Day Trips & Beyond: New Orleans School of Cooking
Cajun cooking made simply good
By Gerald E. McLeod,
9:00AM, Wed. May 18, 2016
It was a rainy weekend in the French Quarter. Showers and lightning had canceled the last acts on Saturday of Jazz Fest. The Sunday shows at the Fairgrounds went on despite heavy flooding.
On Monday, between showers and under threatening skies, with a group of friends, I ducked into the New Orleans School of Cooking (NOSOC) for a class in classic Louisiana cooking. What I got for fewer than three Hamiltons was a class act and lunch.
First off, let me say that I think Cajun food is a culinary nirvana. Southern Louisiana cuisine is a world treasure among the best regional cuisines. Jambalaya is nearly a perfect food. Cooking jambalaya or gumbo is basic and the foundation for so many other dining experiences. Cajun cooking is more art than science. I have had excellent results with several complicated recipes that are more science project than art project. Anyone could get the same results.
The class at NOSOC was a small epiphany for me. I learned a few things that my grandmother should have taught me, if she had known what Cajun food was. Instead, I was lucky enough to have Chef Kevin Belton demonstrate the finer points of Creole cooking. (To clarify, Creole cooking is “city food” and Cajun is “country food.” Because he grew up in New Orleans, Chef Kevin prefers to call his cooking “Creole.”)
Big Chef Kevin
The New Orleans School of Cooking is hidden on St. Louis Street between Chartres and Decatur streets around the corner from the courthouse and Paul Prudhomme’s K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in the French Quarter. The front part of the building is a tourist souvenir store of Louisiana spice mixes, kitchen tools, and a woman in the front window making pralines (pronounced “praw-leens”).
In the back of the building, separated by a wall of windows from the store are a large dining room with a half-dozen big round tables and a kitchen counter with a large mirror on the ceiling revealing the action on the stove top and the counter.
Big Chef Kevin is the kind of guy who takes charge of a room like a former professional football player – which the self-taught, 330-plus-pound cook was at a young age. Now he has found his calling in teaching others how to prepare the food that his mother and grandmother cooked.
From the start of the cooking demonstration Chef Kevin joked, prodded, and teased the packed dining room. The students were from all over the U.S. and several countries. The arrangement of the class was quite simple. We watched as Chef Kevin nonchalantly made gumbo, jambalaya, and pecan pralines. With a Larry Wilmore-like delivery, Chef Kevin was entertaining and informative, but never condescending unless you took yourself too seriously.
A Few Basic Rules
Having taught classes at NOSOC for more than 20 years, Chef Kevin’s delivery was as smooth as the pound of butter melting in the big stock pot on the stove. It was like sitting in a friend’s kitchen listening to him tell culinary heritage stories and give cooking tips.
To Chef Kevin, Creole cooking is simply adapting the recipe to what you have available. Even if that means making a gumbo with Kentucky Fried Chicken. “I’m going to teach you a few basic rules,” he said. “Then you go home and make it like you like it. No matter where you are, you can take what you’ve got and make a gumbo.”
Without much chance of giving away too many of Chef Kevin’s secrets, here are a few of the things I learned from him in less than three hours:• Making a roux is like making gravy. You’re basically cooking flour in oil. The length of time you cook it depends on how dark you want the roux. Stir it continuously. • Paprika is dried red bell pepper. • Andouille is a firm, smoked German sausage like the kind popular in Central Texas. • Frozen okra is less slimy than fresh. Sauté fresh okra to remove some of the sliminess. • Filé is fine green powder of young dried sassafras leaves. Don’t add it during cooking. Place it on the table to be added just before eating and to personal preference. • Never cook with plain water; always use a stock.
It’s All in the Roots
New Orleans cooking is so unique because of its roots, Chef Kevin said. “French, Spanish, Native American, African; everyone contributed from their home and replicated what they knew as best they could with what was available.”
The time seemed to fly by in the cooking class. It was a fun way to learn some basic cooking techniques that work in all kinds of dishes. Included in the price of admission were a couple of pitchers of Abita beer and a generous sampling of the gumbo, jambalaya, and pralines. “The most important part of Louisiana cooking is sitting at the table, visiting, and eating. It doesn’t matter what’s on the table,” Chef Kevin said in summation. “It’s who’s at the table that matters.”
The New Orleans School of Cooking and Louisiana General Store is at 524 St. Louis St. in the French Quarter. The school offers morning and afternoon classes with a rotating lineup of instructors. The classes range from relaxed demonstrations to intense hands-on instructions. Reservations can be made at www.nosoc.com or by calling 800/237-4841.
Look for Chef Kevin Belton on his new public television show New Orleans Cooking With Kevin Belton or pick up one of his Creole cookbooks.