In everything you do, do it with love.
It’s a simple mantra Chef Aimee Tortorich tells herself every day as she prepares for the fall opening of Gov’t Taco—an upcoming restaurant centered around changing the stigma of what is considered a taco.
Tortorich is in love with the food she makes and the Bite & Booze team she has alongside her. But that love affair wasn’t instant—it was a long fight with destiny.
She was raised by a large family on a farm in New Roads, Louisiana. Tortorich remembers shucking corn, planting seeds and fishing on the 40-acre property. But that wasn’t work for her, it was the way her family bonded. Harvesting and cooking food created a sense of togetherness from the farm to the table.
“My mother, being the awesome woman that she was, would work a nine-to-five job then come home and cook dinner,” Tortorich said. “I was basically exposed to so many influences at an early age that I was destined to become a chef.”
Those big dinners laid the groundwork that would lead to her future. But it was a long journey that led to Tortorich living a life by knife and spice.
After high school, she enrolled at LSU, majoring in psychology, and commuted from New Roads to the Baton Rouge campus each day. Quickly becoming restless in the curriculum, Tortorich changed her major a few more times—graphic design and mass communication came quickly to her memory. Two years into her undergrad degree shuffle, she decided to travel to truly figure out who she was.
“It was either culinary school or the United States Navy,” Tortorich said. “The quickest way out of New Roads was the Navy.”
And off she went. Tortorich applied her creative nature to her new path and enlisted as a photographer for the USS Emory S. Land. That decision sent her to La Maddalena, Italy—a place she said subtly fed her passion for cooking with new ideas and techniques. She spent three years capturing the clear waters of Italy before coming back stateside to Bremerton, Washington.
There she learned how the West Coast prepared and served their seafood and other dishes compared to the Southern style she was used to. She continued to move, discover herself and discover more ways to approach food.
“After Bremerton, I moved to Maryland and got a degree in videography,” she said. “I went to American Forces Network in California where I was working a great job—it was just boring. I was watching my life go by, and as I got older, I realized there was always a love of cooking that I put to the side.”
Until she went out on her own, Tortorich hated cooking. She’d been around it her entire life, but never imagined herself in the kitchen. Tortorich recalls a night she was house sitting for a family member and decided to cook a sauce from some roma tomatoes in the home. As her mother talked her through the steps, she found a sense of peace, and cooking became her therapy.
She absorbed the recipes of foods she’d seen during her travels and recreated them until they were perfect.
Growing more comfortable in her abilities, it was time to accept the path that was always in front of her. Tortorich enrolled in culinary school using her G.I. Bill from the Navy. She was in school for nine months when a call came saying her recently-retired mother had gotten sick. Part of a large and tight family, Tortorich made the decision to come home.
The return of the New Roads daughter was fate. While home tending to her mother, she fell in love with Baton Rouge and transferred to the Louisiana Culinary Institute where she met her teacher and future boss, Chef Jay Ducote.
Ducote and Tortorich, along with the rest of the Bite & Booze team, are preparing for Gov’t Taco’s fall opening in Mid City’s White Star Market. It’s her first foray in opening a restaurant and Ducote’s first conceptual eatery. Tortorich said these tacos will be nothing like what Baton Rouge locals are expecting.
“I’m using the tortilla as a vessel,” she said. “What I put in there, [the possibilities] are endless. All the influences of the places we’ve been will be put into these tacos.”
Some of the tacos on the menu will be a spin on the conventional. The Uncle Swine taco is pork, braised with chili and cherries. Instead of white onions, a pickled jicama is sprinkled on top of the meat.
Also at Gov’t Taco will be a different take on Mexican street corn better known as “elote.” The team’s shared southern Louisiana roots make them very familiar with crawfish boils and they decided to implement that into how their elote is prepared. The corn is boiled in crawfish boil, covered in cajun spices and dehydrated lemon dust and mayo.
“The Baton Rouge food scene for a long time was very scared to try new things, but if you can connect the new with something people are familiar with, they’re more likely to try it,” she said. “That’s why we went with the taco. There’s so much that could be done with it.”
Tortorich wants the restaurant to be known for sparking both the mind and the tastebuds.
For her, the opening of Gov’t Taco is her biggest project and one she feels like she has to succeed in. The food industry, like many others, is male dominated. Certainly the Rachel Rays and Julia Childs of the world have made great strides for women and food — but it’s not enough.
Tortorich is a part of a select group of women who want to continuously innovate the way people see food and the chefs who make it. She grew up competing in sports and against her male cousins. Even when joining the Navy, that competitive drive didn’t go away.
“Whether it be in the kitchen or in the military, you have to over perform,” she said. “If you don’t, you’re going to get lost in the masses. The Navy prepared me for this competition.”
Her biggest competition? Herself.
Tortorich said every time she makes a dish, it has to be better than the last. Even as she cooks, she thinks about what she can do differently on the next attempt.
She prides herself on using local ingredients from local vendors like Red Stick Spice Company to create a sense of community and togetherness from the farm to the table.
“I want to have full control of how my food is prepared,” Tortorich said. “We make our own powders and blend our own spices. The more control you have, the more love you can put into your food.”
It’s that same love that led her on a journey over two decades and placed her right back at home. That passion to create, compete and innovate always existed inside chef Aimee Tortorich. She says her next steps will be her best.
“It took me so long to figure out what I wanted to do, but looking back it was all for a reason,” she said. “I’ve got years ahead of me to do what I love and share that love with thousands of people.”
“I couldn’t ask for a better life.”
More about Chef Aimee Tortorich
What’s your favorite dish in town that isn’t your own?
I’m a huge fan of Pho and know the lengthy process that it takes to develop a flavorful broth. Dang’s does it best and always delivers packed flavor at a great price.
Your top cooking tip?
Taste your food and learn how to balance the five flavors (sweet, bitter, salty, sour, and umami). These serve as the foundation of every recipe.
Favorite local bar?
I live in Mid City and love Radio Bar and the diverse crowd that it attracts. The cocktails are amazing and the atmosphere is one that draws interesting conversation in a relaxed atmosphere.
Favorite place to eat that isn’t your own place?
Mom’s house on a Sunday afternoon will always trump any restaurant near or far.