There's more to Hilton's Double Tree than fresh-baked cookies — but, damn, those sweet melt-in-your-mouth bites sure do leave a lasting impression. The hotel, located in the heart of Third Ward, is stepping things up a notch with Libations Kitchen & Bar, a new restaurant slated to open on Aug. 1, after renovations and a new menu from executive chef Mike Watson are complete. Watson, 26, is a Jacksonville, Fla. native with roots in the Carolinas. He graduated from Johnson & Wales University and plans to place an emphasis on Southern cuisine at his new gig. But that's not something too surprising to hear from a guy that has a pig — complete with a diagram of its parts — tattooed on his forearm. Watson schools me on the different staples that each part of the pig produces, before getting quizzed on the anatomy of being a chef and what he likes to see on his own plate.
Creative Loafing: What do you, personally, like to see on a menu when you're traveling?
Mike Watson: I'm a big fan of tri-cutlery boards — or, as I like to call them, a big kid Lunchable — with cured meats and cheeses. It's good to start your meal off like that with a glass of wine. I like multiple courses and don't mind spending money for good food. I just moved from Rhode Island, where I was enjoying a lot of seafood. If I stayed at a hotel up north, I'd always get a lobster roll and I would compare it to other restaurant's lobster rolls. But I'm originally from the South and, at heart, it's Southern food that I enjoy. There's always a story behind Southern cuisine. It's not just food on your plate. It's 'Oh this is grandma's or mom's recipe' and people compare how this family or that family did it.
Tell me more about the tattoo on your arm. Obviously, you must like pork a lot, right?
Going back to the Southern food, pork is my favorite thing to eat. I love barbecue pork. I love any kind of pork — smoked, pulled, braised, grilled ... everything. I got this tattoo when I got my first promotion. I told myself that I wasn't going to get one until I had something going for myself. You can't see it, but I actually have more (an entire half sleeve of different farm animals and a farm house). The story behind that comes from my love for food that comes straight from the farm to the table. It is a trend that's been out there for a while, but it's something that I follow. I like to know where my food is from and put my money into my own community. I like to know who the farmer is, how they raise it, and how they grow it, so I know the background of my food and can tell the story of what you're eating.
Do you think art plays a role in creating visually appealing plates?
Art does inspire dishes. I'm a big fan of taking pictures of my food. If you take a picture of your food and can hold it out in front of you and see some sort of a painting, then that means it's beautifully plated. You have to think about the different colors and techniques and all that. You can make it look like a painting or you can make it look naturally formed. Say, if you put a sauce on something: Are you going to specifically put it somewhere or just let it flow to its natural area of the plate? All that thought process goes into the dishes. That's the fun part of creating it. Anybody can put a pork chop on a plate, but how you make that pork chop look good and how you going place it is important because that's what gives the guest an experience.