|The local chefs taking our culinary culture to the next level|
When nationally renowned chef Donald Link was considering a second location for his phenomenally successful New Orleans restaurant, Cochon—an “upscale Cajun” eatery that has been referred to as one of the Crescent City's best by The New York Times and USA Today—he considered Baton Rouge, where he cut his teeth at Sammy's Grill.
At least, he considered it briefly.
“I did think about it,” he says, pausing, then laughing without finishing the sentence.
In part, the former Baton Rougean's decision was economic: He wasn't sure the Capital City's market would be willing to pay a hefty premium for the organic chicken, rabbit and ribs that are his staples.
His decision was based on something more intangible, too: His less-than-flattering perception of our restaurant culture.
“Baton Rouge has a lot of places to eat, but it doesn't have a great restaurant culture,” Link says. “God help any place there that doesn't serve burgers and beer.”
That's not entirely fair, of course. Baton Rouge eateries have more to offer than pub fare. But Link is correct in that Baton Rouge is long on places to get a decent meal, but short on the unique, locally owned bistros, cafes and neighborhood restaurants that feature innovative or experimental dishes. The kind of places you find not only in the country's biggest cities, but in the kind of hip, Creative Class Meccas like Austin, Seattle and Charlotte that Baton Rouge aspires to rival.
Given the abundant natural resources of south Louisiana and the region's inherently unique Cajun-Creole-African-Italian-influenced culinary traditions, why shouldn't Baton Rouge be among those?
It's an issue that is challenging local chefs and restaurant owners alike. They say the city has a considerable pool of local talent that is largely and unfairly ignored by both the outside culinary establishment and by many Baton Rouge diners as well, who feel more comfortable in familiar chain outlets. Noshing on grilled chicken pasta while watching football on dining room TV monitors gets more play than a more custom-tailored—even if casual—dining experience.
“It's very white bread in Baton Rouge,” says Luca Di Martino, a Boston native who owns and operates the high-end gelateria, bakery and coffee house Latte e Miele.
“It's much more Anglo than the rest of the state; much more like New England in many ways.”
But the culture is changing—and for the better. In the five years since Di Martino relocated to Baton Rouge, he has noticed an evolution of the local dining scene and believes it is only going to continue. More local restaurants owned by young chefs are opening and enjoying success. More local menus are featuring innovative dishes and, significantly, farm-fresh, locally grown ingredients. Interesting food trends are taking root here and growing—pop-up restaurants, food trucks and the Slow Food movement, to name a few.
Above all, perhaps, diners are becoming better educated about the food they're eating and holding chefs to a higher standard.
“Locals are starting to demand more than just fried poboys,” says Beausoleil chef and co-owner Nathan Gresham, one of the city's rising food stars. “I'm starting to get calls from national publications. I think in the next five years you're going to see Baton Rouge's food scene take off.”
Breaking the chains
It's about time. In a city that prides itself on having great food, there's no reason restaurants shouldn't be up to the same standards Baton Rouge home cooks have in their own kitchens.
“Food is a way of life all over south Louisiana,” says Link, who grew up in the Lafayette area and can therefore speak with some authority. “People here cook a lot and they cook well.”
One need not look much farther than the collections of cookbooks in many local kitchens, where you're sure to find at least three of the four editions of River Road Recipes, the Junior League's community cookbooks that chronicle the rich history of local culinary traditions and reflect the talent and variety of Baton Rouge cuisine.
But there's a gap between the city's food culture and its restaurant culture. Yes, there are plenty of restaurants—an impressive one for every 150 people in East Baton Rouge Parish, compared to one for every 120 in New Orleans. But the majority are chain restaurants—predictable, generic, Americana feeding houses.
They're visible. They're everywhere. They're always packed. Baton Rouge is a community populated by petrochemical industry workers, state office employees and college students. It is conservative. It is Christian. It is Deep South.
Though there are now pockets of after-hours action on and around Third Street, this city still rolls up most of the downtown sidewalks before dark.
Baton Rouge is a big small town, and both the supply and demand for cutting-edge cuisine is lower than most foodies and chefs here would like.
“You don't have the income levels and the same number of professionals as you do in bigger cities,” Link says. “You don't have diners who are willing to pay $20 for a dish made with a farm-raised chicken when they can go down ?the street to Applebee's and get one for $9.95.”
Light the fire
Chefs will tell you they feel the frustration, though they are understandably reticent to say anything negative about their patrons or the community in which they live and work.
And they do feel the push-back when they overhaul menus or introduce innovative new dishes.
When chef Elton Hyndman and his wife Randee bought Nino's Italian Restaurant four years ago from its long-time owners, they kept the familiar name but tweaked the cuisine, updating the menu from rich, Sicilian-style standards like veal parmesan and lasagna to lighter, Italian-influenced creations of handmade pasta and only locally grown produce.
“There was definitely a little anxiety, definitely a little backlash,” says Hyndman, who says in the years since arriving he has developed a loyal clientele.
Ruffino's chef Peter Sclafani has also worked hard to educate guests. He has manned the kitchen there for 13 years, but only been a part owner since 2010. Only recently has Sclafani had the complete freedom to introduce his unique and experimental cooking methods to diners—sometimes with mixed results.
“We do something here called balsamic caviar, and a lot of people don't want to try it at first,” Sclafani says. “They say they're allergic to seafood or they don't like caviar.”
