25 March 2015
The cultural melting pot of America’s Deep South has always bubbled over in Creole cuisine’s fascinating mix of European and African roots. In New Orleans and Louisiana, wildly flavourful bisques, stews and one-pot dishes such as redfish courtbouillon, shrimp remoulade, gumbo and crabmeat ravigote have always lured locals with their soulful, comfort food appeal, with the added bonus of piquant, exciting spiciness.
The Delta has always satisfied the heartiest of appetites - now it’s the source of a surprise food movement for epicureans in eternal quest of the next big thing: ‘haute’ Creole cuisine. Plating, rarefied technique and fusion ingredients - ironically adding layers to the ultimate original ‘fusion’ food - are taking these colonial creations into the twentieth century as fine dining.
Gaily striped and venerable grande dame Commander’s Palace is one of the first restaurants to coin the term ‘Haute Creole’. Here, Chef Tory McPhail combines seasonal culture and innovative flair with classics, sourcing ingredients within 100km.
Classic Creole Turtle Soup is served with a swirl of sherry to cut through the heavy, rich beef stock; shoestring potato-crusted Lyonnaise fish fuses disparate elements. And Creole Bread Pudding, usually topped with meringue and drowned in whisky sauce, is served as a soufflé so cloud-soft it could make a French chef weep.
Other New Orleans chefs like Justin Devillier at La Petite Grocery take core ingredients and run, transforming Creole’s signature turtle meat into a Bolognese with bucatini. At Restaurant R’evolution, artful ‘Modern Creole’ dishes reinvent what Louisianan chef John Folse calls the ‘swamp floor pantry’ of frog, crawfish and alligator. The hero ingredient of the gumbo (stew) is served with quail stuffed with oysters. Traditional beignet dessert (fried dough) becomes infused with coffee (at Commander’s Palace they are infused with peaches and topped with seared foie gras). While John Folse updates pots de crème with mocha, at elegant eatery Tableau in the French Quarter they are reimagined with cayenne and marshmallow fluff.
Chefs outside the regions are paying tribute too. Chef Danny Trace - alumni of the Commander’s Palace kitchen - grew up crabbing and crawfishing outside of Louisiana, and now riffs on his passion for Creole at Brennan’s in Houston. A Bayou country mama’s dish like Shrimp Chippewa is ‘flamed’ in cognac right at the table, over modern café staples sun dried tomatoes and goat cheese (as grits).
Trace’s Cast Iron Roasted Duck and Crawfish dish references quintessential flavours of both the South and Far East with rum and plum duck sauce. The entire template of a classic Creole dish may change here, not just the presentation. Trace’s Seafood Gumbo comes as an artfully plated and drizzled, fine dining tower – a new take on a traditionally soupy, simmering stew cooked by the family matriarch and served by the bowlful.
Creative chefs are marrying nostalgia for a uniquely indigenous cuisine, imbued with extraordinary history and memories of home and hearth, with their inevitable desire to see where its richness of texture and flavour will take them next. Lucky us.
As Creole fuses with other great cuisines and becomes elegantly updated with farm-fresh ingredients or infused with new ones, from chicory to Bourbon, we can follow its evolution, one bite at a time.