The Five Year Plan
article by Michael DeVault | photography by Brad Arender
Chef Cory Bahr’s “future” looks remarkably like the present of the customers who frequent his restaurant. Where many businesses and owners plan years down the road, Bahr’s focus is on the plate that’s in front of him and the customer at Table Seven. If that seems a bit confusing coming from one of the region’s most successful restaurateurs, just spend a day with Bahr and, suddenly, it makes far more sense.
Strolling through the Farmer’s Market, Cory Bahr takes stock of the offerings from some of the area’s local produce farmers. He pauses by some of the booths, making careful selections from among the freshest produce. At several of the stalls, he visits with the merchant. If Bahr seems like he’s a bit of a regular, that’s because he’s there almost every day.
“I use the Farmer’s Market for inspiration with what we’re doing that day,” says Bahr, who sits down with his sous chef following such visits to map out the daily specials at Restaurant Cotton and Nonna. The specials feature prominently in the establishments’ menus and rank among the most popular features in the restaurants. Bahr hedges when he’s asked what it is he’s looking for on these morning jaunts to the market.
“It depends on what’s in season, what’s available and what’s really good right now,” Bahr said. The Farmer’s Market walkthrough is one of the keys to a successful menu. Or, as Bahr puts it, “That’s where we’re drawing our inspiration every day.”
Bahr has long been visiting farmer’s markets, local food retailers and area producers of both vegetables and meats. It’s a practice he began years ago, when he was the executive chef at Canard’s. The practice continues today, even though his days are far busier than they used to be. With two restaurants, a half-dozen catering jobs and a plethora of non-profit organizations vying for his attention at any given moment, Bahr’s time has become a precious commodity, and if there’s any limit to what Bahr can accomplish, it’s a lack of additional hours in the day, which can start as early as 6 a.m. or as late as 11 a.m.
“It depends on when I’m needed, where I’m needed,” Bahr said. Having two restaurants, you get pulled in a lot of directions.” He finds himself in the car dozens of times a day, bouncing between Cotton in downtown and Nonna in the Garden District. Sometimes, those cross-town jaunts find him diverted to a meeting with suppliers or on runs to the market for that key ingredient for a lunch special. Mornings are particularly hectic, as he maps out menus, tests dishes and gets ready for lunch service–those precious three or four hours when customers pack into the restaurant for a quick mid-day bite. Not only is he in the kitchen, ensuring food quality is up to Cotton and Nonna standards, but he’s also on the floor, visiting with guests–a practice known in the industry as “touching tables.”
“People have a lot of opportunity of where to spend their money, and it’s up to me to thank them as much as I can, as often as I can,” Bahr said. Visit either of his restaurants, and it’s apparent he spends a significant portion of his time with customers. They each recognize him and can share conversational tidbits about their lives, about the progress on a house renovation or their kids’ college aspirations. He’s specialized in becoming a public face for his restaurants. For example, when a tornado knocked power out to a significant portion of the city’s population, Bahr kicked into high gear. He and his staff spent four days feeding anyone who showed up–free of charge–from the Nonna kitchen stores. He didn’t do it for the publicity or praise, but those efforts garnered both. In addition to the Nonna staff, dozens of volunteers showed up to help plate food, distribute meals and cook. Grocers, individuals and even a few charities sent over supplies to bolster the effort. In that moment, Bahr was able to see what an integral part of the community his restaurants could be.
“As the community grows, so will Cotton and Nonna,” Bahr said. “We’re progressing in a positive fashion in our community, especially as far as food offerings are concerned.” He pauses to call an order, shouting down the line for a Chicken Caesar salad, an order of duck wraps and a serving of duck fries before continuing. “A lot of that is just our natural progression. People are looking for quality and a different experience. I think coming out to Cotton or Nonna should be an experience, an opportunity to relax and to enjoy your life.”
By mid-afternoon, after lunch service has ended, Bahr’s attention shifts slightly. He confers with suppliers via phone about what products they have on special, what interesting or new ingredients they’re offering. These conversations are often held in conjunction with his sous chefs, who help shape the seasonal menus. “We look at what we’ve got and then we try to develop new and unique ways to use the products we have coming in, whether it’s pork cheeks to fish collars,” Bahr said.
In addition to looking at supplier availables, Bahr also discusses cooking techniques and innovations in the kitchen. Recently, Cotton built a new smoker. Constructed near the Ouachita on the rear of the building, the smoker gives off an intense heat, and peering at the river gives the impression of a mirage. Tending the smoker, Bahr is right at home.
“I’m spending a lot more time at Cotton right now, really trying to add to it,” Bahr said. “We’re exploring some new flavors and new techniques. We’re really trying to develop new thought processes in what we are doing.”
Bahr is not afraid to take risks and to put essentially everything–even his reputation–on the line for that next dish. These high stakes risks have paid off, too. When he gambled on an appearance on the Food Network’s hit series Chopped, he walked away a champion. Entry into the Louisiana state seafood cook-off saw him crowned Louisiana Seafood King in 2011, this in spite of the fact that his restaurants are both more than 350 miles as the crow flies from the nearest beach. Yet, it’s not about accolades and magazine covers. It’s about something more basic.
“Awards mean nothing unless we’re serving great food to the customers who come inside our four walls,” Bahr said. If customer response and repeat traffic is any indication, Cotton and Nonna are succeeding on this front. By mid-afternoon, the phone is ringing and the staff are busy sharing upcoming specials, taking to-go orders and booking reservations. Around 4 p.m., Bahr is back on the line at Cotton, helping prep for dinner service.
By 5 p.m., the restaurant is hopping. A busy after-work bar service means a flood of appetizer orders. Some of the bar patrons convert to tables and then order dinner. Other customers come in, some with reservations, some without, and by 6:30 p.m., there is a wait for a table. A similar situation is unfolding across town at Nonna, where the patio provides additional seating and an extra bar area. It’s between this busy crush and that 4 p.m. prep that Bahr does his only “long term planning” when he touches base with the hostesses at both restaurants.
“We check reservations, looking at things like VIPs coming in who I may need to visit with, and then plan out dinner service,” Bahr said. Once that’s set, it’s off to the races for the dinner rush. By the end of the evening, he’s able to take a break, wander among the tables and chat with the stragglers. A Mason jar of ice water tinkles in his hand as he answers questions about the food, talks up a special catering event he has around the corner and teases the weekend’s specials. In this moment, Bahr is absolutely in his element, and it’s easy to see why customers flock back again and again.
Moments later, when asked about what the future holds, Bahr laughs dismissively, as if to ask what future. “The future is always really ‘right now’ for us. It’s the next guest coming in the door,” Bahr said. And with that, he has to call another order to the line.
That’s not to say Bahr doesn’t see the distant future–that five year plan most businesses operate from. Indeed, he sees his restaurants as an integral part of the community he’s helping to create. He’s talked previously of opening a boutique hotel, an old fashioned, gourmet provisionary with homemade sausages and specialty cheeses, and other avenues for expanding the burgeoning foodie culture in Monroe. But, he stops just short of saying what will happen when. “We do think quite far in advance, but really, it’s about the here and now,” Bahr said.