It’s not much of a stretch to say that in the last 25 years that correspond with this magazine’s existence (1981- 2006) there have been more changes in the way Louisianians eat, particularly in restaurants, than in any comparable period in our history. This quarter century has been a time of culinary ferment and innovation when restless, creative chefs, outside influences, and a renaissance of locally grown and produced foodstuffs have greatly improved our cuisine. In the process, Louisiana cooking has taken its place on the world stage.
Twenty-five years ago, we were witnessing the waning of “continental” food, that amorphous style of international cooking that had its roots in hotels and the conceits of professional chefs. Too often, the chefs were more concerned with how their food looked on a plate than with how it tasted. You remember some of the dishes from that period – chicken cordon bleu, veal marengo, duck something-or-other. Most of it had no discernible roots in the cooking of any region anywhere in the world. It was an international style prepared by men trained to be executive chefs in large institutions, men who wanted to be administrators, not cooks.
In New Orleans, Creole cooking still held sway in the old-line restaurants, although much of it had become ossified and was in need of inspiration. But talented young cooks, both male and female, were working behind the scenes in small restaurants, developing their own personal styles and thinking big thoughts. Few could have predicted just how much the food and restaurant scene would change in the next 25 years. It has been a wild ride, and it shows no sign of abating. Here are some of the ways our restaurants, food and eating have changed.
Chef Emeril Lagasse, CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPHS,
Celebrity Chefs. It all started with the chefs, and with one in particular – Paul Prudhomme. He wasn’t the first American chef to get his name up in lights, but he was the first Louisiana chef to burst upon the national scene. And what a splash he made. He opened K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in 1979, and by the early ‘80s his reputation was spreading. When he published his best-selling cookbook and took his restaurant on the road, opening temporary locations in San Francisco, Calif., New York City, N.Y., and others, he was treated like a rock star. Crowds waited in line for hours to taste his food and get a glimpse of the man.
Chef Susan Spicer, CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPHS,
In the 1980s, chefs all across America began to emerge from their kitchens and into the limelight. After Prudhomme, other Louisiana chefs earned a national and, in some cases, an international reputation. John Folse spread the gospel of Louisiana cooking nationally and abroad and began hosting a long-running cooking program on PBS. Alex Patout published a popular cookbook and took his brand of Cajun cuisine to Los Angeles, Calif.
At the same time, women began to claim their places as chefs in a profession that had been, for all intents and purposes, closed to them. Before long, Susan Spicer emerged as a national culinary star, first at the Bistro at Maison de Ville, and then at her own restaurant, Bayona, in New Orleans.
And then there was, and is, Emeril – Emeril Lagasse, of course – who, like Prudhomme before him, had been the chef at Commander’s Palace. He gained a measure of fame at Commander’s in the 1980s, but after he opened Emeril’s, and then NOLA, and became a TV star on the Food Network and began publishing cookbooks, he took on superstar status.
Chef John Folse, Greg Miles Photography
Today, it would be unusual not to know the name of the chef in whose restaurant you are dining. Twenty-five years ago, it would have been the exception rather than the rule Cajun cooking. Until Prudhomme popularized his personal style of Cajun cooking, Cajun food was not well-known outside its largely rural and small-town south Louisiana environs. Except for the Bon Ton Café, it was virtually nonexistent in New Orleans – where Creole cooking was the norm. Following a period of frenzy in the 1980s, when ersatz Cajun cooking swept the nation, things settled down and Cajun food rightly assumed its place as a recognized and respected form of regional cooking that has won adherents around the globe. Good Cajun food can now be found in sophisticated urban restaurants, as well as in rustic country settings.
Traditionally, Creole and Cajun were thought of as two different styles of cooking. It was said that the former was of the city, the latter of the country. Today, it’s more difficult to make such hard and fast distinctions. The lines have blurred and chefs are free to blend and synthesize as they create their own personal styles.
