Reading his resume will make your mouth water. Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace, Le Cirque, French Laundry—just to name a few. And he’s fallen under the tutelage of a culinary who’s who: Alex Brennan, Thomas Keller, Julian Serrano, Alessandro Strata, Eric Ziebold.
Chef David Sorrels is carving his own culinary identity at Restaurant Calla in Lake Charles. Recently named one of the Best Chefs in Louisiana by Acadiana Profile magazine, he’s doing things differently – and deliciously.
Originally from East Texas, Sorrels moved to Lake Charles with his wife. He has embraced the food and its history and pays homage to the region in the name of his restaurant. Calla is short for Calcasieu, La., a place he now calls home.
When did you first become interested in cooking? What sparked that interest?
I first became interested in cooking as a young boy, watching my paternal grandparents – specifically my grandmother – cooking on their ranch in East Texas. I thought it was really cool how they would grow all these vegetables, pick what they wanted, then cook it for dinner. Straight from the garden to the table; that was really interesting to me. After I got the "cooking bug,” I remember spending Saturday mornings cooking breakfast while my two older sisters were watching cartoons. I’d kick everyone out of the kitchen and I made them call me "Mr. Chef.” I had a lot of fun with that, so really, it was in my blood from a young age and I’d have to say that’s very important. This is a difficult career and you have to be passionate about it. It’s either in you or it’s not.
Where do did you train to be a Chef?
All over the United States, really. After many years of reading cookbooks, food and wine magazines and anything like that I could get my hands on, I decided to go straight to one of the most respected names in fine dining: Brennan’s. I called Brennan’s of Houston and was able to speak to the sous chef. I asked him the best way to get my foot in the door. One thing led to another and I was offered a very entry level job there. I quickly realized how much I didn’t know, but I was ready to learn. I worked multiple stations and absorbed as much as I could. After about eight months, Brennan’s management gave me the chance to relocate to Las Vegas where they were opening a Commander’s Palace. I jumped at the opportunity. The high-end dining environment of Vegas really opened my eyes and I wanted to soak it all in. I started stodging, or working for free, during my time off in all the best restaurants. As a result of some contacts I made doing this, I was offered a job at Le’Cirque at the Bellagio. I continued to work at Commander’s Palace and to stodge at other high-end Vegas restaurants. One day after a shift, I was walking through a casino lobby and saw a poster in a gourmet kitchen store promoting a cookbook signing by legendary French Laundry Chef Thomas KellerI got my resume together, complete with a two-page, handwritten mission statement, and was the first in line at the book signing to hand it to Thomas Keller. About a week later, I got a message, asking me to give him a call. A job offer followed and I worked at the French Laundry for just over two years, an unparalleled experience. After that, I made my way back to Texas before we moved to Lake Charles. Throughout all these moves, I continued to stodge all over the country. In this industry, I don’t think you should ever stop learning and experimenting.
After moving to Southwest Louisiana, what were your first thoughts about local cuisine and how you would carve out your own place in the food scene here?
My first thought on the local cuisine was that it had some catching up to do, to be to quite honest. I’ve eaten at most of the restaurants in the region, and the food is really good at most of them, excellent at many. It wasn’t my style, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We’re so blessed to live right here and have wonderful shrimp, crab and even local fish, but I didn’t see a whole lot of that translate into anything other than a seared fish or a pan-fried fish on a menu. So my idea was just to be different and respect the product. Keep it simple, but not necessarily fry it. To serve vegetables that are local. When you have great proteins that you can get locally, it also tell me there are probably local farmers and local people who really care about what they’re growing, what they’re raising, what they’re doing. That’s what I want on my menu; that’s what I want on my plate.
You spent a lot of time planning and experimenting before you opened your own restaurant. How did that process help you arrive at what is now Calla?
We did. I spent a lot of time in restaurants in the area, with people in the area, talking about food. What is the cuisine of Southwest Louisiana? Is it Cajun? Is it Tex-Mex? Both? Do we want to create our own? What do we want to be known for here? I cooked meals for small groups, experimenting with menu options and getting feedback. I’d like to keep as much of our menu local, but we’re still searching for farmers and ranchers. We want to find people who have something unique to bring to us. There was also a lot of other experimentation that came with the space itself and being out in Walnut Grove and seeing this restaurant develop. What I have today is not exactly what I planned, some of it’s exactly what I envisioned, and a lot it is much better, but we’re super happy with the whole thing.
Calla is in Walnut Grove, the region’s first traditional neighborhood development. How is this a good fit for Calla?
