By Mona L. Hayden
Cooking with professional chefs in New Orleans has to be one of life’s most engaging experiences. Best of all, it’s available and affordable to wannabe chefs of any skill level. Let me share a recent experience in an apron in the Crescent City.
Meeting friends for a late lunch at Chef John Besh’s Domenica in the historic Roosevelt Hotel, I make a quick stop in the hotel gift shop. It was there I met Sally, a lovely lady who obviously shared my passion for great food and books. After mentioning my plans to attend three cooking schools and visit with several chefs, she graciously gifted me an autographed copy of Second Helpings, by Southern Living’s Morgan Murphy, which now sits on my shelf of treasured cookbooks. Gosh, I love New Orleans!
Sally suggested I try the roasted cauliflower with sea salt and whipped goat feta at Domenica’s and, of course, their renowned pizza. We opted for the wild mushroom with tomato, fontina, sweet onions, bacon and yard egg (not a typo), and both were insanely satisfying. The meal was closed with Affogato, a decadent dessert of vanilla gelato and a butter pecan biscotti, flooded with espresso.
Our first culinary adventure led us to The New Orleans Cooking Experience (thenoce.com) where Chef Frank Brigtsen was the instructor for the evening. A fifth generation New Orleanian, Chef Brigtsen’s fervor for the region is evident as he proudly tells us, “The backyard crawfish boil is the greatest cultural culinary experience you can have.” After spending seven years working with internationally acclaimed chef Paul Prudhomme, he and his wife established Brigtsen’s Restaurant in 1986.
Tucked inside a beautifully restored 19th century Victorian mansion, the NOCE offers authentic Creole and Cajun culinary classes for up to 12 guests. As you sip wine across the counter overlooking the cooktop in this sleek residential kitchen, you feel as if you’ve arrived early to a good friend’s dinner party. Each class includes recipes and instructions from a series of well-known chefs, unlimited wine service, and a multi-course dinner party to celebrate your newly honed skills. During the course you’ll learn about the multi-cultured history of New Orleans as well as pick up some great tips from professional chefs. Half-day sessions are available along with three and four day cooking vacations and private and special events.
Our menu consisted of crabmeat ravigote, crawfish shortcakes, corn macque choux (Indian smothered corn), and decadent pecan pie. These traditional recipes were intricately prepared and beautifully served among antique furnishing and art, to be shared with like-minded foodies who relished the opportunity to attend culinary classes here.
What I learned… How to make a 5-minute roux; that a box grater is ideal for shredding frozen butter into a pastry recipe (best tip ever!); that every bite should have a progression of flavors; and to quote Chef Frank, “Air is important to cooking but is never listed as an ingredient.”
The New Orleans Cooking Experience
Somewhat new to the scene (est. Nov, 2012) is Langlois Culinary Crossroads. Located in an 1850’s Sicilian market in New Orleans historic Marigny neighborhood, Lanlois, pronounced lang wah’, was named for the French housekeeper to Governor Bienville who taught French women how to cook with local produce, game, and seafood. This tradition continues seamlessly with Chef Amy Cyrex Sims featuring seasonal local ingredients in her recipes as well as fresh herbs harvested from pots just outside the front door.
“Food has always been my passion,” she says. “I wanted to share our food and culture and educate people to share with others, so I created Langlois.”
Recently recognized by Travel & Leisure Magazines [April 2014] as “one of the best cooking schools around the world”, Langlois can accommodate up to 30 guests onsite and 100 guests offsite with offerings of authentic Cajun/Creole cooking classes, culinary tours, private dining, cooking competitions, and team-building events.
Amy is also a reality cooking competition winner and author of the internationally acclaimed Ruby Slippers Cookbook: Life, Culture, Family and Food, that she penned after losing family recipes during Hurricane Katrina.
Our afternoon cocktail and appetizer class with Amy and Chef Tess Connors was both informative and entertaining. It featured a menu of crusty bread, southern style biscuits with ham and white gravy, pecan praline bites, and their interpretation of New Orleans cocktails such as Langlois French 75, Sazerac, and Hoodoo spiced coffee with chantilly cream. During class, Amy enthusiastically shared techniques and professional shortcuts, culinary history, and interesting tidbits of information. For instance, while making a Sazarac, New Orleans signature cocktail, she casually mentioned that adding basil flowers to vodka and freezing for three days to infuse, then mixing with lemonade, makes a refreshing summer drink. Who knew?
With local food products, some wine and spirits, and cookware available in the retail area, it was convenient to shop after class. Chef Amy also owns New Orleans Jazz Quarters (www.jazzquarters.com), a B&B in the French Quarter, making for the complete New Orleans experience.
What I learned… That bitters make a drink a true cocktail; otherwise it’s a toddy. I also learned how to make parsley oil; to freeze coconut water for ice cubes in rum drinks; that eggs crack better on a flat surface; to place a pastry (or ziplock) bag in a bowl and fold the edges over to fill for piping; and that adding powdered sugar to leftover whipped cream will keep it fresh longer.
Langlois Culinary Crossroads
For more casual cooking demonstrations sprinkled with trivial conversation, check the schedule at The New Orleans School of Cooking where guests learn how to make New Orleans classics like jambalaya and gumbo. They offer several daily demonstrations including four hands-on classes each week. With a medley of well-known local chefs, each class is interactive and engaging, making it a great event for groups, events, and celebrations. Private classes are also welcome. Inside the Louisiana General Store that sells Cajun and Creole products, cookbooks, spices, and cookware, the classroom is situated in the French Quarter in a renovated molasses warehouse, circa 1830.
During a Friday evening hands-on class, Chef Michael W. DeVidts led us through a menu of gumbo, fish/chicken with sauce meuniere, maque choux, and pralines, which we learned were originally an aperitif, a palate cleanser and not a dessert. Chef Michael actually worked with Julia Child in his career and is also a licensed tour guide. He kept our group busy at five individual workstations while he shared a plethora of useful culinary tales and tips. “If onions, celery, and bell pepper are the holy trinity,” he quipped, “then garlic is the Pope!”
What I learned… How to properly hold a chef’s knife to use for every application; that pecan oil makes the best roux ever; that you should season both the fish/chicken and the flour before frying; and that eating too many pralines can give you a serious sugar high!
The New Orleans School of Cooking
It’s impossible to be in New Orleans, even on a cooking school tour, without visiting several restaurants. Driving down St. Charles, we dropped in at the lively Irish House Restaurant to say hello to Chef Matt Murphy. With plenty of patio seating, the front door propped open and music beckoning in the hungry and thirsty, this Irish Pub serves lunch, dinner, brunch on weekends, a bar menu, and undoubtedly, happy hour during the week. A continuous lineup of live entertainment keeps the guests entertained as they dine on Irish favorites like shepherd’s pie, shaved corn beef, and bangers & mash. Plan to drop in for their Monday night Traditional Irish Session…
Irish House Restaurant
So take a road trip down and experience New Orleans like a local, where the only requirement is a robust appetite!