It takes a little hand-holding and an explanation of the method Sclafani uses to create the look and feel of caviar from aged balsamic vinegar to convince diners it's worth trying. He mixes it with a gelatin-like substance called agar then combines the liquids with frozen vegetable oil, puts it in a squeeze bottle and drops it into water to make perfect, caviar-size balls of balsamic.
Judges at this year's New Orleans Wine and Food Experience (NOWFE) thought it worth trying. They awarded Sclafani a gold medal for a Burrada Salad he made topped with the balsamic caviar. Burrada is a mozzarella-like cheese Sclafani makes by hand and stuffs with a foie gras mousse. He also won a gold for a dish of pork cheeks and bacon jam.
“I think a lot of times people think Baton Rouge chefs are not as good as New Orleans chefs,” says the New Orleans-born Sclafani, the only Baton Rouge chef to take home any medals from NOWFE this year. “The talent is here; people just don't recognize it.”
Some of it may be a lack of awareness on the part of local diners, but there is little doubt that many homegrown chefs leave the area once they're trained. Meanwhile, out-of-town talent doesn't come in the first place. The local market just doesn't command that level of interest or respect—at least, not yet.
“It's hard to find the right wait staff and cooks in smaller markets [like Baton Rouge],” Link says. “The cooks and waiters who are serious and career-minded are lining up outside the restaurants in the big food cities.”
Will Baton Rouge ever be a big food city? There are indications it is heading in what industry insiders view as both a positive and progressive direction.
While that trend has been in the works for years, it got a boost with the influx of Katrina evacuees in 2005 and has been sustained by the influence of 20- and 30-somethings who grew up watching celebrity chefs on cable TV and have a greater appreciation for progressive cuisine than, perhaps, their parents and grandparents.
At Beausoleil, Gresham is himself a product of that generation and has received regional recognition for the upscale-but-down-home dishes he serves at his Bocage-area restaurant. His food is familiar yet prepared with a fresh, innovative twist. Take the classic shrimp and grits, a standard on Louisiana brunch menus. Gresham's version features a goat cheese grit cake topped with jumbo shrimp in Andouille gravy.
For his fall menu, Gresham has prepared a spaghetti squash hash with Louisiana blue crabmeat, and one of his favorite new creations is a purple rice flour waffle, which is made from Louisiana purple rice and is paired with a variety of fresh seafood toppings.
“[Baton Rouge is] not the fine dining of New Orleans or the straightforward Cajun of Lafayette,” Gresham says. “It's a little touch of both, and it's uniquely ours.”
Downtown, Chris Wadsworth of Restaurant IPO on Third Street is winning raves from his contemporaries for doing a tapas menu of Louisiana-influenced dishes. Among his more unique creations are a deviled egg topped with a fried oyster and mini tacos stuffed with redfish ceviche and Andouille bacon bits.
Many of the younger chefs are also more serious about using fresh, local foods in their dishes. Hyndman at Nino's uses only two canned ingredients in his entire menu: hearts of palm, for his house salad, and tomatoes for his marinara. Everything else is fresh and homemade, including his breads, pastas and pizza doughs.
Like Sclafani, Di Martino makes homemade cheeses—his are ricotta and mascarpone—the key ingredients in cannoli and other Italian favorites he serves.
“It makes a huge difference,” Di Martino says. “I don't care what anyone tells you. If you crack open a white egg from the supermarket next to one of these local farm eggs that are so buttery with that dark, orange tone to them, you can't believe it. It makes a completely different product.”
Other chefs are equally passionate about fresh, local products. Copper Alvarez, who runs the Red Stick Farmers Market, says more chefs from local restaurants, and even some from national chains, are buying locally at the market.
Baton Rouge chefs are embracing the Slow Food movement, too. As its name implies, it celebrates the return of healthful, artfully prepared meals using locally grown ingredients. Baton Rouge's Slow Food chapter hosts regular farm dinners and events. Similarly, many chefs are embracing the Farm-to-Table movement.
“I get all my pork from a farmer in Kentwood, and all of my seafood from Louisiana producers,” Gresham says. “My chicken eggs come from a guy in Woodville, ?Mississippi. I drive there myself to get them.”
Sclafani's bacon comes from a farmer in Benton,Tenn., who takes such serious pride in his product he actually interviewed Sclafani before agreeing to sell to him.
“He wanted to know how we were going to use his bacon,” Sclafani says. “He wanted to make sure it was up to their standards.”
The table has turned
If older diners accustomed to roux-based Louisiana comfort food favorites like crawfish etouffee are not noticing the artisanal ingredients showing up in local restaurants, younger diners are.
They are the ones demanding better quality and forcing the market to respond, say local chefs. You can see evidence of it with the food trucks, which boast some of the most creative and locally sourced menus in the city. What those trucks were doing two years ago is now showing up on more local restaurant menus.
“I find people here are open to anything right now,” Gresham says. “They're willing to experiment and try new things.”
As Baton Rouge continues to grow, Gresham and others in his industry are optimistic that local diners will become more open-minded. There is still a long way to go, but for those who have staked their fortunes on the local restaurant scene, the future looks promising.
“I think we underestimate the diners in this town,” Hyndman says. “We're not challenging them enough, and they're up for it.”
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