Take a piece of fried rabbit and top it with an egg cooked over easy. Drizzle a pickled pork jus and add some creamed collards and you have what sounds like a gussied up version of what your grandmother might have made. Growing up in rural Mississippi, Slade Rushing ate plenty of fried rabbit, and it serves as the inspiration for his now more sophisticated dish, Rushing Rabbit.
Rushing spent his childhood roaming his family’s 90-acre property outside of Tylertown, catching fish and skinning deer and rabbits for dinner more often than not.
“That freshness — taking something straight from the field to the kitchen — was imprinted on my brain,” he said. “My mom would bake blue channel catfish with just lemon, pepper and butter, and it was amazingly fresh. My dad and I would fry rabbit all the time.”
Those memories of time spent in his parents’ kitchen secured the anchor that allowed him to roam the country while honing his culinary skills but eventually putting those skills to the test close to home.
New Orleans is about an hour’s drive from his native Walthall County, and Rushing now serves as executive chef at Brennan’s, the famed flamingo pink landmark on Royal Street. Rushing Rabbit has become one of the more popular dishes on the menu.
“I grew up with an appreciation for all the resources that make great food,” Rushing said. “Opening this restaurant has been the hardest opening I’ve ever done. It’s so much like a birth for a chef. But when there’s something I’m afraid of, I know that’s the thing I need to do.”
“We are having fun tweaking the Brennan’s menus and operations to the wants and needs of our guests,” Brennan said. “A restaurant continues to evolve, especially in the first few years, and the chef’s voice and ideas are critical to the restaurant’s success.”
That voice and those ideas come to life in Rushing’s kitchen and have earned him nominations in 2015 and 2016 for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South. That voice and those ideas also are the harvest of the two decades of training, education, sacrifice and grit Rushing brings, most literally, to the table.
After graduating from high school, Rushing studied mechanical engineering at Mississippi State University. Gifted at taking things apart and reassembling them, he made good grades and enjoyed his classes. In his spare time, he was drawn to a show on the Discovery Channel called Great Chefs, Great Cities.
“At one point, I had this moment where I realized I could do this,” he said. “I’m realizing there’s an entire world out there that’s so different from what I’ve always known. I had to explore it.”
After some research on culinary schools, Rushing settled on Johnson and Wales University College of Culinary Arts in Providence, R.I.
“I think my parents thought I was bluffing until the moment I drove away in my Jeep with only an Atlas and my U-Haul behind me. I mean, I’d never been farther north than Gatlinburg, but I never turned back.
“It was the most exciting moment of my life, and I felt free to pursue a passion I couldn’t wait to dive into.”
Rushing sailed through his first culinary school class: butchery.
“I’ve always believed that when you’re good at something, you don’t really have to study,” he said. “I was absorbing every detail of my classes without really trying. It all came so naturally to me. I was ready for this.”
He interned for six months at the Palace Arms at The Brown Palace Hotel in Denver and graduated from Johnson and Wales in 1996. He moved to New Orleans where he worked at Mr. B’s Bistro and later at Chez Daniel.
“You kind of learn as much as you can at a place, then it’s time to move on,” he said. “Actually being in a kitchen and learning from chefs who have been doing this for decades is really where your education of food takes place. Culinary school is a foundation, then you get in the kitchen.”
Rushing moved to San Francisco, where he worked with Traci des Jardins and Bruce Hill before moving back to New Orleans. Back in the South, he worked at Gerard’s in downtown New Orleans and met a fellow chef named Allison Vines, who was from West Monroe, La. They both wanted to get to New York. It was the spring of 2001.
“We moved to Manhattan on a 24-hour train with two duffle bags, a little rent and deposit money,” he said. “Both of us were working very intense jobs. Then one morning in September, it all changed.”
From their window overlooking the East River, they watched the Twin Towers fall. While many people left the city in the coming months, they stuck it out.
Rushing was working at Fleur de Sel with Cyril Renaud, whom he credits as his most influential mentor.
“I bring his vision with me here at Brennan’s,” he said.
The couple got engaged and while planning their wedding, Vines received a job offer as chef for Jack Lamb, who was opening an oyster bar called Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar in the East Village. In 2003, Southern cuisine was gaining momentum in the city, and Rushing and his soon-to-be wife were perfectly suited to ride the wave.
“We have the most in-depth culinary profile in the country. Every country has their own version of soul food, and ours is found right here in the South. And when you cook from the soul, it just tastes better, whatever it is.”
The couple worked together to create the menu at Jack’s, a sort of marriage of hearts and of culinary skill. Vines became Vines-Rushing, and Rushing joined her at Jack’s. The restaurant skyrocketed to success, and Vines-Rushing received a James Beard Rising Star Award in 2004. They grew concerned, however, that the city’s obsession with Southern cuisine was a fad that would soon fade.
“I loved creating stuff with her, but it came time to move,” he said. “The pressure of Manhattan started to get to us, and we started looking at real estate in New Orleans.
“In the South, Southern food isn’t ever going to go out of style,” Rushing said. “Our food could live on forever where it came from.
“Southerners are by far the best storytellers,” he said. “Who are you going to choose to sit on a front porch with and swap stories? A Yankee or a Southerner? Some people in Mississippi tell their stories with words, some with art or pictures. I tell my stories, and the stories of the people here, with food.”
They found a property in Abita Springs, just north of New Orleans, and spent months renovating for an early September opening. They named their restaurant Longbranch and carefully planned a menu and upscale atmosphere with dreams of planting herb and produce gardens and raising chickens. It was August 2005 and Hurricane Katrina was looming.
Thirteen trees fell on the property, and their freezer of meat was lost.
“We had a decision to make,” Rushing said. “Do we stay or move back to New York? We decided to push forward and do what we went there to do.
“We were able to give people jobs and a place to feel like they were escaping the realities of their life at that time, a slice of normalcy in a wrecked world.”
They closed Longbranch just short of two years.
“Business just kind of faded,” he said.
Another offer to open a restaurant called MiLa near the French Quarter brought them to New Orleans, where they worked together for seven years. They published Southern Comfort: A New Take on the Recipes We Grew Up With, which was nominated for a James Beard Award in 2013. Then Rushing heard Brennan’s was looking for an executive chef.
“If you’re going to re-imagine a dish, it better be as good as the original or better,” Rushing said.
“Brennan’s was known for decades for its brunch, so this eggs Benedict better be the best eggs Benedict they’d ever eaten. Keeping these traditions alive is so important.”
While in the renovation process, Brennan and White invited him to prepare a dish for them, a chance to show the new owners what he was made of. He spent weeks perfecting a homemade English muffin and worked with such best-in-class ingredients as Plugra butter. He cured his own bacon and used fresh eggs.
“I was looking for a chef with the talent to create a menu that would both honor and update the classics,” Brennan said. “The result was delicious, and he got the job.”
Rushing now leads five sous chefs, 38 line cooks and one pastry chef.
“When you’re reopening an institution like Brennan’s, you’re under a ton of pressure,” he said. “You have to be fearless and a little crazy and willing to take chances and hope for the best. It’s like suddenly getting behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler when you’ve been riding a bike.”
Oren Walker, who used to work at Brennan’s, calls Rushing the best employer he’s ever had.
“I’ve never seen him break down under pressure, no matter what the situation was,” Walker said. “He always kept a cool head — always detailed-oriented. When you work with him, he doesn’t make you feel like you’re working with a boss. It’s more like working with a friend and y’all are just hanging out cause he’s so easy to get along with.”
Rushing said teamwork is the key to their success over the past two years. Brennan is pretty tickled pink, about like the outside of Brennan’s.
“In New Orleans, we are blessed with a bevy of local and regional seafood, meat and produce,” he said. “Slade’s Mississippi roots and Southern heritage inform his vision, technique and most importantly his palate. Our guests are the lucky beneficiaries of that marriage of place and purpose.”
Photos submitted by Chris Granger
‘Sip Chats with Slade Rushing
What’s the most interesting ingredient in your home fridge right now? Tripe
Who is the most interesting person you’ve ever prepared a dish for? Usher
What do your kids and wife like for you to prepare the most? French toast
Any other hobbies? I love working on boats. I have a skiff in my basement that I’m renovating. I also love a good video game.
What’s your favorite thing to cook? “My favorite thing to make goes through seasons,” he said. “Right now, it’s definitely making pizza with my wife and kids. I’m trying to get my kids involved in the kitchen, not because I want them to be chefs, but because I think they need to appreciate food and know how to properly use a fork.”
Where do you find your creative inspiration for new dishes and flavor combinations? I love getting lost in the woods, just like I did when I was a kid. Getting back to nature is very inspiring to me.
Have you ever wanted to compete on a televised cooking competition? “Allison and I have actually been asked to compete against each other on several shows, but that’s not really how we operate,” Rushing said. “We’re a team, and we like to stay that way.”
Brennan’s is located at 417 Royal St. in New Orleans. Reservations are recommended and are accepted by phone at 504-525-9711 or at www.brennansneworleans.com.