Sibley named executive chef at Monmouth

Published 12:17 am Sunday, February 13, 2011

NATCHEZ — Monmouth Plantation’s new Executive Chef Eric Sibley learned to love food at his grandmother’s house on Sundays when the family would gather to eat.

“She cooked Creole French food, and it was just so good,” Sibley said of his ma mère, French for “grandmother.”

Sibley was born and raised in Baton Rouge.

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While Sibley’s interest in food marinated around his grandmother’s table, he had to pay his dues in many kitchens as a stagier — someone who works in a kitchen without being paid.

“Basically you come knocking at restaurants and ask to work for a day or two, picking herbs, chopping vegetables and watching,” Sibley said. “They want to see if you’re a good fit.”

Sibley said there is no restaurant scene quite like the fast-paced restaurant business in Chicago, where he studied at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago.

“I think most chefs thrive on high pressure,” Sibley said.

As a line cook, Sibley said after 10 months he could operate his station with his eyes closed.

“It becomes muscle memory,” he said.

Sibley said kitchen managers handle a lot more than food. They are in charge of inventory, scheduling and logistics.

“But I never want to become one of those chefs who spends more time behind a desk than in the kitchen.”

Sibley says he inspects every plate before it leaves the kitchen.

“There’s a meaning behind every plate,” Sibley says, “If there is something on there you can’t eat, then it doesn’t make sense. Every component on the plate must have a reason.”

Sibley said the first component is flavor.

“Even if a guest is trying one thing on the plate, I want them to be able to enjoy it by itself,” Sibley said. “The other components are visual appeal and sustenance.

“I like to do a lot of contrasting with different flavors and temperatures,” he said. “If you come in here and get a hot bowl of soup, the interior garnish will be cold.”

Sibley said no food should ever be scalding hot or too cold, as the flavor is lost in the extreme temperature.

Sibley said the idea at Monmouth is to appeal to all tastes. For $48 guests can enjoy the “Best of the South,” a tasting of five courses from the 1818 dinner menu.

For a decade Sibley has worked as a chef, even serving as chef de cuisine for nine months at 1818 at Monmouth — the restaurant numbered for the year the plantation was established, and Monmouth is his second executive chef gig. Before coming to Natchez, he was executive chef at a restaurant in New Orleans that was voted one of the top-five new restaurants.

1818 at Monmouth has a chef’s tasting table menu that changes once a week. The restaurant’s regular menu changes twice a week. Sibley said the reason behind changing the menu is two-fold.

“First, we want to maximize freshness,” he said. “And this way weekend guests can enjoy three different menus.”

Sibley said the needs and wants of the guest is his focus. Vegetarians can call two days ahead of time, and Sibley said he is happy to accommodate them with a special dish free of animal byproducts. The same goes for guests who would like something special.

“If you let me know ahead of time, I’ll do my best to get it,” he said.

Sibley said there are three stages to becoming a chef.

“First it’s a job, then it’s an art and finally it becomes a passion,” he said. “I picked a career I am passionate about. I can’t image doing anything else. And the great thing about being a chef, I can go anywhere in the world and get a job.”

Sibley said that when he’s old, he would like to teach or work as a food writer.

Unless he’s slammed in the kitchen, Sibley says his goal is to talk to as many tables as possible.

“I don’t think of the guests as customers,” Sibley said. “If there is ever a complaint, I try to get their number and call them, ask what could be better and generally let them know that I’m thinking of them.”

Sibley was named executive chef at Monmouth just three weeks ago.

“My first day here, I saw potential in this place that I’d never seen before,” he said. “It reminded me of the French Laundry restaurant in California, where my culinary influence, Thomas Keller, is executive chef. That’s the only place I can compare Monmouth to.”

Sibley said that Keller has had a huge influence on his culinary style, but he is a little intimidated by it at the same time.

“Once you get a status like that, you have to keep it.”

Monmouth is a AAA four-diamond establishment.

“I am trying to live up to those expectations,” Sibley said. “We are using new age techniques in this kitchen, and we want it to be hard, serving things Natchez has never seen, so guests keep coming back. Who wants to go to a restaurant and eat what you can cook at home? Being a chef takes a lot of dedication. If you aren’t dedicated, you’ll never reach full potential.”

Sibley’s favorite food is the comfort of a hot bowl of risotto, especially in the wintertime. His favorite protein is sweet breads, or the thymus gland of a veal cow.

“Imagine,” Sibley said, describing sweet breads. “It’s crispy on the outside and soft and tasty on the inside.”

Sibley said the hardest part of being an executive chef in Natchez is the lack of cooks like he would find in a big city.

“But my cooks here are awesome,” Sibley said. “The line cooks and dishwashers in Natchez are as good as any I worked with in Chicago.”

To make dinner reservations at Monmouth, call 601-442-5852 or 800-828-4531 for reservations.