By Beth D'Addono | NOLA.com
It’s good to be king.
Just ask chef Robert Vasquez, who was crowned King of Louisiana Seafood on Nov. 3.
The 13th annual Louisiana Seafood Cookoff wasn’t held at its customary kitchen stadium, taking place virtually instead. But Vasquez killed it anyway, beating nine of the state’s top chefs with his simple dish of red snapper with crawfish sofrito.
“I’m a purist,” says Vasquez, who’s the executive chef at PePe’s Sonoran Cuisine in Covington. “There’s going to be a star ingredient in the dish, and there’s also a supporting cast. I’m always looking for more flavor, less complexity.”
It’s a creed he subscribes to at PePe’s, which is part of the three-restaurant group owned by Osman Rodas, who was a customer at his previous eatery, Opal Basil, which opened in Mandeville and moved to New Orleans. Vasquez ran that micro-cafe, situated just off the Tammany Trace, from 2013 to 2017, before pivoting to consult with Michael Maenza’s MMI Culinary. “We always talked about doing something together,” Vasquez says. “When he came to me, I felt ready to get back in the business.”
Vasquez, 57, has been in hospitality for decades, handling just about every kind of job, from managing banquets for Marriott to upping the culinary ante at Whole Foods and Rouses to handling his own restaurant, and now heading the kitchen for another restaurateur. “We have an 8-year-old, and this job lets me fulfill my responsibility in life as a father, but also give me times to create,” Vasquez says.
The chef is self taught and has followed his own instincts. “I’m a chef/hustler,” he says of his open-minded approach to working with food. “I’ve done so many different jobs — I move around a lot to learn new skills.”
His first real break was getting promoted from executive steward to chef de cuisine at Marquesa, a French fine-dining concept at the Scottsdale Princess Resort. His career with Marriott eventually brought him to New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina.
For the past 30 years, he’s worked closely with his mentor, chef Cary Neff, who currently is vice president of corporate culinary services at Morrison Healthcare, which includes Ochsner. “He still counsels me,” Vasquez says. “And my wife works for him as assistant director of the nutrition program there.”
Experience in kitchens in Spain, Mexico, Bermuda, Singapore and Louisiana inform the menu at PePe’s, an innovative take on the cuisines of Mexico and the American Southwest. The menu includes braised duck and cheddar taquitos and a grilled pork belly tamale with chorizo and avocado, topped with a fried egg.
Fresh fish and seafood, along with seasonal vegetables and herbs, are the stars of street style tacos, sopes, enchiladas, churros and more, and there are plenty of vegetarian options. There is a fine pairing of crab and cactus over fries, and the lobster and the queso quesadilla board go well with a house margarita. Tacos come filled with chorizo and manchego, al pastor with grilled pineapple, fried shrimp and beef picadillo. Entrees, which are served with rice and pinto beans, include queso or chicken adobo enchiladas, lime-cilantro chicken relleno and of course, the seared red snapper dish that earned him the Louisiana seafood crown.
The competition is run by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. Vasquez will represent Louisiana at events showcasing the state’s seafood in the coming year.
In his career, Vasquez has focused at times on consulting and corporate work, but in recent years he was looking to get back in the kitchen. When Rodas approached him to take over PePe’s last year, the time was right. With the chance to be creative and consult with Rodas’ other restaurants, Pardos and Forks and Corks, as well as mentor chefs in his own kitchen, the balance between home and work life felt right.
Although the pandemic has impacted business at PePe’s, restaurants on the Northshore aren’t as dependent on tourism as they are in New Orleans.
“We took off a few weeks and then just did take out,” Vasquez says. “When we finally reopened, it felt like opening a new restaurant again, with all the safety protocols in place.”
Currently at 50% occupancy, Vasquez’s priority is to keep staff and guests safe. “I know people are tired — sometimes they don’t want to wear a mask. But it’s just how things are now. It won’t last forever.”