Work in the culinary arts sometimes requires extensive traveling to perfect a craft or to move up in the kitchen hierarchy. Many of Acadiana’s chefs, for instance, hail from other regions of the country, sometimes other parts of the world.
The following are several chefs who now call Acadiana home, bringing new culinary trends into the region, or incorporating Louisiana ingredients and culinary styles into their expertise.
Chef William Foltz
The son of a military man, Chef William Foltz lived in five different states by the time he turned 5. Even though his parents settled down in his youth, he eventually joined the “culinary military” and began moving again, mostly around the South. He landed at L’Auberge Casino Resort in Lake Charles five years ago and oversees a staff of 15 as executive pastry chef.
The challenge of multiple culinary venues and a family-friendly town appealed to Foltz.
“I checked it out and thought this would be a great place to raise a family,” Foltz says of the area.
Last summer Foltz and L’Auberge Baton Rouge pastry chef Arlety Estévez won three categories at Pastry Live’s 2013 National Showpiece Championship in Atlanta, taking home the top awards for Best Artistry, Best Sugar Showpiece and Competitor’s Choice Award.
But Foltz is no stranger to competition. He participated in the U.S. Pastry Competition for seven years, earning Pastry Chef of the Year in 2006. He also competed in team championships in Las Vegas in 2003 and 2009. His finest hour was being named “Best Sugar in the World” at the 2011 World Pastry Cup in Lyon, France, competing against 24 countries.
To compete takes tremendous preparation, including taking classes in color, shapes and special ingredients such as ice. For the Atlanta contest, both chefs had seven hours to create their entries – on the spot.
“There’s so much to get you there,” he says. “You’re so immersed in it, for like a year and a half. You almost need counseling when you’re done.”
Foltz oversees a team of bakers and pastry cooks who provide desserts for L’Auberge’s eight restaurants, room service, conferences and special events. Some of his creations are intricately designed, but Foltz insists he’s a simple guy underneath.
“I’m a peanut butter and jelly guy,” he says, adding that his customers love the look of fancy pastries but want flavors they knew in their youth. “[My creations] are simple pastries that look really nice – colorful little soldiers lined up in the case.”
Creating new items for different customers keeps his brain fresh, he says. At Christmastime, for instance, Foltz builds a massive gingerbread house that’s nine feet high with 36 square feet inside. Because he loves the challenge of sugar creation, Foltz insists he will be doing the house again this year, but “taking it up a notch.”
L’Auberge Casino Resort 777 Ave. Lauberge, Lake Charles llakecharles.com
Chef Zee Baloch
Chef Zee Baloch is the great American success story. He and his family left Pakistan in the 1970s for New York City, where Baloch studied criminal justice during the day while working in restaurants and as a DJ at night. His jobs ranged from dishwater to maitre’d and cook, even spinning turntables at Michael Jordan’s club.
He was introduced to Louisiana food and culture while visiting a brother in Lafayette, and appreciated the South Louisiana lifestyle where good food was essential to life and large families gathered for meals. He moved to Cajun Country and opened Hot Food Express in 2002, a small restaurant and take-out business on Cameron Street that specializes in lightly seasoned and fried Louisiana seafood – he adamantly buys local seafood – and dishes Baloch calls “Southasian” with a Cajun touch.
Word quickly got around about Hot Food Express, and the business took off. Baloch moved the establishment into a 5,500-square-foot building next door, complete with massive cold storage for daily seafood shipments. Last year, Baloch opened a second location in downtown Lafayette, renovating the old Ballroom event space that seats 1,000 and creating a “Club Z” that serves his trademark dishes while offering a music and event venue.
In both locations, Baloch says he hopes to build bridges, whether by incorporating international foods with Cajun and Creole flair, such as curry fried rice and Southeast ginger chicken, or providing a concert venue where “people from different walks of life find common ground and establish friendships, a place where we can find inspiration, solace and a renewed expression of the unique and joyous nature of The Party,” he says.
For a newcomer to both America and Louisiana, Baloch has followed the dream and joined the joie de vivre and done good by it.
He recently posted on Facebook, “Dreams do come true, if we only wish hard enough. You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it.”
For Baloch, the dream has arrived.
Hot Food Express 3013 Cameron St., Lafayette hotfoodexpress.com
Chef Scott McCue
The display cases at Cypress Bayou Casino in Charenton are filled with culinary accolades, awards collected throughout South Louisiana by executive chef Scott McCue.
The Tucson, Arizona native arrived in the Bayou State 18 years ago to helm the casino’s fine dining restaurant, Mr. Lester’s Steakhouse, after working in various upscale restaurants and resorts. He spent 12 years heading up the award-winning restaurant’s kitchen and now oversees the casino’s entire culinary operations which consist of six restaurants, a banquet kitchen, butcher shop, bread bakery and pastry creations –eight kitchens in all.