We kind of have the same ideas and same goals. Walnut Grove is the first development of its kind in Southwest Louisiana and to me, Calla is the first in the area for what we do. I don’t think there’s a restaurant like us anywhere around. We’re both very passionate about the community and doing what we do the right way, in a way that benefits the area. I think we also feel that with all the growth going on, the time is right for a change and the community needs something different. We are both committed to taking up that challenge and offering something new instead of doing the things the way they’ve always been done. The whole Walnut Grove team has been exceptional with that, and really, that’s our philosophy with food. We’re doing things that other’s aren’t.
How do you describe your approach to menu planning?
We look at what’s good, what’s inspiring, what we want to work with and what time of year it is. I’ve always questioned why I see things like asparagus or strawberries on menus year-round when these are spring ingredients. I know I’m getting the best product when I know it’s in season, whether it’s local or not. That inspires us with menu planning. We take it from there. I have a super talented staff, and I give those guys freedom. I may own this restaurant; I might be the chef, but I don’t think for second that I can’t learn from others who are passionate and who are researching when they get home. So our menu comes from everybody here and it comes from what’s in season, what looks good, and then it’s a whole new challenge. How do we prepare it? Are we going to grill it, sauté’ it, sous-vide it? What are we going to do? So, it’s always new and fun.
How do you plan your drink menu?
Our drink program at Calla is really based off everything I’ve learned in a kitchen. All of our juices, for example, are ran through a juicer daily, so if you order our Chupacabra, our play on a margarita, it’s made with fresh pineapple, cucumber and lime juice, and fresh tequila. We have people who come in and ask for a pina-colada, or this or that, and we don’t have it. Why? Because if we don’t have the best product to juice, then we’re not going to make that drink. We try to keep as much of our alcohol as local as possible, as well. There are a lot of great local and regional distilleries. We don’t just want Crown Royal; we know you can drink that at home. We want the special bourbons and whiskeys. We have vodkas made right here in Louisiana, that are exceptional. We feel the same about our wine menu. We use a lot of small batch wines and make them available by the glass. And just like the food, because it’s a small batch and small production, we may only have it for a few months, and then we go to a new chardonnay, or a new pinot. To me our drink program is just as diversified as our food menu.
What’s your favorite dish to prepare?
Whatever that person loves to eat. Really. I think that’s almost an open-ended question for a chef because we love to play with food, we love to cook fish, meat, vegetables, salads, it doesn’t matter. It’s special when you find that dish that so many people talk about, or you run into someone and that’s what they’re talking about. You may not always do it, or know it then, but when that comes up, you know it and that’s a good feeling.
What’s the atmosphere at Calla?
We created a space we think is fun and different. A lot of people gravitate to the bar area of a restaurant because that seems to be where it’s happening. So we thought, why not make the whole space "at the bar?” Let’s make one big room where you can see everyone and everything that is going on. Then we added different elements: banquette seating against all the walls, a community table, outdoor seating, sofas and chairs, and lots of other unique details. It’s open, warm and inviting – we want people to be able to kick back, relax and spend some time here.
What’s the biggest misconception about Calla?
That we’re expensive and stuffy. That’s not what we’re going for at all. We have menu items starting at $4 ranging up to $50 or $60, just depending on what we get in, but we will always have a range of prices starting a that low end. We don’t think you should have to dress up to get gourmet food. There is no dress code at Calla. Come as you are – from the boat, golf course, office or symphony.
What’s been the biggest challenge in owning your own restaurant compared to working for someone else?
Just being on the hook. Not for the business necessarily, but just for everything that goes on. I’m so passionate about my guests and I know they could go eat anywhere. I realize that one fumble, one screw up could be devastating. That’s a stress you don’t have working for somebody else. You also don’t have to worry about labor costs, food costs, those kinds of things, so it’s definitely been a challenge to get our ducks in a row, but we feel like we have and we’re on the right path now that we’re several months in.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of owning your own restaurant?
Not having to answer to anybody but the guests. Being able to listen and pick and choose, and do what we want to do. I love having the freedom to play with food; to play with drinks. And also getting that praise. Those long days of work, work, work, work ,work and worry are justified when a guest tells you "it’s the best thing they’ve ever had.” As the owner, being able to hear that, that feeling is hard to put into words.
What are your future plans for Calla?
Right now, to stay on course and continue expanding our customer base and grow with Walnut Grove. We’ve recently added lunch and happy hours Tuesday – Friday and that is going well. We will continue to bring in new food items and new plates. We never want to be held to "go to Calla because they have this” because we may not next week. We want every visit to be a dining adventure. That’s how we keep ourselves motivated.