Dishing with Bill Briand – An Interview

If food is the heart and soul of a restaurant, then the chef is the Master of the Universe. At Fisher’s, Bill Briand is that chef, and here he dishes up how he became a chef, his culinary point of view, and how he keeps Fisher’s cuisine so freshly elevated.

Chef Bill Briand creates delicious food at Fisher's in Orange Beach

In the short time it’s been open, Fisher’s has received a plethora of favorable press for being a bright, inviting, modern-yet-homey fresh seafood restaurant that serves quality, elevated cuisine on both of its menus.  With such a glowing reputation, it only made sense to get behind the scenes—and into the kitchen—to meet the Chef de Cuisine, Bill Briand, and to see what makes Fisher’s cuisine so exquisitely refreshing in a culinary culture where buzzwords like “fresh” and “sustainable” are thrown around like finishing salt.

The Man behind the Menu – How Bill Got His Chef Whites

When I met with Bill, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was excited not only because I think chefs are flavor magicians, but also because he trained with Emeril Lagasse who in my Fantasy Family League would be my cool uncle (when I told Bill this, he laughed and said that Emeril would be an awesome uncle).  Bill quickly revealed himself to be a thoughtful, laid back chef of integrity, and he had no problem divulging how he came to wear a chef hat for a living.

Once upon a time, Bill was a college kid working as a food runner in New Orleans, and like most college kids, didn’t really have a focus for his life yet.  It was during a particularly slammed night at the restaurant when an otherwise uneventful occurrence twisted the knife of fate in Bill’s life.  The salad guy walked out mid-shift, and the chef said, “Bill get on salads.”

“It just went from there,” Bill recalls, “it was something I was interested in, and I really started following.  And then I started working every station in the kitchen.  I wanted more.”

It was in his quest for more that he came to Emeril’s.  While walking around downtown New Orleans looking at restaurants, he took a chance by knocking on the backdoor of one of Emeril’s restaurants, and though they weren’t taking applications, they agreed to let him try out.

The then head chef of Emeril’s restaurant, Chris Wilson, took Bill under his wing teaching him the ins and outs about running a restaurant (because it’s more than just knowing how to cook); Bill learned how to get food, to cost it, to make it, etc.; he also learned how to run a kitchen explaining that, Chris was “like a leader every night going into war.”

Enjoy delicious food at Fisher's Restaurant in Orange Beach headed by chef Bill Briand

“How much New Orleans influence is here (at Fisher’s)?”

The City of New Orleans and Louisiana in general have an intimacy and a vivacity usually only found in the atmosphere of close family gatherings. That same quality is in Fisher’s as Bill points out that the front door has “Love & Respect” above it and that they treat their employees like family (even the uniform t-shirts say family, not staff across the back).

Like a true family, every day before service, the entire staff sits down together for a Southern dinner.  It was with this revelation that I truly fell in love with Fisher’s concept because I can only imagine how this simple gathering serves to solidify a team’s unity, which surely translates into the guest’s experience.

“What’s your culinary point of view?”

“We do ‘simple’—there’s only three or four flavors on a plate.  I like it to be light; there’s not a lot of heavy roux-based things on the menu (other than the gumbo).  It’s simple food done correctly; flavors are where it’s at.”

Bill’s approach lets the fresh ingredients speak for themselves; though, he admits that at the beginning, “I was all about heavy and meat sauces … lots of butter.  Now, I just like to taste things, so if the menu says “watercress”, it (watercress) should be a flavor profile.

Enjoy delicious food at Fisher's Restaurant in Orange Beach

“Balance is very important in order to make something taste good.”  He uses lots of fresh herbs, local greens, pickled produce, etc.  “Flavors help each other out.  We do a kale salad with charred lemon vinaigrette, and grated bottarga, which is cured mullet roe—it seems weird, but the flavors are so balanced.  You have this ocean saltiness that you wouldn’t think would work until you eat it.”

“What’s on the menu for fall?”

