I was sorry to hear about the passing of Robert Barker, the chef at Salt Lake City’s Bambara restaurant from 2003-2007. He was just 44 years old when he died Saturday morning at his home in New Orleans.
I’ve been in South Carolina the past few days (which will be the subject of another post tomorrow), and Bambara’s publicist Karen Boe passed along Robert’s obituary from his aunt, Robin, Blut.
I interviewed Robert several times, and ate some of his New Orleans-inspired dishes while he was at Bambara. Most memorable is the time that he and some other chefs donned pink tutus to publicize the Taste of the Nation fund-raiser! Another time he shared a favorite lamb recipe using local Morgan Valley lamb (photo below is from that Deseret News story, showing Barker with Morgan Valley lamb owners Jamie and Linda Gillmor). He packed a lot of cooking experience into the short years of his life. He worked for celebrity chefs Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse, started his own restaurant, and was involved in a book honoring America’s best chefs. Here’s his obituary:
Robert Barker, a chef who took his New Orleans training and love of its food to Salt Lake City and restaurants across the country, died Saturday morning at his home in New Orleans, LA. He was 44.
"It was unexpected," said his mother, Robin Blut. “ But we believe it was his heart.”
The Houston-born chef was graduated from the Delgado Culinary Arts Apprenticeship Program in New Orleans, and continued his training at Arnaud’s restaurant in that city, beginning in 1986. Barker distinguished himself there, and in 1992 was hired by celebrated chef Wolfgang Puck, and moved to California.
“Robert was a passionate, talented cook and we will all miss him. The only thing I can think is that God probably needed a new chef who could not only make great pizza and wonderful fish dishes but also train the chefs in heaven,” Puck said, on learning of Barker’s death.
In 1998, Barker returned to New Orleans as Executive Sous Chef at Emeril’s. In 2001, he started his own restaurant, DemiEpicurious, in Austin, TX. The restaurant specialized in Barker’s personal version of modern Southwest cuisine — with more than a little New Orleans stirred in. He believed in using local ingredients combined in new, clever ways, and although he and the restaurant got rave reviews, Barker was forced to close as the Gulf War broke out and business declined. From 2003 to 2007, Barker served as Executive Chef at Bambara in Salt Lake City, where he turned a 3.5 million dollar operation into a $5.2 operation, and in 2007, was named “Best Chef” by Salt Lake City Magazine.
Returning once again to New Orleans, Barker worked with author Kit Wohl as Executive Chef and Culinary Director on The Best of the Best, an enormous book project (to be published in the autumn of 2011 by Chronicle Books), celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the James Beard Foundation, and America’s Outstanding Chefs. For the book, which profiles — and include recipes from —the greatest American chefs over a quarter of a century, Barker researched, assisted in chef interviews, tested their recipes, translating them to work equally well for the non-professional cook. The book, which highlights the philosophy and passion behind America’s greatest chefs’ paths to the kitchen, took Barker all over America, and then, finally, back home to New Orleans.
“In the traditional chef’s training, you go from chef to chef to learn your craft,” author Kit Wohl said. "Robert came full circle.”
In New Orleans, Barker also worked on a series of award-winning regional cookbooks, one of which was named a Cookbook of the Month selection by Gourmet magazine and another, The P&J Oyster Cookbook, was named Cookbook of the year, 2010, by New Orleans Magazine.
“Robert embraced the brotherhood of chefs, including the commitment to bring along young chefs. He introduced them to professional traditions and standards — and he introduced them to New Orleans cooking,” said Shane Baird, Executive Sous Chef at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Deer Valley, Utah restaurant. “He was my chef. He guided me. And there was a side of Chef that laughed easily and enjoyed life to its fullest.”
“I knew Robert for years,” said journalist Linda Ellerbee, author of Take Big Bites: Adventures Around the World and Across the Table. “We were both from Houston. We both loved New Orleans. I watched him grow as a chef, ate his food, enjoyed his company, and admired the hell of the man. This is a tragedy for his family, and for all who loved him. In or out of a kitchen.”
“Robert had a way of driving his kitchen to embrace the challenge of the moment and never compromise on quality, “said Michael Haimowitz, a close friend who worked with Robert as a line cook for Wolfgang Puck at the beginning of their careers. “ He was confident in his ability to cook at an exceptional level, command a kitchen, and inspire the crew. Just last month, he came to help me open a restaurant in New York, teaching the next generation of cooks about becoming a chef. The kitchen creates a lifelong bond.”
Wes Marshall, reviewing Barker’s cooking and his restaurant, DemiEpicurious, for the Austin Chronicle, may have best summed up Barker’s work when he wrote, “Based on my experiences at Demi, the whole crew appears to subscribe to the following: “I’m not hard to please; I’m content with the very best.” -Fernand Point 1879-1955
Barker is survived by his daughter Camille, his mother, Robin Blut, his step-father, Louis Blut, his brother Zev Blut, and sisters Michele Barker and Danielle Blut.
A memorial ceremony will take place Sunday, April 9, at 3:00 p.m. in the Rothko Chapel in Houston. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations in memory of Chef Robert Barker be sent to the Delgado Foundation for the Delgado Culinary Arts Program. Please mail check to the Delgado Foundation, 615 City Park Ave, New Orleans, LA 70119.