Farmers Market, Eugenia Uhl photograph
Farmers Markets. The growth of farmers markets in Louisiana is one of the most exciting aspects of the big changes that have taken place during this period. Today there are at least 24 markets, some with more than one location, stretching from one end of the state to another – quite an increase from only three or four 25 years ago. At least 200 growers participate in these markets, according to state officials. If the many small market gardeners who sell only on a seasonal basis were included, the number would likely be considerably higher.
With markets and a demand for their produce, small farmers and market gardeners can do away with the middleman and sell directly to the public. Increasingly, direct marketing is the key to making a profit off the land. At the same time, the public benefits by buying locally grown produce that is fresh and attractively priced.
The selection and quality of produce available during the year is astonishing: dozens of varieties of lettuces, salad greens and herbs, an astonishing selection of heirloom tomatoes, shiitake and oyster mushrooms, bamboo shoots, pumpkins, Puerto Rican sweet potatoes, white yams, purple hull peas, green beans, cushaw, acorn and butternut squash, okra, burgundy okra, persimmons, cantaloupes, watermelons, new potatoes, cauliflower, summer squash, zucchini, broccoli, beets, green onions, shallots, Italian parsley, spinach, mustard greens, collards, turnip greens, turnips, Swiss chard, radishes, cucumbers, red Russian kale, carrots, cabbage, strawberries, Italian cucuzza squash, patty pan squash, sweet peppers, hot peppers, mirlitons, garlic, eggplant, pecans, satsumas, oranges, Meyer lemons, limes, figs, peaches, blackberries ... The list goes on and gets longer each year.
In addition, the markets are filled with homemade jams, jellies, pickles, hot sauces, stone ground cornmeal and grits, cane syrup, honey, yard eggs, breads and baked goods. Some markets even offer local cheeses and meats from locally-raised animals, as well as seafood.
Chef Andrea Apuzzo prepares red snapper, Cheryl Gerber photograph
Different Fish and Seafood. Of all the creations that Paul Prudhomme introduced to the dining public, none is more associated with his name than blackened redfish. It was this dish that led, in part, to the appearance of varieties of fish and seafood that had largely been absent from Louisiana menus.
You’ll remember that the blackened redfish craze reached such proportions in the 1980s – not just in Louisiana, but nationally – that redfish came dangerously close to being wiped out by commercial fishermen who used spotter planes to locate and harvest huge schools of fish. The state was slow to act, but finally a ban was imposed and other species began appearing on menus. Some of those newcomers had been known colloquially as “trash fish.” Since the fish were delicious in their own right, this was not only unfair, but it was also a poor marketing label – so the term “underutilized species” came into vogue. Black drum then became the fish of choice to receive the blackening treatment, and for a while it looked like black drum might also go the way of red drum (aka redfish), as fishermen again employed spotter planes and hauled in enormous catches.
The upshot has been that menus and fish markets now boast a much larger variety of fish than in the past. In addition to trout, snapper, drum, flounder, pompano and catfish, diners are likely to encounter mahi-mahi, tuna, salmon, swordfish, hake, sheepshead, grouper and others.
In addition, Louisiana caviar has taken its place at the table. It is the processed and salted roe of the choupique – an ancient freshwater species that previously had no commercial value. It usually makes its appearance as bowfin caviar, choupique presumably judged not a marketable name. Another newcomer is paddlefish caviar, from the large freshwater fish of the same name, though already there are concerns about declining populations of the species.
Innovation. The one word that best sums up restaurant menus these past 25 years is “innovation.” Traditional gumbos, étouffées, bisques, courtbouillons, meunieres, sauces piquantes and all the other glories of Creole and Cajun cuisine are still in ample supply in our restaurants, and, hopefully, they always will be. But chefs are creative, restless people who get bored cooking the same food day in and day out, year after year. And boredom is a chef’s worst enemy. Fortunately, the public has been receptive to experimentation and innovation; as a result, the repertoire of Louisiana cooking continues to expand. Consider, for example, John Besh’s creations at Restaurant August, such as his “BLT” of buster crab, lettuce and tomatoes over lost bread and aioli.
