By Meghan Holmes
Photography by Eli Bayliss
Nestled in a wooded area just west of Big Branch Bayou on Louisiana’s North Shore, La Provence restaurant has served Provencal inspired cuisine with a heavy dose of south Louisiana ingredients and flavors for more than 40 years. The restaurant sources menu items from a farm directly behind the restaurant, where pigs, chickens and beehives surround a variety of fresh vegetables and fruit trees. What doesn’t come from behind the restaurant comes from responsible regional growers like Covey Rise Farms.
Recently, husband and wife team Eric Hunter and Jennifer Pittman Hunter took over the restaurant, purchasing it from John Besh’s restaurant group. (Besh trained at the restaurant under its original owner, Chris Kerageorgiou). The duo plans to continue La Provence’s long established traditions, and introduce a bit of their own perspective. “At the end of the day, my wife and I fell in love with the tradition that is La Provence, and we want that to still be here for the next generation,” says Chef Eric Hunter.
“We’ve been coming here for years whenever we’d come in town to visit family,” says Eric, who lived in Mandeville during his childhood. “The first time we came in and they gave us pâté and toast as a complimentary welcome … I knew I loved the restaurant before I’d even seen anything else, and then I saw the farm. That was something Jennifer and I wanted to do at our restaurant in Weatherford, but we didn’t have the real estate with our downtown location, and that also isn’t conducive to the climate of North Texas.”
Eric and Jennifer returned to the North Shore after they sold their Texas restaurant Blue Oak Barbecue. That restaurant was a culmination of decades of combined experience between the pair. Jennifer attended culinary school in South Carolina and worked as a sous chef at an inn in Yellowstone for several seasons before moving to Texas and working front-of- house at Del Frisco’s Steak House. Meanwhile, Eric started out in catering in Augusta, Georgia, before moving to a fine dining restaurant in Buckhead (outside of Atlanta) and then to the Lonesome Dove Bistro in Fort Worth.
“That’s where we met. I was a sous chef, and Jennifer was a server, which of course is something you aren’t supposed to do. We tell the staff do what I say, not what I do,” he says laughing. The pair worked together at Lonesome Dove for years before striking out on their own, always returning to Mandeville for visits with family, and to see the farm and enjoy the food at La Provence.
Joyce Bates, who managed the bar at La Provence for more than 30 years, remembers the restaurant’s beginnings. “It was an old roadhouse. Truckers used to come through, and you can see the slats outside where the old hotel used to be. Mr. Chris thought it reminded him of France out in the middle of nowhere, so he bought it and he built it into a five star restaurant,” she says. “Chef Chris was something. He would sit down at the table with the guests and eat right off their plate.”
Eric and Jennifer worked with the former La Provence chefs for several months prior to opening to ensure a smooth transition. “Some of the recipes are very special and unique to the restaurant, like the pâté. Typically it’s simmered in a pan, with cognac or some sort of alcohol added. We only use dry spices and we sous vide cook it. The end product is fantastic, and it’s something everyone associates with La Provence.”
The restaurant also has a reputation for its high quality pork with some dishes featuring the mangalitsa variety that live on the farm. “Yes, we do use the pigs from the farm, and yes they all have names” says Jennifer Pittman Hunter. “It’s a blessing to know where your food comes from. I grew up on a dairy farm in Georgia, so it’s something I’m used to.”
On a recent fall menu, pork makes an appearance in several appetizers, including a harissa braised pork belly with romesco, eggplant and rapini, and an ample charcuterie board with dirty rice boudin, andouille, speck, bresaola, carrot chow chow and lightly pickled vegetables. “Eric has been working on his charcuterie board for more than five years, and we did some of this at our restaurant in Texas,” Jennifer says. “We have changed ingredients to work with what’s available here, and we plan to offer our charcuterie products at the farmer’s market in Covington.
Eric and Jennifer have been appearing at the market regularly for the last couple of months, working to connect with area residents and spread the news that La Provence has new owners, and they want to know their neighbors. “We’ve been selling out of pâté every week,” Eric says. “We’ve also been taking a smoker and doing briskets and ribs that have been really successful.”
Other recent menu items at La Provence include a roasted heirloom beet salad with cold smoked shrimp, charred onion vinaigrette, pickled peppers and mirliton, as well as a hickory smoked bone-in pork chop with charred belgian endive, citrus and honey crisp apples, drizzled with a pork jus. Seafood abounds, with soft shell crab, mahi-mahi, shrimp, oysters and tripletail all making an appearance in various dishes. Chef Chris’ quail gumbo remains as an appetizer - featuring a dark, satisfying roux and a whole quail stuffed with dirty rice.
La Provence makes a delicious assortment of ice creams, with flavors that accommodate the lingering heat of Louisiana Octobers, including rosemary vanilla, spiced cherry, peach, rum raisin and lime. Other desserts include crepes with cream cheese and fruit compote, as well as a creme brulée topped with melt in your mouth madeleines. Cocktails lean toward the classic, but with Provencal inspiration like a lavender syrup added to the French 75. A half price wine night on Wednesdays also entices visitors.
“That’s part of the message we want to get out, that La Provence isn’t just for special occasions,” Chef Eric says. “This place was built because Chef Chris came out and sat at the tables and everyone knew him, and we want to be that kind of a fixture here, too. We want people to know that we are a part of this community.”