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How Mason Hereford Became One of New Orleans’ Most Exciting Chefs

No one in New Orleans anticipated the rise of Mason Hereford. While nobody saw him coming, now he’s impossible to ignore.

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ason Hereford is a recognizable figure in the city of New Orleans. Thrust into the spotlight in 2017 after Bon Apetit named his flagship restaurant, Turkey and the Wolf, the Best New Restaurant in America, he was everywhere. From a heated battle with Curtis Stone on Iron Chef to appearances on The Today Show and Late Night with Seth Myers, Hereford is forever fused with the distinctive imagery of the Big Easy, whether he likes it or not.

“There’s a novelty to being recognized,” Mason chuckles right before the lunch rush kicks into high gear. I think anyone that becomes all the way famous, which I am not, I’m light years away from that, and I plan to stay that way; I assume most famous people wish they had done, to some degree. What’s the singer that wears the fringe? Something Peck? Gregory Peck?”

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Mason springs from the table and runs inside; moments later, he exclaims, “Orville Peck! He’s never shown his face, he wears this fringe, and I bet you he can go to the pool.”

Tall, inked, and mustachioed, you could likely speculate that Mason Hereford is a chef. His aesthetic gives you the gist, but his tattoos speak in more detail if you look closely enough. On his arm is the radiant face of Dan Stein, a close friend and the mythical owner of Steins Deli, who gave Mason his first meat slicer.

On his bicep, a cartoon of Winnie the Pooh’s head stuck in a jar of Duke’s Mayo, a brand he swears by and uses on many of his creative sandwiches.

With the release of his new cookbook, Turkey and the Wolf: Flavor Trippin’ in New Orleans—which came out in June, despite thousands of copies being lost at sea in a typhoon near the Azores—Mason is finally ready to put it all out there for the world to taste.

We sit at a round table outside Turkey and the Wolf on Jackson Avenue. Summer temperatures in New Orleans tend to range somewhere between hell and the surface of Venus. Even on the shaded patio, the heat is unrelenting. A droplet of sweat falls from my nose onto the page of my notebook, loaded with questions for a former culinary outsider.

“You want something to drink?” Mason asks. My instinct was to order two cold Dixie beers that we could casually sip during the interview as he did with NOLA local and television host Lauren Darnell back in March 2020. But Mason seems preoccupied. I went with water. He keeps an eye on the front door as his team darts in and out, seeking his final approval on new dishes before they get added to the ever-expanding menu.

“Whatchu got, big dog?” Mason asks an approaching team member holding a bowl of cucumbers for his opinion. He takes a bite, savors it for a moment, and says, “how about we get more popcorn flavor in there?”

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I pause for a moment, making sure I heard him correctly. The chef agreed and disappeared back into the kitchen to make the cucumbers taste more like popcorn. I was through the looking glass, and nothing was as it seemed, but subverting expectations is how Mason Hereford got here, and he’s not changing anytime soon.

FODOR’S: Which recipe in your new cookbook, Flavor Trippin’ In New Orleans, tells a story about you and where you come from?

MASON HEREFORD: There are a few storylines. The ham sandwich recipe is one of the four or five dishes that have been on our Turkey Wolf menu since it opened. So that sandwich is based on a sandwich from Bellair Market in Charlottesville, which is a sandwich that I often ate while growing up. Their version had turkey; mine has ham with some sharp cheddar cheese, herb mayonnaise, cranberry sauce, and arugula on this specifically delicious bread.

When we opened, we called them to ask where they got the bread, which was a really important piece of the puzzle. Then we just did what we do with their idea, and since then, they have put a sandwich on their menu called A Touch of Mason, a bologna sandwich that is pretty cool, and they’re giving me their blessing to totally gank their sandwich. They have like a dozen sandwiches; I only took one of them.

Do you think luck has played a significant role in your success, or do you attribute it to preparation meeting opportunity?

It might be personal luck, but a very smart, talented group of creative people works here. As far as the managers go, the opening team is more or less intact, so we’ve got seven or eight employees working here for six years. To say it’s all luck would not be doing service to how much they’ve sacrificed to make this place great. I’ve been privileged to have the vantage point to present a lot to the public, and I just want to present the reality. We have a group of people who are compassionate, caring, and good at their jobs in a high-stress environment.

You hail from Virginia. You once said that after a week of living in New Orleans, you knew you wanted to stay. What was the moment that solidified that decision?

Once, after I first moved here, I was at McDonald’s getting a Coke. I like to get Coke from McDonald’s because I heard they have their own recipe, but I don’t know if that’s true. I heard these two men talking, and one of them said, “Say, babe.” I hadn’t noticed New Orleans’s regional vernacular yet; I just thought it was a Southern city, and people have Southern accents. I hadn’t yet differentiated it. So, the other guy goes, “alright,” and then the other guy responds, “Yeah, you right.”

I’d never heard two middle-aged men address each other as “babe,” and I’d never heard someone say “how you doin’” by just saying “hey babe,” and the other person saying, “alright,” and then “yeah, you right.” I realized that’s not just Southern, that’s a local thing, and then I started to be like, man, this place is different. Another time I found myself at Igor’s at seven in the morning, I was like, cool, twenty-four-hour bars.

What are some of the pitfalls of celebrity you never anticipated?

Maybe at a bar, someone will come up and say, “you’re Mason from Turkey and the Wolf.” That’s cool. I can imagine Anthony Bourdain’s shit got too intense, and for some famous people, it probably sucks. I think the cult of personality around chefs in the restaurant industry has been problematic. That’s come out a lot in the last few years with Mario Batali, John Besh, and the fact that ‘all your favorites’ are problematic. It’s easy to say I’m against notoriety, but I lean into it. My success is built on top of it, so I can’t say that, but I like to think it. Just like I like to think I’m a communist, but I’m obviously not. I think anonymity is, in the long run, you want to lean into that one harder than celebrity.

What does the future hold for this culinary empire you’ve built?

We want to open more restaurants only if and when people in our company want to do that with us. I love the process of opening restaurants and the creativity that goes into figuring out spoons, the food, and whatever else. I don’t think I do it better than others; I just love it. It’s not so much I have something to prove; it’s that aspect of the creativity that’s so fun, so I want to keep doing it.

People who own or run multiple restaurants think you can’t be at them, so someone else has to do it. I don’t want to own something that somebody else runs. We have a plan with two chefs at Turkey and the Wolf that currently shares the executive chef’s responsibilities. We’ve decided that we want to open a restaurant with each of them as soon as the opportunity presents itself, and we will open those restaurants as partners. The idea is to expand with the team when the team wants to expand.

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ason and I shook hands as the lunch rush reached a crescendo and parted ways. I had some unorthodox questions I wanted to ask, such as, “If you had to wrestle Paul Prudhomme in a baby pool of Duke’s mayonnaise, what would be your strategy?” But, the lack of beers, the focus in his eyes, and the passion with which he speaks of his craft kept my line of questioning professional.

 I left Turkey and the Wolf with a better idea of who this person is and why he’s been so prosperous. It’s reductive to say he’s an overnight success. No one saw the years of 80-hour weeks in the kitchen of Coquette or learning culinary techniques while working nights as a door guy at Fat Harry’s, where it’s almost certain we crossed paths, and he probably told me to put a shirt on.

With the release of his cookbook, Turkey and the Wolf: Flavor Trippin’ in New Orleans, he’ll have plenty more opportunities to spread the love and transfer the joy to his adopted city. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” For Mason Hereford, those dreams are sandwiches and something to behold.

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