Some of the innovations – such as Commander’s Palace bread pudding soufflé and Prudhomme’s idea of combining two favorite southern pies in his sweet potato pecan pie – have already taken on the status of classics. Other combinations do not always have such long lives, but for a public that is increasingly eating away from home, the ferment of innovation and creativity among our top chefs has been a welcome change.
Vietnamese Food, Cheryl Gerber photograph
Influence of other cuisines. Louisiana cooking developed over centuries as wave after wave of foreign settlement and immigration shaped and altered our food – and the process continues. In the last 25 years, the most notable influences have been those of Vietnamese and Hispanic culinary traditions. This has been reflected in ethnic restaurants, food markets and, increasingly, on the menus of non-ethnic restaurants, where immigrant kitchen workers engage in cross-cultural culinary exchanges with their bosses and fellow employees.
You don’t have to look far to see the results of this ferment and creativity: alligator spring rolls at Red Fish Grill, strawberries with tres leches cake at Brigtsen’s, cornmeal cake with dulce de leche at Cochon, sheep’s milk cheese with membrillo at Emeril’s, Miss Hay’s stuffed chicken wings with homemade hoisin dipping sauce at NOLA. Other, more subtle influences have already firmly established themselves in our cooking, such as the use of lemon grass, cilantro, oyster sauce, fish sauce, spring roll wrappers, coconut milk, tortillas and salsas, both in restaurants and at home.
Louisiana made cheese, Cheryl Gerber photograph
On the Grill. Grilling hunks of meat directly over fire is likely one of mankind’s oldest cooking methods. In the last 25 years, slabs of animal protein have had to make way for an unending parade of seafood, vegetables, breads and even fruits on the grill. Along the way, there have been fierce debates over the merits of different woods for grilling – as well as concerns about the carcinogenic hazards of eating grilled food – but there appears to be no end in sight to the popularity of grilling, both in the backyard and in restaurants.
Locally made cheese and wine – and beer and rum. Twenty-five years ago, as we were emerging from an era of “white wine and brie,” cheese and wine – apart from Creole cream cheese – were not Louisiana products. Today the situation is different. John Folse’s Bittersweet Plantation Dairy, which opened in 2002, initially produced Creole cream cheese. With veteran Bulgarian cheese makers Dimcho and Petrana Dimov on board, the dairy has expanded and is producing aged cow and goat milk cheeses that have already won medals in international competitions.
A few other Louisiana cheese makers have also set up shop, although on a smaller scale and with limited distribution, often primarily at farmers markets. Among their products are goat cheeses from Belle Ecorcé Farms and Dr. Cheese, ricotta cheese from Amato’s Winery, Creole cream cheese from Smith’s Creamery and Mexican cheese tamales from Rico Farms.
Louisiana once had a winemaking tradition, but it disappeared commercially with prohibition and has only recently re-emerged. The state now has six bonded wineries that produce a variety of wines: Amato’s Winery, Casa De Sue Winery, Feliciana Cellars, Landry Vineyards and St. Amant Winery primarily produce muscadine or fruit wines. Pontchartrain Vineyards is devoted entirely to producing table wines from traditional bunch/wine grapes – wines that are crafted to accompany food.
Also new to the scene in these last 25 years are artisan breweries and a rum distillery. In 1986, Abita Brewing Company began operation, giving Louisiana its first artisan brewery devoted to premium beers and ales. More recently, Heiner Brau, a microbrewery making German style beers and ales, opened in Covington. In 1995, Celebration Distillation Corporation began making rum in New Orleans, reviving a lost Louisiana tradition.
