Best in the Kitchen

An ongoing survey by category
Travis Gauthier Photographs

Best Farm-to-Table Chef

Manny Augello: Jolie's Louisiana Bistro in Lafayette

When chef Manny Augello of Jolie’s Louisiana Bistro of Lafayette was invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York this past May, he brought a good bit of Louisiana with him.
    
Augello served a Louisiana Farm-to-Table Dinner at the acclaimed Beard House, featuring authentic spring and summer foods of Louisiana. Produce and meats included Creole tomatoes, boudin, cracklins, crabmeat, choupique caviar, “true grits” and South Louisiana cheeses, among much more. They even smoked out the kitchen while cooking with the boudin, Augello adds with a laugh.
  
 “People were quite blown away,” he says. “We definitely brought Louisiana with us. I think they had as much fun as we did.”
    
Chelsie Lovell, Jolie’s general manager, found a wine named La Louisiane while touring France and incorporated it into the menu. The wine was so named because of the poor soil in which the grapes were grown; vintners related it to the struggle of the Acadians.
    
“It seemed like a perfect fit,” Augello says.
    
Augello wanted the culinary world of New York to not only experience the great tastes of fresh Louisiana foods but also recognize that great Louisiana cuisine exists outside of New Orleans.
    
“We wanted them to know we’re from Cajun Country, not New Orleans,” he says. “There’s more to Louisiana than New Orleans.
  
 “You can feel the culture, you can feel the warmth,” Augello adds of Lafayette. “Our food culture has really exploded in the last five years.”
    
Augello hails from Palermo, Italy, but grew up in the United States, later attending Northwestern State University in Natchitoches. He met his ex-wife, a native of Lafayette, while at school, and she brought him to the Hub City where he began working for Jolie’s as sous-chef and charcutier. Five years later, he’s the executive chef and cooking at the Beard House; he’s also a leader in the farm-to-table movement in Lafayette, sitting on the advisory board of the Acadiana Food Circle and purchasing 82 to 86 percent of Jolie’s produce from local farmers at the height of any season. His menu changes constantly, with customers learning weekly specials from the restaurant’s e-mail newsletters and blackboards posted above the restaurant’s historic bar. Jolie’s menu changes for the two big seasons of fall and winter and spring and summer, he explains, with some items preserved by pickling or made into sauces for later use.
    
“We like to spread the money around, give back to the community,” Augello says.
    
Augello’s specialty is charcuterie – he started the first charcuterie program in Southwest Louisiana. He uses only three ingredients in the process – “patience, meat and salt” – with no preservatives, and each result is unique, Augello says.
    
“I want it to taste like it’s supposed to taste,” he says. “It’s a science all its own and something very dear to Jolie’s.”
  
 To see Augello’s Louisiana Farm-to-Table Dinner menu from the James Beard House event, visit jamesbeard.org/events/louisiana-farm-table-dinner-053012. For more information about Jolie’s Louisiana Bistro, visit jolieslouisianabistro.com.

 

Best Fine Dining Chef

Arthur Durham: La Truffe Sauvage in Lake Charles

Chef Arthur Durham admits that serving as co-owner and co-chef at La Truffe Sauvage in Lake Charles can be challenging, causing the Corpus Christi, Texas, native to wear many hats. The fine dining restaurant offers elegant dishes derived from a variety of culinary influences and accented by an elaborate wine list. But then there are the South Louisiana residents who demand more regional fare.
    
“People ask, ‘How do you classify your food?’” Durham says. “It’s hard to classify because there are so many influences.”
    
For example, La Truffe Sauvage’s menu features premium fish, and that may range from Scottish salmon to Gulf red snapper. A traditional pot-au-feu is created with meat, but the restaurant uses seafood so it resembles more of a bouillabaisse than a French stew.
  
 “Is it exactly [a pot-au-feu]?” Durham asks. “No. But it has that influence. The menu fluctuates. And we have a lot of fun with it.”
  
Durham graduated with top honors from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, landing at the Ritz-Carlton Houston in 1992. After only a year-and-a-half on the job, he became banquet chef.
    
It was in Houston that Durham met chef Mohamed Chettouh, his partner in La Truffe Sauvage.
    
“We became friends and saw that we had the same philosophy about food,” Durham says.
  
 They purchased the former Chez Oca in Lake Charles in 1998 and have been receiving accolades for their cuisine for 14 years.
    
Durham’s culinary origins hail from an Irish mother and a British grandmother, both of whom cooked “solid food extremely well,” he says. “To roast something properly, to cook it properly, that takes special skill. That’s where my love of food comes from.”
    
Today, Durham hopes to incorporate more locally produced foods into his cuisine. But again, he says, this can be a challenge.
  
 “Your clientele expects something on a certain level,” he explains. “You have to balance the expectations of people to what the region produces.”
  
 For information on La Truffe Sauvage, visit thewildtruffle.com.

 

Best Seafood Chef

Kevin Templet: Flanagan's and Fremin's in Thibodaux

Chef Kevin Templet learned how to cook like many residents of Labadieville – participating in 4-H competitions in grade school, watching his grandmother at the stove, witnessing his uncle smoking meats in the back of his grocery store. He left to study computer science in college but quickly realized his heart was back in the kitchen.
    
