By Bruce Collier
One cooks, one directs. Both have been best friends for 29 years. Chef Chris Mongogna and Assistant Director of Operations Jason Jaume are native New Orleanians and high school football buddies. Now they’re parents whose respective families cook, eat and hang out together.
Together they cover the bases at three of restaurateur A.J. Tusa’s area dining spots—Hammerhead’s Bar & Grille, Roberto’s Pizzeria and Poppy’s Seafood Factory. Despite having worked until around 2 a.m. the night before, both met with The Beachcomber mid-morning in the dining room/bar of Hammerhead’s.
Mongogna recalls that their earliest gig together was working for a plumber. Chris stuck with the trade and got his own independent plumbing business. Jason moved over into the thriving New Orleans food industry. Cracking the restaurant business was not easy for him, says Mongogna, until Hurricane Katrina provided a break.
Many restaurants closed, many chefs and staffers left town and never came back. Mongogna’s wife told him about a job opportunity. He had always enjoyed cooking, and worked part-time, learning on the line. On Mongogna’s first night at the fryer station a crowd of freshly graduated Tulane students walked in the place. Then the electricity went out. “We had to cook out of the back door,” he recalls. Eventually he was offered a full-time job and, at age 36, was a professional cook.
Jaume started as a dishwasher in his teens, then spent 26 years doing every job there was in restaurants and nightclubs, from cleaning to bartending to cooking, and eventually ownership.
Mongogna followed Restaurant Fire to Florida, and worked as a pastry chef, then executive chef. Jason says he “helped out a little.” One of Mongogna’s most popular desserts at Fire was a sticky toffee cake, named Dessert of the Year for 2012 in The Beachcomber. Mongogna got the recipe from a woman who made him promise never to share it with anyone. He keeps the promise.
Jaume was looking to reduce his working hours and open a po’boy and New Orleans-style snoball shop on 30A. He and Mongogna had been weekend cooks together for years, feeding an average of 20 friends and relations every Sunday. In 2013 Jaume moved here and the two joined forces to open Marigny, resolving to offer a menu of dishes cooked the New Orleans way. “No spins or takes on it” was their objective.
Marigny drew a loyal following, but eventually closed. Enter fellow New Orleanian A.J. Tusa, who already had a string of flourishing restaurants in the Crescent City and had expanded here. Poppy’s needed a chef. Jaume was not interested in cooking this time, so Mongogna “jumped at the chance,” and Jaume signed on as assistant director of operations under Tusa.
In the multi-story restaurant building at the Village of Baytowne Wharf, Poppy’s Seafood Factory occupies the upstairs while Hammerhead’s attracts a party crowd downstairs. Roberto’s is in a separate building at Baytowne. Both men are “really proud” of Poppy’s menu.
The Poppy’s Seafood Factory menu offers soups, salads, apps, a selection of oyster dishes, steaks and lobster, steamed seafood, house specialties, coastal fare and desserts. Diners who know New Orleans and continental cuisine will recognize remoulade, ravigote, gumbo and andouille, oysters Rockefeller, Casino and Bienville, chicken Clemenceau, BBQ shrimp, grouper Pontchartrain, and lobster Thermidor.
There’s an abundance of lobster (Maine lobster, live from a tank) and lobster-based dishes. For so much lobster, prices are surprisingly reasonable, thanks to the kitchen buying in quantity. Desserts are a mix of Coastal (Tusa insisted they offer key lime pie, a local must-have), Italian (cannoli), Louisiana (pecan bread pudding with Steen’s cane syrup) and hybrid (Florida citrus ice-box pie). Sadly, there’s no sticky toffee cake—Mongogna says he’s retired from it.
Roberto’s offers pizza and traditional Italian fare, and Hammerhead’s menu lists fried and boiled seafood, burgers, tacos, sandwiches, platters and bar snacks.
As for their restaurant philosophy, Jaume and Mongogna are deeply grounded in traditional New Orleans cuisine, informed by and filtered through their own personal experience. Their long friendship allows them to sit down together and brainstorm ideas. Tusa also participates—”A.J. gives a lot of feedback,” says Jaume.
Their workday typically begins at around 9 a.m., and can go all the way through to the early hours. Both are fully vested in their jobs, as if they were in their own restaurants. Off-duty, they still cook together on weekends and Jaume coaches Little League football. As for Mongogna, he has two daughters, but “I say I play golf,” he adds.
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