This past year, McCue was the only Acadiana chef featured at the Louisiana Seafood Cook-off held in May in New Orleans. He didn’t win the annual event where competing chefs have only an hour to cook one dish where the primary ingredients must be seafood, but was thrilled to be able to serve up a special entree. McCue pan-seared Gulf grouper and topped the fish with a lemon and caper sauce, then garnished the dish with rare pan-seared softshell crawfish.
Even though McCue hails from a landlocked state, he’s a master with seafood, loving the abundant wetlands he now calls home along with his wife and three children.
“I love Louisiana – the hunting and fishing,” he says. “And it’s a great place to raise children.”
His repertoire, however, includes many cuisines. He cut his teeth in a Mexican restaurant in Arizona, which came in handy when the casino opened Loco, its new Mexican restaurant. Other cuisines at Cypress Bayou include Asian fusion and Café Bayou, a family-friendly joint that serves up South Louisiana favorites.
McCue has been a member of the American Culinary Federation since 1996 and is a founding member of the Atchafalaya Basin Chapter of The American Culinary Federation. He has earned 115 medals in culinary competitions in Louisiana, including 47 gold, 39 silver and 29 bronze and was a Best of Show winner in Culinary Classic competitions in Shreveport, Lafayette and Baton Rouge.
Cypress Bayou 832 Martin Luther King Road, Charenton cypressbayou.com
Chef David Sorrells
We got lost trying to locate one of Lake Charles’ latest restaurants, which opened June 3 in the traditional neighborhood development known as Walnut Grove. Restaurant Calla is so new, Google Maps and our GPS failed to locate the address.
Once inside the tony new eatery helmed by chef David Sorrells, it’s easy to see what the buzz is all about; it’s a hip but simple space serving up seasonal small plates, cocktails and wine.
Sorrells began his career working for Brennan’s Houston, then Commander’s Palace in Las Vegas. Once in Vegas, he realized the vast culinary possibilities, so he worked at Julian Serrano’s Picasso and with chef Alessandro Stratta to gain new experience.
“I was getting my feet wet, doing what they wanted me to do,” Sorrells explains. “I was a young chef, wanted to do it all, soaking it all in.”
He later worked at the French Laundry in California, then Le Reve in San Antonio and The Houstonian Hotel and Spa in Houston, the latter where he met his wife, a physician. The couple decided to move to Lake Charles where his wife has a practice, a city ripe for growth and new culinary experiences, he said.
“It was culture shock at first,” Sorrells said. “But there’s a young professional population hungry for something new.”
Restaurant Calla “gives people a new idea on food,” Sorrells explained, serving up small sophisticated plates with fresh ingredients combined in interesting ways, plus innovative cocktails and four to five big plates because Sorrells learned quickly that “people still want steaks.” The food is high-end, but the décor remains comfortable, with leather couches, outdoor seating and family-style tables.
“We’re trying to break the rules,” he says. “You can still eat foie gras in shorts.”
For now, Restaurant Calla is only open for dinner, but Sorrells’ plans may change as the neighborhood grows.
“We’re definitely different for Lake Charles,” he says. “I hope to continue, and I believe what we’re doing is some of the best food in the state.”
Restaurant Calla 1400 Market St., Lake Charles restaurantcalla.com
Chef Minh Le
Chef Minh Le left Vietnam at age 7, living in refugee camps for two years until he was able to enter New Orleans with cousins. Because of immigration complications, he was placed with an American foster family by Catholic Charities, attending St. Paul’s School in Covington while he worked part-time in a Northshore seafood restaurant.
“I pretty much grew up over there,” Le says of his time on the Northshore.
Le attended the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now University of Louisiana at Lafayette, but his parents dissuaded him from culinary studies. At first he chose marine biology, then he chose to be a dietician, but preparing bland food for hospital patients changed his mind. He transferred to Nicholls State University when the culinary program was in its infancy, and the rest is history.
“That’s where I felt comfortable and I was good at it, almost a natural feel for being in the kitchen,” he explains. “I picked things up fast. Most of all, I enjoyed it.”
Le worked at Baton Rouge restaurants, then helped open a steakhouse in Houma that later closed. He spent time in the kitchens at Le Meridien and Windsor Court hotels in New Orleans, where he gained more experience working with top chefs and diverse food.
When the landmark Des Allemands restaurant Spahr’s decided to expand its business, Le helped opened its second location in Thibodaux and later a larger venue in Houma. Today, the company runs all three locations under Le’s command with the original Highway 90 restaurant still serving up its trademark catfish dinners.
“We have one of the best fish batters,” he says. “It’s not heavy. It’s the right proportions of batter and seasoning.”
In December, Le is opening his own restaurant, Alumni Grill, near his alma mater in Thibodaux. The restaurant will serve burgers, salads, tacos, boiled appetizers and barbecue lunch specials.
“It’s more of a neighborhood-type grill,” he says. “Keeping it affordable is my main objective.”
Spahr’s 3682 U.S. 90, Des Allemands; 601 W 4th St., Thibodaux; and 1400 W Tunnel Blvd., Houma; spahrsseafood.com