Gourmet pizza, Cheryl Gerber photograph
Pasta and Pizza. Pasta and pizza are nothing new to Louisiana, but in a way they are. Twenty-five years ago, pasta was mostly spaghetti and pizza was mostly cheese and pepperoni served and eaten informally with pitchers of beer. How times have changed. Today, pasta and pizza appear on menus in every imaginable type of restaurant. Pizzas come topped with exotic mushrooms, specialty vegetables, seafood, a variety of cheeses and meats – you name it.
As for the changes in how we eat pasta, consider the “ravioli over easy” with shaved truffle and Smith’s Creamery brown butter at Restaurant August, or the handmade potato gnocchi tossed with crab meat and truffle at the same restaurant, or the housemade spaghetti with pancetta and fried-poached farm egg at Herbsaint.
Louisiana cookbooks. We’ve had cookbooks of Louisiana food since at least 1885, when Lafcadio Hearn published La Cuisine Creole and The Christian Woman’s Exchange of New Orleans brought out The Creole Cookery Book. Since that time there have been scores of books dealing with Creole and Cajun Cooking, as well as the mainline southern cooking of north Louisiana.
The last 25 years however, have unleashed a flood of cookbooks. Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen was only the first of many from the Cajun prophet. Emeril Lagasse has published a number of volumes. In addition to collaborating with Emeril on many of his books, Marcelle Bienvenu has written several of her own. Other chefs with cookbooks include John Folse, Alex Patout, Kevin Graham, Patrick Mould and the late Tom Cowman. Restaurant cookbooks have come from Commander’s Palace, Brennan’s, Uglesich’s, Mulate’s, Galatoire’s, Broussard’s, Antoine’s and Mr. B’s Bistro, among others. Junior League and community cookbooks continue to appear in profusion.
Source of Ingredients on Menus. One of the characteristics of contemporary cooking is the identification – on the menu – of where ingredients came from. Sometimes this takes the form of a geographical notation (such as Pontchatoula strawberries), other times the menu references the grower or producer. Bayona’s menu, for example, will identify the pork shank as having come from Niman Ranch. Commander’s Palace notes on its menu that the black Angus beef comes from Harris Ranch.
This practice Serves Several Purposes. First of all, it makes the point that the restaurant is particular about the ingredients it uses and is not satisfied with something that can be ordered from an institutional food supplier. The chef is saying, in effect, I have made an extra effort to procure a special ingredient for your dinner.
The practice also has the effect of sharing credit for the goodness of your meal with the farmers or growers who supplied the ingredients. The support of restaurants and chefs has been instrumental in encouraging and providing a market for small farmers, market gardeners and artisan food producers. In one admirable example of the practice, Restaurant August identifies certain ingredients with an asterisk and states in a menu footnote that these were “farmed, raised or foraged by Jim Core and other farmer friends of ours.”
Country Comes to the City. Restaurants and chefs today have much more freedom in terms of the ingredients, dishes and degree of formality they choose to present in their restaurants. Gone are the old conventions that dictated where certain types of food were served. Now chefs mix and match expensive ingredients and plebeian ones on the same menu – sometimes in the same dish.
Consider, for example, some recent menu items from prominent New Orleans restaurants. The elegant Restaurant August serves field peas and pot liquor with a smoked ham hock salad, as well as shrimp with andouille and grits. Herbsaint lists chicken and dumpling. Cochon offers spoon bread with okra and tomatoes; grilled pork ribs with watermelon pickle; smoked ham hocks with braised greens; rabbit and dumplings; and a black-eyed pea and pork gumbo. Upperline serves slow-cooked mustard greens, while Emeril’s serves homemade sausages with southern cooked greens. Palace Café serves fried okra, and NOLA offers pulled pork as well as shrimp and grits.
Twenty-five years ago, you would have found some of those dishes in New Orleans, but not in stylish restaurants run by famous chefs. It is a measure of how much things have changed that today these southern classics have replaced chicken cordon bleu, veal marengo and duck something-or-other on the menus of fashionable urban restaurants.