Saturday, April 13, 2019

Books Along the Teche Literary Festival Features Great Southern Chefs Bonnie Breaux and Ryan Trahan

Chefs Bonnie Breaux and Ryan Trahan (used with permission from Lee Ball)
In Louisiana, good food is serious business. We prize our oyster beds, our redfish, catfish, and crawfish. We can batter and fry almost anything and when we aren't doing that we are making a roux and creating a delicious etouffee or gumbo.  From Natchitoches meat pies to crabmeat pizzas in Arnaudville, from crawfish in Breaux Bridge to oysters in New Orleans, we love good food.

That might be why the Great Southern Chefs Food Demo at the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival in April is always a popular event.

This year the cooking demo featured 2017 Louisiana Seafood Queen Bonnie Breaux of Cafe Sydnie Mae in Breaux Bridge and chef Ryan Trahan of Blue Dog Cafe in Lafayette. Ryan is the 2018 King of American Seafood.

The event filled up quickly Friday morning at the Steamboat Warehouse Pavilion on Bayou Teche in New Iberia. I skipped breakfast that morning because I knew we would soon be sampling delicious bowls of crawfish etouffee and Louisiana shrimp and grits.

Before the chefs demos, we were treated to a discussion by author Ken Wells about his new book, Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou:

A seasoned journalist, Ken Wells sleuths out the answers. His obsession goes back to his childhood in the Cajun bastion of Bayou Black, where his French-speaking mother’s gumbo often began with a chicken chased down in the yard. Back then, gumbo was a humble soup little known beyond the boundaries of Louisiana. So when a homesick young Ken, at college in Missouri, realized there wasn’t a restaurant that could satisfy his gumbo cravings, he called his momma for the recipe. That phone-taught gumbo was a disaster. The second, cooked at his mother’s side, fueled a lifelong quest to explore gumbo’s roots and mysteries. 
In Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou, Wells does just that. He spends time with octogenarian chefs who turn the lowly coot into gourmet gumbo; joins a team at a highly competitive gumbo contest; visits a factory that churns out gumbo by the ton; observes the gumbo-making rituals of an iconic New Orleans restaurant where high-end Creole cooking and Cajun cuisine first merged.

Mr. Wells's talk was peppered with funny stories and one point that interested me was his research into the earliest gumbos and his discovery that more than likely bear grease was used as the oil for the roux.

Author Ken Wells (photo used with permission from Lee Ball)

"New Orleans was awash in bear grease!" he told us.

This made perfect sense to me.  Elizabeth Shown Mills talks about this in her book The Forgotten People: Cane River's Creoles of Color.  By 1792, Marie Therese Coincoin, a former slave given her freedom by Pierre Thomas Claude Metoyer, was successfully farming tobacco on land given to her by Metoyer. She shipped this tobacco on barges to New Orleans. She also "trapped wild bears in the Natchitoches wilderness and sent bear grease to market..." (Mills 39).  Mills reports that Coincoin sent, in one particular shipment, three hundred hides and two barrels of bear grease.  This was a fairly common practice at that time and so Ken Wells comments resonated with me.

During the course of his research, Mr. Wells even obtained a small container of bear grease from a supplier and tested the bear-grease-roux.

His book is a fascinating study in the history of our most beloved dish and after his talk, Mr. Wells signed copies of his book.

The first cooking demo of the morning was chef Bonnie Breaux. An animated, enthusiastic chef, Miss Breaux says she is self-taught and learned to cook at her mother's side and later out of necessity to feed her family. Most recently Breaux had been the chef at St. John restaurant in St. Martinville (one of our favorites!) and Cafe Sydnie Mae is a sort of sister restaurant in Breaux Bridge.

Breaux shared her crawfish etouffee secrets with the crowd at the Steamboat Warehouse Pavilion and stressed the importance of  using the crawfish fat in the etouffee.  "That's where all your flavor is," she said.  When asked what kind of rice she uses, Breaux said she just uses regular medium or long grain rice in her etouffee.  There's a time and place for jasmine rice and the other gourmet grains, but not in a Louisiana etouffee. She also shared that she never tastes her food while she's cooking it.

Chef Ryan Trahan followed and his dish was shrimp and grits.  Trahan grew up in a restaurant family
Trahan's Shrimp and Grits (photo used with permission from Lee Ball)
and is from Crowley, Louisiana. His rule in the kitchen: "Everyone stirs the grits," he said.  "If you walk by, you stir the grits. If I walk by, I stir the grits. Everyone stirs the grits."   The rule must work pretty well because his shrimp and grits were to die for; the grits were creamy and the dish was seasoned with Trahan's own Worcestershire sauce.

Breaux and Trahan were available and visible throughout the day, talking to festival participants and sharing cooking stories. They were both at the evening event at the Sliman theater as well.

There is no shortage of fabulous chefs in Louisiana but festival organizers were on top of the game when they scored these two "royal" chefs for the demo this year!

Coming next in my Festival recap: Taking the Second Line through Historic Main Street

Thank you to photographer Lee Ball for allowing me to use his photos!

Further Reading:
2018 Small Town Chefs: Bonnie Breaux (Country Roads Magazine, 6/22/18)
Gumbo Life, Tales from the Roux Bayou (Robert Davis, New York Journal of Books)
About the Chef: Ryan Trahan (Blue Dog Cafe)
Voter's Choice (Vicky Branton, The Daily Iberian, 10/24/18)
Author Rebecca Wells Charms the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival (SIGIS, 4/10/19)

No comments: