’s offerings more in-line with his culinary view.

But, he said, because of the popularity of the restaurant, he isn’t making drastic changes.

“I’m keeping with the traditions of the Carriage House and just trying to make the food more modern,” Starr said. “I’m using new, more modern cooking techniques and a lot of fresh ingredients.”

One of the changes Starr has made has been revamping the presentation of the Carriage House’s famous tomato aspic. Starr said the dish has been served on a bed of lettuce with a dollop of mayonnaise.

But now, the dish is served in a footed glass dish on a spring mix with a herb aioli.

“It’s just dressed up a bit,” Starr said.

He has also added some of his own dishes to the menu including one he calls the Carriage House country casserole.

“It’s like Sunday dinner all in one,” he said.

Pilgrimage Garden Club president Sis Stowers said Starr’s presence in the kitchen hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“Everyone is raving about his food,” she said. “He has been wonderfully received.”

And while there was a bit of nervousness when he began making changes, Starr definitely isn’t a rookie in the kitchen. He was the chef at the five diamond rated Windsor Court in New Orleans, worked under Emeril Lagasse in New Orleans and was named the best new chef by New Orleans magazine for while he was the chef at Restaurant Cuvée.

He was also rated as one of the top 20 best new chefs in 2000 by Esquire magazine.

Stowers said Natchez was fortunate to have a chef with the resume of Starr’s.

“He has a fantastic resume and has worked in some of the most respected places,” Stowers said. “And he wanted to come to Natchez. It has been a good fit on both sides.”

“Most of my food is inspired by upscale dishes that I want to put a fresh take on,” Starr said.

And so far, Starr said all the changes he has made at the Carriage House have been well received.

“Out of all the thousands we have served since I’ve been here, I’ve only had three tell me that I ruined their lives,” he said. “So I think we are doing pretty good.”