“That’s (the winter) when the greens and seasonal fish will come back.  We’ll put a meat dish on, and we’ll do a rabbit, maybe some duck. You never want to do the same menu,” Bill goes on pre-emptively answering my next question regarding what will happen next summer—will they invent a new menu or bring back the same one.

“You have hits,” he says of the soon-to-be retired summer menu, “we’ll have a few of those.  You just have to remember those that are great and bring them back some time.  I always bring back the great ones as a special.”

“How often does fresh stuff come in?”

“Weekly.”  Bill goes to local markets, meets with farmers, and makes requests, so farmers will grow what he wants in the quantities he needs.  Small farms come to the restaurants and Bill will use what he can. When it comes to the fish, Bill gets seafood that he can track—see where it’s from and who caught it, how it was caught, etc.  Also, “everything comes in whole—it’s the only way to guarantee freshness,” Bill says expertly.

It’s in this area that Bill’s years of experience as a butcher come in very handy. Bill uses the “waste” to make richly flavored stocks and other dishes.  “Fish cheeks are as flavorful as pork cheeks,” he reveals.

Enjoy Oysters Earle at Fishers restaurant, headed by chef Bill Briand

Oftentimes, a fish that was brought into the restaurant on any given morning will be the one that’s served for dinner that night; Bill says that he “will show customers photos of the fish that they butchered that morning.”

Also, being on the water, it’s not uncommon for customers to catch their own fish, which Bill says they’ll cook (a concept called “Hook & Cook”).  When a kid around seven years-old brought his catch in, Bill took the extra time to show the kid how to clean and cook his prize.

“Why are they called trash fish?”

I ask this in response to Bill enthusiastically telling me that they use “trash fish”, like scorpion fish, because “it keeps it exciting, and they’re delicious.  It’s great for the guys in the kitchen (to challenge themselves), and the customers like it.”

Bill clarifies that trash fish are deemed such because “they’re smaller and harder to clean.  Little fish aren’t worth the time for someone to spend an hour scaling and cleaning a little fish.”  So, these little delicacies don’t make the specials menu often, but when they get them, they use them.

To figure out the best way to serve them, Bill says he and his team will “try five different preparations because they don’t always cook the same or taste as good; barracuda as steak wouldn’t be good (grilled with a sprinkle of lemon).  It takes a little more attention.”

What’s your favorite dish?

“The stuffed flounder—it will probably never come off the menu.  There’s like one in a 1,000 who don’t like it.  If I see it, I’m getting it.” Served with a shrimp cornbread dressing, the fish is hinge-cut, so it looks like it has a tail but is boneless, and “you can just eat it; it’s awesome.”

What’s your favorite thing to cook at home?

“I try to cook something different at home.” Bill explains that he likes to pick a country and work with that cuisine.  Right now, it’s “Moroccan food cooked in the tagine.  Anything that’s different to keep your brain different, different flavors … it’s how you keep your mind in this.”

Are there any dishes you have to tell people how to eat, so they can get the full effect?

“The dishes are composed; you want a little bit of everything in the same bite.”  Bill adds, “Hangar steak is sliced in the back because it has to be sliced thin against the grain.  If it’s thick, it’s tough.”

To his cooks, Bill advises, “Taste everything.  Every station has hot sauce, olive oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper.  You want balance.”

He also notes that he and his sous chef sample everything and are involved in the majority of the work that goes on in the restaurant 90% of the time. “I don’t want to have a restaurant where the chef doesn’t have a hand in everything.”

The best part of the job?

“The funnest part of being a chef is being on the line.  A lot of the time, you’re on the line, you’re cooking, you’re teaching.  Teaching is the best part of being a chef.  I had a bunch of good guys when I was young teach me.  I want to teach those guys (his team at Fisher’s).  It’s a test of that guy who taught us.”

If you’re like me and hungry for more, check out Fisher’s Upstairs and Fisher’s Dockside menus at their website and make plans to have a truly fresh, sustainable, luxurious waterfront dining experience at the hands of a very capable chef.

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