“Being from South Louisiana, cooking and eating is a big part of family and get-togethers,” Templet says.
    
Templet began his career at Flanagan’s restaurant in Thibodaux, honing his skills and moving up the ranks. Today, he serves as executive chef for Flanagan’s and its sister fine dining restaurant, Fremin’s, while overseeing both restaurants.
    
This past May Templet came in second in the fifth annual Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off with his Zapp’s potato chip-crusted drum topped with crab and Tabasco corn relish over crawfish, bacon and asparagus risotto. The dish became an honored entrée at the two Thibodaux restaurants.
  
 “I think it will be a great special to do again,” Templet says.
    
Although Templet won accolades for his seafood, his culinary tastes run the gamut. He aims to use the freshest ingredients, including wonderful seafood from producers around Thibodaux; offer good French service; be innovative; and stay ahead of trends, he says.
    
“Inspiration comes from everywhere,” he says. “We’re trying to stay fresh and current.”
    
In addition to fine dining, Fremin’s offers special events such as an intimate Chef’s Table for private dining, wine dinners with six to eight courses paired with wine, murder mystery dinners and comedy shows. The upstairs seating can accommodate 120 for catered events, as well.
    
Thibodaux is only a short drive to New Orleans – “a culinary mecca,” Templet asserts – but he wants to keep people dining happily without making the drive.
    
“I want to put Thibodaux on the culinary map,” he says.
    
For information about Fremin’s and Flanagan’s, visit fremins.net.

 

Best Chef Emeritus

Randy Cheramie: Nicholls State University's Chef John Folse Culinary Institute in Thibodaux

Randy Cheramie watched his father and grandmother work nonstop at their popular restaurant, Randolph’s, along Bayou Lafourche in Golden Meadow. His father had created the business after returning home from World War II, continuing a long-standing food tradition in the Cheramie family.
    
Bucking the trend, Cheramie headed off to college, earned degrees in theater and fine arts and landed a plum job at the Alley Theatre in Houston where he worked for years.
    
In 1979, the theater was forced to close for a year and Cheramie returned to Golden Meadow to work for a radio station. It was at this time that his father announced he was selling the restaurant. Unable to bear the idea of someone else owning Randolph’s, the younger Cheramie stayed at his father’s and grandmother’s elbows for a year and then took command of the restaurant, reinventing the scene as economics changed and teaching himself haute cuisine. The result was a hit.
    
“My father and grandmother were great French country cooks,” he explains. “The restaurant was an oasis, fine dining in the middle of nowhere. We were the restaurant of distinction.”
    
Because of its location near the Gulf, however, the restaurant was a slave to the weather. One September, Cheramie remembers, they suffered through four hurricane scares and two evacuations. He sold the restaurant in 2001.
    
And then a new window opened. Cheramie was offered an adjunct teaching job at Nicholls State University’s Chef John Folse Culinary Institute. Working his way up through the years, he now serves as executive director, teaching his passion for cooking to the next generation.
    
“There’s no better place to cook,” Cheramie says of South Louisiana. “Where else is getting around a table more important than here? Nowhere. It’s an honor to cook here.
    
“I’m glad I did it; my father would be proud,” Cheramie continues. “If he knew I’d be doing this, he’d be busting at the seams.”
    
Cheramie stills acts in local theater, doing two to three shows a year in New Orleans. He was most recently Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof for Tulane Summer Lyric Theatre.
  
 For information on the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute, visit nicholls.edu/culinary.

 

Best Banquet Chef

Norman Nichols II: Paragon Casino Resort in Marksville

Chef Norman Nichols II has traveled the world in his career, helming kitchens on major cruise lines; opening casino hotels in Niagara Falls; and working for 12 years in some of Manhattan’s finest – the Waldorf Astoria, the United Nations Plaza Hotel and the Metropolitan Opera House.
    
Nichols brings his 46 years of worldwide experience in the hospitality and casino industries to the vast collections of banquet service and dining venues at Paragon Casino Resort in Marksville. And although his culinary styles run the international gamut, much of his Paragon offerings will be South Louisiana cuisine, due to clientele from the surrounding areas.
    
“You have to maintain the local cuisine because of demographics,” Nichols explains.
  
Nichols is no stranger to Cajun and Creole cuisines. His Louisiana experience includes re-launching the Harrah’s Casino in Lake Charles, opening casinos in Baton Rouge and Shreveport and serving as a consultant in New Orleans. Nichols has even taught Creole cooking in Hong Kong.
    
At Paragon, he’s working to update the catering menus and offer more fresh ingredients and more variety.
  
 “We’re trying to take it to the next level,” he says.
    
Nichols recently cooked with Troy Landry, star of the History Channel’s reality show Swamp People, for a special demonstration in the casino’s Mari Showroom.
    
“I enjoyed working with him,” Nichols says. “He has a great knowledge of Cajun cuisine.”
    
Nichols is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and the James Beard Foundation. He is a certified executive chef with the American Culinary Federation and a Commandeur and Vice Conseiller Culinaire with Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs.
    
Will small-town Marksville be enough for a chef of the world?
  
 “There are a lot of places smaller than New York,” Nichols says to put things in perspective. “I’m very happy to be here.”
    
For more information on Paragon Casino Resort, visit paragoncasinoresort.com.

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