New Orleans should post a warning label. Visitors would do well to check inhibitions at the border, adopt the locals’ motto of “laissez les bons temps rouler” (let the good times roll), then let the city seduce you with its smorgasbord of gastronomical delights and culinary innovations. A stroll through the French Quarter reveals a melange of cuisines: Cajun, Creole, Italian and Caribbean, marked by a distinct French influence and accentuated by a bounteous infusion of seafood. Home to bold, innovative chefs and a litany of fine restaurants, almost every meal is delectable. The food is often spicy and decadent; the flavor lingers long after you have returned home and beckons again just as surely as the music.
From the grand dames of back a’ town cooking to the venerable purveyors of haute cuisine, New Orleans’ cooking masters double as griots and memory keepers, weaving stories of history and heritage that guide travelers through a captivating world of cooking and meal-sharing. Renowned for staples such as bananas foster, shrimp remoulade, seafood gumbo and jambalaya and for more exotic fare such as oysters Rockefeller or pompano en papillote – a superior local fish cooked in parchment with wine sauce – the interconnectivity of family, history and heritage are essential ingredients in every meal.
For generations ago, New Orleans Creoles used whatever they stored, grew or caught to feed their families and communities. This meant using fish and seafood from nearby lakes and rivers and potatoes, sausages, peppers to ensure that no-one would starve. During a lesson at the New Orleans School of Cooking with Chef Doris Finister of Two Sisters restaurant and Chef Kevin Belton of Lil’ Dizzy’s it’s easy to understand how New Orleans has managed to retain its distinct lifestyle. As she chops onions and celery and prepares seasonings for her signature shrimp and okra over rice, Chef Doris regales listeners with the tale of how she and her husband acquired Two Sisters 36 years ago.
Cooking traditions have been carefully preserved and passed from one generation to another, ensuring that Creole heritage remains alive and celebrated today. Her aunt taught her how to cook, imparting priceless lessons like how to choose and use ingredients and when you know the gumbo’s roux is ready. Grand Dame of Creole cooking, Chef Leah Chase of esteemed Dooky Chase restaurant, explained, “While Mamma cooked, she had to keep us close and watch us and so I watched her. You remember gems like, after boiling the potatoes, season immediately so they’ll hold the seasonings.” There are no questions of how much filet, how hot should the oil be, or when to add the garlic. They just know.
For his gumbo, Chef Kevin Belton’s begins with what gumbo lovers insist is the most important ingredient: the mysterious roux. He stirs briskly, making sure it doesn’t stick to the pot. Then he adds “the trinity” – green peppers, onions and celery, stirring them into a pot of chicken broth. To this he adds bay leaves, shrimp and blue crabs from Lake Pontchartrain. Next he stirs in the garlic, “the pope,” until the roux is smooth and flavorful. Instead of seafood, you can create your own version with chicken, andouille sausages or anything you prefer. The result is a hearty, mouth-watering, shiver-inducing gumbo – no easy feat in a city where everybody’s grandma’s is the best. Watching the dish come together is not unlike having the mysteries of wine-making reveal themselves before having your first sip.
In addition to owner Wayne Baquet, Belton is also the Chef at Lil’ Dizzy’s on Poydras Street. Dizzy’s offers a dizzying array of Creole creations from Paneed veal, Seventh Ward pork chop to owner Wayne Baquet’s signature trout Baquet. Diners also line up for their Creole breakfast which includes grits and grillades and seasoned- to- perfection hot and smoked sausages, used not only as an ingredient in many traditional dishes but also a flavor enhancer.
At Willie Mae’s Scotch House, the first bite of their light, crunchy-as-cornflakes, tender-as-a-baby’s-finger fried chicken declares that their reputation is well-deserved. Chef Kerry Seaton Blackmon has taken the place of her great-grandmother, the legendary Willie Mae Seaton and has remained faithful to the latter’s cooking style, zealously guarding recipe secrets. Diners travel insane distances to line up for country-fried pork chops, fried catfish, ribs, potato salad, butter beans and red beans and rice. Who can blame them? Chef Leah Chase remains a culinary icon with a lunch buffet that offers jambalaya, BBQ ribs, candied yams, red beans and rice and stewed okra. For dinner choose from a menu that includes chicken Creole, shrimp Clemenceau or the seafood plate with shrimp, oysters, fish and stuffed crab.
Second generation chefs like Chefs Edgar “Dook” Chase and Kerry Blackmon are present carnations of a long lineage of cooks whose ancestral traditions and secret recipes are interwoven within the ingredients that distinguish their meals. Restaurants like Two Sisters, Dooky Chase, Willie Mae’s and others are standard bearers for back a’ town cooking that’s steeped in southern seasonings and tradition. More than a place to eat, they’re iconic cultural landmarks that form an indelible bridge linking past to present and hopefully, to the future. wine tours from portland oregon