With social distancing guidelines still firmly in place as COVID-19 roils the country, home has taken on an outsize role for millions of Americans. New Orleans’ Tory and Britt McPhail are no exceptions.
The couple experienced a roller coaster of change when the pandemic hit. Tory, executive chef of the iconic Commander’s Palace, a winner of Wine Spectator’s Grand Award, clearly recalls March 16, the day Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered restaurants to limit their service to takeout and delivery. “On my calendar in Sharpie it says, ‘All heck breaks loose,’” Tory, 47, says. “It feels like it’s been a year, but it's only been a couple of months.” The restaurant immediately pivoted to offering curbside pickup in lieu of dine-in service, as well as a new wine concierge program run by wine director Dan Davis.
Britt, 39, worked for nine years as a sales representative for the Louisiana-based wine distributor Wines Unlimited. But with restaurants closed or operating at marginal capacity, “They really didn't have a need for us,” she says. Six weeks after losing her job, Britt was offered a role at a combination deli and wine retail location of Martin Wine Cellar, a sister business to Wines Unlimited. “I guess they were like, ‘Your husband's a chef—you can cook,’ which I can, but it's a secret. Nobody is supposed to know,” she laughs. “I learned the entire kitchen in about three weeks, and now I'm on the floor selling wine three days a week, in the kitchen two days.”
The McPhails don’t take their new normal for granted. “Not everyone is in a good situation right now, whether they need food, or they can't go to school and count on that meal, or they don't have a job. So we're very lucky,” Britt reflects. Tory adds, “I've gotten used to being very open-minded. We all went through Hurricane Katrina together, and we said, ‘Look, that's never going to happen again in our lifetime.’ But here we are 15 years later, and we’re dealing with something else. So it's a time of reflection.”
Even as frontline workers with full-time jobs, Tory and Britt find themselves at home now more than ever. Perhaps presciently, they built and designed their house in 2018 as a clean, crisp, beach-style sanctuary conveniently located just 12 blocks from Commander’s Palace, in a new development in the city’s Irish Channel. The neighborhood, not far from the Mississippi River, was built on the storied site of Turnbull Bakery, which lays claim to spawning Melba toast and the ice cream cone. The area was rezoned for residential use under the condition that new construction conform to specifications set forth by the city’s Historic District Landmarks Commission.
The McPhails designed their home in the Greek Revival style popularized in the American South in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The genre draws inspiration from the Enlightenment and, before that, classical antiquity, in homage to the ideals of rationalism and order—touchstones that, amid the chaos of a rampaging virus, now seem especially relevant. Unfussy right angles frame the home’s double gallery, squared-off colonnades and handmade floor-to-ceiling windows, which operate on a historically faithful weight-and-pulley system.
The 2,300-square-foot interior reflects the McPhails’ big personalities. “We’re gregarious people,” Tory says; they love to entertain. Rather than the suggested four bedrooms, they went with two to maximize the living space: 865 square feet comprising an open chef’s kitchen, custom dining nook and living room. The space opens onto a pool and small pool house.
Although the couple isn’t hosting big dinner parties these days, they’ve found that the home’s vibe suits the times. “When you've become stressed and really feel like you're laying everything out on the championship-winning field, you want to be able to have some peace and comfort,” Tory says. “Your home life becomes extremely important.” As a music lover, he has particularly appreciated their surround-sound audio system. Through a phone app, he can pipe a mellow soundtrack into every room. “It just feels like a spa on an early Sunday morning,” he says.
But the McPhails’ boisterous spirits haven’t dimmed, and a wagon-style bar on wheels has helped take the party to the streets. “We’ll break that out of the garage and walk through the Irish Channel at a safe distance,” Tory explains. “Several buddies live within the neighborhood, and so we’ll just load up the cocktail shaker and shake cocktails right there on the sidewalk. You might have St-Germain—elderflower liqueur—and some Cava and some tinctures, or you bring some Chapoutier rosé. Some of the bars have started to open up at lower capacity, but when we didn't have them, we didn't really need them.”
