Late nights, wine and good bar food are a specialty of William “Trey” Smith, chef and owner of New Orleans eatery Saint-Germain.
You may be able to thank Chapultepec Lupita, a popular Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston, for inspiring one of New Orleans’ top chefs.
In his years at Rice, William “Trey” Smith ’06 recalls, “If you knew where to go [in Houston], there were some really good late-night places.” Now he has his own wine bar and restaurant, Saint-Germain in NOLA’s hip Bywater neighborhood, which is open until midnight during the week and 2 a.m. on weekends. “We’re serving bar food all night,” he says.
But don’t expect frozen mozzarella sticks. After Rice, Smith went on to law school but also worked at a brewery, where he learned to make beer and cooked under a Bavarian master chef. He was inspired to leave law school with just a few credits left in order to study at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
He did his externship at Restaurant August, where he fell in love with New Orleans. He joined chef Michael Gulotta as chef de cuisine at Asian-influenced MoPho, then Maypop. But before that, Gulotta also provided Smith the opportunity to work on the border of Germany’s Black Forest and Alsace, France. Regular jaunts to Paris cemented a deep love for modern bistros like Frenchie and Septime. “It’s just so casual, and yet the food is as inspired and as good [as more formal restaurants],” he says.
So when it came time to open his own restaurant with co-chef Blake Aguillard and general manager Drew DeLaughter last year, it was clear that there was a hole to be filled in the New Orleans market for just such a casual French spot. In the style of his favorite Parisian eateries, which serve natural wines supplemented by sister wine bars across the street from the restaurants, Saint-Germain is a hybrid, part wine bar, part destination eatery.
But even the bar is a worthy stop for fans of great cuisine. “We joke that we want to serve the best food you can get wearing a T-shirt,” says Smith. That means a bar menu that includes homemade cheese and chicken liver pâté, both served with naturally leavened bread that Smith makes in-house.
The byproducts of the bar food supply the finest dishes in the restaurant. Smith uses potato peels from the bar’s hand-cut fries to make the intense potato stock that flavors the sweetbread appetizer — playing on the classic dish of sweetbreads and pommes purées. The meat is poached in the whey left over from cheesemaking before it’s fried crisp. Fermented scraps from motley greens that local farmers bring to the kitchen top the dish.
Smith, wearing a Rice baseball cap, presents his dishes in the dining room with purposeful explanations of what he’s created. It’s partly to keep his long hair in place in the kitchen, but also a nod to the place where he says he learned to make his entrepreneurial dreams a reality.