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Commander's Palace restaurant in New Orleans is among the most highly-touted and award-winning restaurants in the United States. Several former executive chefs from there have become celebrities, most notably Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. From 1990 to 2001, the kitchen was overseen by Executive Chef Jamie Shannon, a ponytail-wearing, motorcycle-riding genius. Chef Jamie died of cancer in 2001 when he was only 40 and in the prime of his career.

Jamie Shannon was born in 1961 and grew up in New Jersey. He received his formal training at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He was planning to move to California and was just looking for a job in New Orleans that would last a few months when he landed a job at Commander's where Emeril was executive chef. He worked his way up through the chef ranks, working first with sauces, salads, and hors d'oeuvres, then becoming the morning and brunch cook, the sous chef, and the executive sous chef. He took over the roll of executive chef in 1990 when Emeril left to open the first of his own restaurants.

He was known for his innovative use of traditional New Orleans fare, reworking crawfish and oyster dishes, as well as for his outgoing and vibrant demeanor. His employer said of him, "He was the quintessential hospitality person. He wanted to make people happy." Under his term as executive chef, Commander's was named best restaurant in the US by the James Beard Foundation, and Chef Jamie was tapped as the Foundation's best chef in the southeastern United States.

Food guru Tom Fitzmorris in his column, the New Orleans Daily Menu, eulogized Chef Jamie with a top ten list:

These are the best dishes from Jamie's hand, in my opinion. And I know I missed a bunch of them--you'd have to eat at Commander's once or twice a week to keep up with the guy.

1. Salt-baked whole fish.; I'll never forget the first time I had this, at the chef's table in the kitchen. A whole red snapper was hidden under a pile of kosher salt and baked -- and that was about it. No sauce. Nothing but the essence of the fish itself. Not salty a bit -- just juicy.

2, 3, and 4. Chef Jamie's Special Lunch. It was about twice the price of the standard Commander's lunch, and worth every penny. Example: Seared foie gras (this was before everybody was serving it), crab cakes made of solid crabmeat held together in a hash-brown ring until serving, and real shortcake with strawberries.

5. Lyonnaise fish. A trout fillet covered with what amounted to oniony, fine hash browns. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the chef, now on the permanent menu.

6. Air-dried duck. Jamie was fascinated by an ancient approach to game: let it hang for days until it becomes naturally tender. They did this with chickens, too, to great effect.

7. Crab and corn johnny cakes topped with caviar. Simple. Great.

8. Seafood gumbo. Jamie used to make a style of gumbo that employed such beautiful, big seafoods that it was more like a seafood platter with gumbo sauce at the bottom of the plate. A meal in itself.

9. Buttermilk fried frogs' legs. Jamie loved frogs' legs, and put a lot of work into obtaining them. The idea for the buttermilk marinade -- common in fried chicken recipes -- was inspired.

10. Speckled-belly goose gumbo. I don't think they ever used that kind of goose in the restaurant, but the idea was inspired by the success of one of Jamie's hunting trips.

Chef Jamie's obituary in the Times-Picayune: http://www.nola.com/news/t-p/metro/index.ssf?/newsstory/r_shannon24.html
Gumbopages (scroll down to November 26 and 27): http://www.gumbopages.com/looka/archive/2001-11.html
Commander's Kitchen: Take Home the True Tastes of New Orleans with More Than 150 Recipes from Commander's Palace Restaurant by Ti Adelaide Martin and Jamie Shannon, published in 2000 by Broadway Books.

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