For Chris Borges, the arc of life has been a long boomerang from New Orleans to California and back again. Born and raised in the Crescent City, Borges spent more than half his life in the Bay Area, including stints at Cindy Pawlcyn's San Francisco restaurant Roti in the 1990s and over a decade at high-end caterer Taste, where he cooked for public figures including Steve Jobs and Barack Obama.
In 2017, he returned with his wife and daughters to a city transformed. "When I was growing up here, it was always just sort of a running joke that, well, New Orleans gets everything 10 years after every other place does," he recalls. But the rise of the Internet changed that, and the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 drove city planning and infrastructure reforms that spurred unprecedented development and a massive influx of new residents.
"There's still a big gap between rich and poor here," Borges says. And yet, "There's optimism for the future." He has noticed the city coming together. Cultural rituals, like second line parades and Mardi Gras gatherings, are attracting people from all parts of the city. “It’s very multicultural now.”
As executive chef of the city's Ace Hotel, Borges oversees its flagship restaurant, Josephine Estelle, helmed by chefs Michael Hudman and Andy Ticer. The menu combines the techniques and ingredients of Italy and Louisiana: Rigatoni comes with "Maw Maw's gravy"; fried chicken is drizzled with Calabrian chile vinaigrette.
Josephine Estelle's version of the classic Roman pasta dish cacio e pepe spins a knob of butter into the namesake cheese and pepper for an extra-velvety sauce. Other than that, the simple recipe calls for pasta and salt—and that's it. "It's greater than the sum of its parts," Borges says.
The dish is also profoundly comforting. Demand for cacio e pepe abided through the height of the pandemic in the spring, when restaurants closed and Borges was manning the kitchen alone, firing room-service orders for the few hotel guests, and demand for it continues now on the restaurant's current pick-up and delivery menu.
Director of restaurants Steven Rogers, who oversees the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence–winning cellar, pairs the pasta with Monastero Suore Cistercensi Coenobium 2016. Produced by an order of Trappist nuns about 90 minutes north of Rome in the region of Lazio, this white blend bears notes of Meyer lemon and pecan skin as well as a gentle "resonance of brewed tea," according to Rogers. Its medium body matches the weight of the rich cheese sauce while floral aromatics play on the black pepper.
Borges knows his cacio e pepe is good; not only is it the restaurant’s flagship dish, he has gotten used to fielding questions about how to make it at home. Just before the pandemic hit, he was at parents’ night at his kids’ school when a fellow restaurateur and parent approached him to ask what the secret is to the dish. “There’s no secret at all,” he says now. However, he concedes, “It’s a technique-driven dish, albeit a technique that’s easy to master.” Read on for his step-by-step tips.
It all starts with the cheese. With only five ingredients, including salt, this is a dish in which meh-quality foods will have nowhere to hide, making for a meh-quality final product. So spring for the good stuff, particularly when it comes to the dish’s star: Parmigiano-Reggiano. “It’s important to use that high-quality Parmesan because it emulsifies better; it melts better into the sauce,” Borges explains. While he concedes that generally, “Parmesan isn’t the greatest melter in the world,” higher-quality versions will still beget a smoother sauce than lower-quality ones will. Your only other costs should be butter and pasta, keeping the dish inexpensive overall.
There’s something in the water. The key to this recipe is to create a proper emulsion: a homogeneous mixture of liquids that normally wouldn’t combine—in this case, water and fat in the form of liquefied butter and cheese. You melt butter over toasted black pepper, add some of the water that the pasta was cooked in and reduce the mixture before adding the pasta itself, plus more butter and lots of grated Parm. While the butter adds creaminess, the gluten in the pasta water, plus the starch in the pasta, creates some body for the sauce and helps hold everything together.
