Kristen Essig, the culinary mastermind and owner of Coquette, said it perfectly, “[she] wanted to do something that made [her] happy, and didn’t require wearing panty hose all day.” And this desire to do something she truly loved stemmed from the conversations around the dinner table. “Dinner was a thing for us, and you never missed it. But it was around the table I was able to hear my parents and how much they didn’t enjoy what they were doing. I came to the realization early that my parents did everything for my sister and I to provide for us, but they never really enjoyed what they were doing.”
And with that mindset, Essig found cooking. She’d spend the early part of her teenage years assisting her grandmother in the kitchen and peeling carrots for a family friend’s catering business. Upon graduating high school, Essig went to culinary school.
Not many 20 year olds get to say they have Emeril Delmonico’s phone number, but if it wasn’t for him, Essig would not have ended up in New Orleans. At an event in Charleston, South Carolina the two connected for the first time, and by the end of the night he had offered her a job as an assistant on his new cooking show.
“I didn’t take the job, T.V. cooking shows were not popular at that time and there was no way I could tell my mom I dropped out of school to go be on T.V.” After 2 years of culinary school, Essig felt as though she was learning more off premise than on, so she decided to stop college and start working in kitchens. However, she remembered the conversation she had with Emeril and called him asking for a job. Just like that she embarked on her new journey to New Orleans.
In 2004, upon leaving professional kitchens, Essig found comfort working for Crescent City Farmers Market every Tuesday and Thursday. She managed 30 different small business, curating valuable relationships. I learned that, “These people needed money to afford braces and a college education for their children; the best part about that was creating relationships behind what you think is what you’re looking for, but what you are really looking for is the human connection.” To this day, Essig still maintains these relationships. “I think making sure there is a story and a connection behind a product is the most satisfying to me.” However, with every job there are highs and lows and not everything about the culinary world is buenisimo.
For Essig, it’s the accumulated pressure she puts on herself. Although she is honored when people want to work with her because she is a female chef, it also can feel like a backhanded compliment. “I put a lot of pressure on myself for success, and it could be because it is difficult for most people to see past the fact that I am a woman; I wonder sometimes, are they bringing me here because I am a lady or because I am a chef.” Over the years working in and out of kitchens, Essig learned that is it is very easy to let the success of others dictate how one should feel and where one should be professionally.
However, being able to prove yourself and live up to your own expectations is what truly matters. “It is very important to take care of yourself and determine your own self-worth, and determine what you are happy and proud of. “ That being said, Essig has truly proven herself as an influential chef in New Orleans. She has been awarded and named many prestigious titles, and if it wasn’t for the informal conversations around the dinner table, Essig wouldn’t be where she is today.
P.S. If you happen to visit Coquette, try the pan seared snapper, it’s her favorite!
PHOTOS: Maya Curto