The couple also has a visually impactful 425-bottle wine pantry designed by Britt. Their tastes lean Old World: Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from Tory’s birth year of 1973, R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva from Britt’s birth year of 1981, Philipponnat Champagne from 2002, the year Tory became executive chef of Commander’s. (Looking back, he recalls, “I was 28 and nervous as heck.”) White Burgundy is Tory’s favorite, anchored in the memory of the Chassagne-Montrachet he was served when he was appointed executive chef: “It was a crying moment,” he says. The McPhails’ white Burgundy holdings include a horizontal of Raveneau premier cru Chablis from 2015—the year of their marriage.
Chablis has remained a theme for them today, when socializing via Zoom has become de rigueur. “We still have a standing Zoom call with our friend Ivan [Oyco, a producer of Top Chef] in L.A. every Saturday,” Britt says. They have been exploring Chablis together. “He likes expensive white Burgundies, which is amazing, but I also want to show him there are other areas of Burgundy,” Britt says.
Commander’s has launched its own Zoom wine party series, titled “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” Locals receive a contactless delivery of three bottles of wine, plus a pound of cheese, to taste through with Tory and Dan Davis. “We call it the Zoom that saved Wednesdays,” Commander’s Palace co-owner Ti Martin quips. “Everybody was just sort of ready to be a little silly for a minute, so that’s what we’re doing. If you learn something, it’s by accident.” This being New Orleans, costumes are involved. “Generally, I start putting on my makeup at about 5 o’clock in the evening,” Tory says.
Ever the music lover, he and the team at Commander’s have been cooking for Feed the Second Line, an initiative run by the nonprofit Krewe of Red Beans, which supports the city’s out-of-work, predominantly Black community of musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, artists and other culture bearers by employing the younger generation to deliver groceries and restaurant meals to the elder generation. The team often creates dishes that are almost culinary puns. A recent example was “eggs Louis Armstrong”: trumpet mushrooms atop pickled pork and ham hock cakes topped with poached eggs, on a bed of rice and braised red beans. “Just a little bit of our gratitude for other parts of the community, which we love so much,” Tory says.
Back at home, the McPhails are getting outside as much as possible, gardening, exercising and eating healthy to create some balance. “We're all in limbo, and that's the hard part,” Britt reflects. “Every day is different, it really is. It’s something that we can’t control. Don’t watch too much news; you can watch a little bit. Get your little tidbit and get on with your day.”
At the New Orleans Home of Tory & Britt McPhail
Photos: Morgan & Owens
Hair: Alicia Lynch/Style House
Makeup: Jessica Masters/Style House
The Galley Workstation sink was a wedding gift from Commander’s Palace owners Ti Martin and Lally, Dottie and Ella Brennan. It includes a colander, cutting boards, a pot-cooling rack and an ice bucket.
In the dining nook, shiplap walls, pendant lights from Pottery Barn and a giant fork and knife from Pier 1 Imports add personality to the space. The bench seating has hidden storage.
The wine pantry comprises 144 bottles’ worth of wire storage racks, built-in columns to hold 152 everyday bottles and, for special-occasion stuff, an 80-bottle white and Champagne cooler and a 48-bottle red wine cooler, both from Viking.
In keeping with the beachy theme, the wine pantry backsplash, from Stafford Tile & Stone, evokes fish scales. A prized 3-liter bottle of J. Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles Hilltop Vineyard Signature Series 2012 was signed by the couple's rehearsal dinner guests.
The McPhails' garden has grown since COVID hit. "We added banana plants, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, all kinds of stuff," Britt says. She also grows herbs, and there's a satsuma tree and a fruiting banana plant.
New Orleans yards tend to be tiny, but the McPhails squeezed a pool into theirs for the beachhouse feel. When she was between jobs during the pandemic, Britt took online courses from within the pool house. Though the space is small, enormous glass folding doors create a sense of expansiveness.
Tory's cookbooks, many of which are antiques, are prize possessions. "There's one section that's just Emeril," he says. "There's Ti [Martin] and Jamie Shannon's book, international stuff from Spain, Eric Ripert's book from Le Bernardin in New York City, and Thomas Keller stuff."
"Porches are a big thing here," Tory says. Theirs is the ideal spot for a glass of wine or a cocktail.
This story is adapted from an earlier version that appeared in the Dec. 31, 2019, issue of Wine Spectator.