September 8, 2015
A Culinary Safari in New Orleans (part 1)
from Chef George Sideras
I recently attended the annual Research Chefs Association (RCA) conference in New Orleans. I know many of you are wondering, “how could you deal with such hardship?” Well, this is one cross I am willing to bear.
For those of you not familiar with the RCA, it’s a chef-driven organization dedicated to product development, raising the bar of prepared foods, and bringing culinary knowledge to our industry. Their mission is to improve standards for food manufacturing by harnessing the power of the culinary arts and infusing it with food science technology. Their vision was to create a new discipline, aptly named ‘Culinology’.
I have been involved with this organization for over 15 years and have found that it has made me a better chef because I’ve gained a deeper understanding of the foods around me. I’ve always said that the true attraction of our industry is the ability to provide a mechanism of growth, knowledge and fraternity. The best way I’ve found to do this is by joining organizations such as the RCA and the American Culinary Federation.
I thought I would just highlight a couple of learning’s that I had during my stay in New Orleans.
New Orleans: Day One I rose out of bed at 3 a.m. to catch a flight to New Orleans. The very first thing I thought of when my feet hit the floor was, “what am I going to eat when I arrive in New Orleans?” My mind raced. Should I have breakfast or not? Will my lunch plans be enough? Did I make the right dinner reservations? How much can I eat one day?
Once I landed in New Orleans, I grabbed my bag and caught a cab direct to Acme Oyster, founded in 1910. Panic set in as I noticed the line was out the door and halfway down the street! My hunger was growing but luckily I had two things working in my favor: I was a single customer and I was wearing my chef’s jacket. The hostess looked at me and asked if I was a real chef— and dining alone. One nod and she ushered me along a line of sneering patrons directly to the oyster bar and a single empty bar stool.
There are few foodstuffs in life that are quite as good as eating fresh oysters— mere hours removed from the water. I quickly downed a half-dozen raw oysters using just a drop of lemon juice and a bit of horseradish. Tasting that briny, ocean saltwater fills your mouth and soul. Then it was on to a half-dozen grilled oysters with garlic and a pinch of Parmesan cheese. There is something about the experience at Acme Oyster, with its timelessness, friendly staff and fresh oysters that makes it my first stop whenever I get to New Orleans.
When finished I was hardly full, but since New Orleans is a rich culinary city I found myself already thinking ahead to my next stop and next meal. It seemed like an unbearable four hours away. As with any chefs’ meeting I quickly ran into some colleagues and we headed over to a “new” (as in within this century) addition to the New Orleans dining scene, Cochon Butcher. If you are a fan of house-cured meats and charcuterie work then this is the place to be. I will note that you might need a letter from your cardiologist to dine there as it is a full-fat and full-flavor operation. The duck pastrami sliders were awesome, as were the head cheese plate, muffuletta and my very favorite dish of the night— the hot Boudin sausage. It’s rare that everything you eat in the restaurant is a home run, but I can truthfully make the case about Cochon Butcher. I liked it so much so that I went back to eat there twice.
That night we also went to an RCA event that was hosted at the new Southern Food and Beverage Museum. This is a must-see for any food professional as it chronicles the history of food and drink in the south. It has a remarkable gallery representing every state in the south, as well as a collection of liquor and absinthe-related memorabilia. The display on Antoine’s restaurant, New Orleans first establishment, was particularly interesting with is original menus, china and kitchen implements. During our tour of the museum we were treated to instructional demos for preparing authentic gumbo and the perfect Saranac cocktail. I must admit I had a couple just to ensure I have the technique down correctly.