It takes practice. “I think the scariest part is the fact that you are essentially breaking the emulsion,” Borges observes. Once you add the cooked pasta, plus more butter and all of the cheese to the sauce base, you really have to focus. The grated Parmesan makes the sauce temporarily gritty, Borges warns. “It takes a second for it to come back, so I’m not going to lie to you, even still to this day, there’s like one nanosecond when I’m like, ‘What if this doesn’t come back together?’ So I still get the butterflies in my stomach.” To push through that tense moment, stir like your life depends on it. “You do have to be aggressive with it, because it physically forces the emulsion to take place again,” Borges explains. This force causes the liquids to divide into smaller and smaller droplets, which then knit together to form a smooth, rich sauce. “You may spew pasta out all over your range top, of course.”
Use short pasta. “Because of the vigorous action, I personally think that the little stubby pasta works better,” Borges says. “They’re easier to stir, easier to flip. You can’t really flip with a noodle, ’cause then it’s flicking everywhere.” If you can’t find the canestri or lumache he recommends in the recipe, he also likes shells, bowties, fusilli and rotini for this. But if you have your heart set on spaghetti, just aim to stir in a circular motion and be prepared for a little more mess.
You may have to fail to succeed. Some of us master cacio e pepe on our first go—and some don’t. “To be realistic, there could be some mess-ups involved, yes,” Borges says. To make life easier, have all your ingredients measured and ready to go before you start so you can focus on the recipe without distraction; it comes together quickly. And remember that even an imperfectly rendered cacio e pepe probably won’t be awful. Maybe it won’t be company food, but “I would be more than happy to eat the mistake in the comfort of my own house,” Borges says. The fact is, emulsions sometimes fail to form; pasta has been known to emerge overcooked. So what? “It’s still going to be mac 'n' cheese, right?” Borges reasons. Plus, you’ll be closer to mastering what is truly one of life’s great dishes. “It just takes that one time for it to come together,” Borges says, “and then you’ve got it.”
Look for a juicy white wine with keen acidity and flavors of citrus and orchard fruit, accented by zesty spice and floral details. The chef's pick below comprises Verdicchio, Trebbiano and Malvasia; the second Wine Spectator pick is a blend led by Trebbiano.
Chef's Pick Monastero Suore Cistercensi Coenobium 2016
Wine Spectator Picks Andrea Felici Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore 2018 (89 points, $18)
Argillae Orvieto 2018 (88, $18)
Canestri Cacio e Pepe
Recipe courtesy of chef Chris Borges and tested by Wine Spectator’s Julie Harans
- 1 1/4 pounds high-quality Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, at room temperature
- 1 pound dried canestri or lumache pasta (or shells, bowties or another short pasta shape)
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
- 10 tablespoons unsalted butter (divided use)
1. Cut the room-temperature Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano into large chunks, discarding the rinds, and grind in a food processor until finely ground. Measure out 3 cups and set aside. Reserve any additional ground cheese in the refrigerator for another purpose.
2. Bring 4 quarts water to a boil. Season with salt; add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until 1 minute before the stated time in the package directions. Ladle 3 cups cooking liquid into a bowl and reserve. Drain the pasta. Do not reserve the pasta water early; wait until the pasta is ready, as it will ensure maximum starchiness in the water, which is what will ultimately stabilize the emulsification of the cheese and butter.
3. Set a heavy, dry skillet large enough to fit all of the pasta over medium heat. Add the black pepper. Toss the pan frequently, until pepper is toasted, about 45 seconds to 1 minute. You will know the pepper is sufficiently toasted when the aroma fills your kitchen. Watch out for the sneezes!
4. Add 5 tablespoons butter and let melt, swirling the pan occasionally and keeping a close eye on it. Working fast, so as not to burn the melted butter, add 2 1/2 cups reserved pasta water to the skillet, taking care not to splatter yourself with the hot liquid, and bring to a rapid simmer. Cook until reduced by almost half, about 5 to 10 minutes.
5. Add the pasta to the skillet, stirring to combine, and cook for the remaining 1 minute stated by the package directions. Reduce heat to very low and quickly add remaining 5 tablespoons butter and all of the cheese, stirring and tossing vigorously with a spoon or tongs until the cheese is melted. Remove the pan from the heat and continue tossing until the sauce is smooth and emulsified, coating the pasta. Add some of the remaining 1/2 cup pasta water, 1 tablespoon at a time, if the sauce seems dry. Serves 6 as an appetizer or 4 as a main course.