Work and play don’t often mix, but it did for Tory McPhail. The James Beard Award–winning chef, who has made his mark on the New Orleans dining scene in his executive role at Commander’s Palace, was asked to travel to Australia as a culinary ambassador. The invitation was on behalf of the American Chef Corps, a government diplomacy initiative to encourage cultural exchange through food. He decided to accept the honor and add another one to it: asking his longtime girlfriend, Britt Nelson, to be his wife.
For two weeks, he kept the proposal a secret while the couple toured Melbourne, Canberra, and Sydney, among other locales. Finally they stole time for themselves to take a boat to the pristine Whitehaven Beach on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. McPhail set up a picnic—Champagne included—and then popped the question. The plan went off without a hitch—except one. “I do have to mention that while we were running and jumping around excited, the seagulls ate our food,” Britt says. “I wasn't hungry anymore anyway, and at least the bubbles were safe! The boat crew found out about our engagement and brought us two splits of Champagne to enjoy on our boat ride back. It was perfect.” Here, we catch up with McPhail for more details from the special day he and Nelson became husband- and bride-to-be.
Tell us about your trip to Australia and representing the U.S. as a culinary diplomat?
My trip to Australia was a life-changing event. I got to bring a piece of New Orleans to Melbourne, Canberra, and Sydney, where I was honored to be part of the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Culinary Partnership and held official engagements at the U.S. embassies, threw Fourth of July parties, taught kids how to cook, and more. My engagement to Britt is obviously another life-changing part of the trip.
How long ago did you and your fiancée meet?
Britt and I met 10 years ago.
Did she know the proposal might happen or was it a complete surprise?
The proposal was a complete surprise. Britt was having conversations with her mom, but she didn’t figure it would happen on the trip.
Can you share the details leading up to the proposal?
After working on official duties for two weeks, we took a weeklong vacation. We flew to Hamilton Island in Queensland, and then jumped on a ferry to the remote Long Island, where there are only three resorts on the whole island. Highlights there were swimming along the Great Barrier Reef and taking day trips to other smaller islands.
What happened during the actual proposal?
July 7, 2014, was the date of our engagement. We took a day trip to Whitehaven Beach, which is in a national park on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve never seen a beach like it. It’s so pristine. There’s not even seaweed! The sand looks like granulated sugar, just like out of a movie.
We walked far down the beach until it was very private and I unpacked the Champagne, cheeses, fruits, and nuts we brought along with us. I was trying to hold it together as I reached into the pocket of my backpack and pulled out the gorgeous ring I bought back in New Orleans. We both started crying. We took pictures and, after a while, we jumped back on the boat and headed back to the resort.
When and how did you share the news with friends and family?
Long Island is pretty remote, so cell and Wi-Fi were somewhat of an issue. Also there’s a 13-hour time difference in New Orleans. So it took a couple days to get ahold of everyone. As soon as we had Wi-Fi, we started sending messages to our friends and family to let them know the good news.
Can you share with other couples some of your favorite meals on the trip?
The most exciting meal I had was at a restaurant called Papi Chulo. The food and atmosphere blew me away. It is near the ferry dock in Manly Beach and is like the Australian version of Fisher’s in Orange Beach, AL. The restaurant serves southern BBQ, a cuisine that is surprisingly very popular there.
My best meal was at Attica on the first night of the trip. Our 12-course tasting took five hours. It included a pre-dessert of sweet biscuit marshmallows and hot Billy tea simmered in a cowboy kettle. It was served around an open campfire outside in the back of the restaurant. The wine pairings were excellent.
Do you and Britt ever cook together at home?
I leave my Commander’s recipes at work when we cook together at home. We recently made lamb necks in the crockpot, which turned out fantastic. Britt is a wine rep, so she brings home bottles of wine from the best wineries all over the world. We like to do tastings a couple nights a week.
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