In its Prime

A sampling of cheeses from the St. James Cheese Company.

Great food is all about choices, and New Orleans will soon have a fantastic resource for fine cheeses at the St. James Cheese Company at 5004 Prytania St. Augmenting an already excellent neighborhood collection of restaurants, this specialty shop will provide the richness and depth of selection that only a dedicated affineur can offer.

Owner Richard Sutton traveled a long, circuitous road before finding himself back in New Orleans. A Tulane grad, he decamped to London in 2002 to pursue a banking career. His heart wasn’t in it (“I wasn’t very good at it anyway,” he admits) and he wound up in the employ of Paxton & Whitfield, London’s oldest cheese monger. Starting as a part-time employee, he eventually worked his way up to manager where he was in charge of selecting and supplying cheeses for Buckingham Palace, the House of Lords and several Michelin-starred restaurants.

“I’d always loved cheese, and as soon as I started working there it just clicked,” Sutton says. “I thought, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do.’ I had been there about two years when I said to my wife, Danielle, ‘Let’s do this in New Orleans.’” Katrina complicated his return, but Sutton persisted in his endeavor. Back in the city he now calls home, Sutton set out to create a shop where people could buy cheese and learn about it, as well through classes and private tastings.

St. James proprietors Danielle and Richard Sutton.

“Cheese wasn’t originally made because people wanted to have something to go with their wine,” he explains. “Rather, the first cheeses were designed to preserve the nutritional value of milk. By taking the moisture out of milk and leaving the solids, you can preserve that. The harder you make the cheese—that is, the more moisture you take out—the longer you can preserve it. At the same time, you need to control the organisms that are present in milk. These organisms can be beneficial and they also add flavor. For example, the blue inside of a blue cheese is a living mold. You don’t want that to die off. If it does, it allows for other bacteria to rise up. You want to nurture the organisms that have been put there by the maker throughout the life of the cheese.” And this is his role as an affineur, a cheese ager: to develop and bring out the flavor in the cheeses under his care.

The location is undergoing a complete renovation. One of the challenges of being a cheese monger as opposed to simply a reseller is finding ways to take care of many different types of cheese, each with individual needs. Sutton is building three separate climate-controlled storage areas, which will allow him to regulate both temperature and humidity as needed, and give him workspace to apply mists and washes to the rinds.

Each cheese has its own way that it needs to be handled, Sutton says, since each cheese is essentially alive. “We aim to make sure they are still growing, ripening and developing maturity of flavor while in our possession, rather than just slipping down a slope after purchase,” Sutton explains. His carefully selected inventory, culled from contacts he made in his London years, will be tended until he determines they are at their peak, at which time they will be made available for sale and then cut to order.

In addition to carrying many popular and unusual European cheeses, the shop will offer selections from the growing American artisanal cheese movement and familiar domestic cheeses. Fine charcuterie like prosciutto and salami will be available, along with pates from chef Pete Vasquez (formally of Marisol’s). Other local items will include yogurts from chef John Folse, European-style butters, and cheese accompaniments such as biscuits, breads and chutneys. “We’ll be serving some light food along the lines of sandwiches and salads. People can come in and have a cheese plate and buy a glass of wine from the Wine Seller next door.”

Such arrangements with his neighbors add to the evolving neighborhood synergy, and Sutton is proud to be part of it. “This is the message I want to get out—this is a tasting kind of shop. Whether you are a customer or a chef, come by and taste the cheese and decide for yourself what you think.”

Chef Paul Prudhomme on TV
Chef Paul Prudhomme on the set of his TV show.
photo courtesy of WYES/TV

In another sign of the revitalization of New Orleans, chef Paul Prudhomme is back in front of the camera at WYES-TV/Channel 12, hosting a new series called “Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Always Cooking!”

A local treasure, Prudhomme was able to rise to national prominence through his cookbooks and staid public television rather than the glossy wizardry of the Food Network. It is hard to believe that this quiet, soft-spoken man almost single-handedly inspired an untold number of apartment-dwellers to set off smoke alarms and terrify dates in their pursuit of blackened whatever. He is slimmer now, but his food is just as big as ever, and it is a joy to see him sitting behind a kitchen island again on TV, inspiring a new generation of foodies and providing new content for his considerable legion of fans.

The WYES-TV studios were swamped by seven feet of water and marinated in the noxious brew for the better part of a month. Much of the station’s 50-year-history was lost. Thankfully, underwriting allowed for a new set to be built for the show, and efforts were made to incorporate from the old set what few pieces could be salvaged from the flotsam.

A visit to the studio during the shooting revealed a bustling, bare bones space full of energy and the smell of great food. Halfway through the series’ 26 episodes, Show #15: Pressure to Cook was underway. The menu boasted corned beef brisket, baby back ribs with Louisiana barbecue sauce and New Orleans bread pudding with hard sauce. All items were prepared using a pressure cooker, a popular appliance in Europe and Asia which is currently enjoying renewed popularity here in the United States.

After the shoot, I spoke with him. He deflects compliments, instead singing the praises of his staff. Asked how K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, his restaurant in the French Quarter (426 Chartres St.), was faring, he said the building got through the storm in decent shape but that numbers were down. “We’re open again, but we need business,” he says. “Come on back.”

Try This
The foie gras terrine at Riche (Harrah’s Casino Hotel, 228 Poydras)
is a work of art. Baked inside a cylindrical brioche, sliced into decedent wafers and garnished with cooked cherries and a red-wine reduction, this is a dish that would make even the most militant vegan see the light.

Categories: Restaurants, The Dish