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Friday, January 07, 2005

Because Chef Girard Says So: New Orleans Cooking Experience

I think I might have mentioned that my spouse is not the easiest person to buy gifts for. Formulating a plan for a wedding gift was particularly so. I'd thought about getting him a pocket watch, but it's not big on the general usefulness, and then he got his cool skeleton/pirate watch, so that was a no go. I'd also considered getting him a black pearl stud earring to wear, but difficulties also developed there (genuine black pearls are huge; I wanted him to pick a size he was comfortable with, etc., etc.). I can't even recall what sparked inspiration, but I am thankful.

Inspiration came late indeed. It wasn't until the Tuesday before the wedding that I thought of doing a cooking class. M had done one with his group at work at the California Culinary Academy some years back and had really enjoyed it, so once the idea had occurred to me, I just had to find the right place.

This proved challenging, and for once, luck was on my side after tango-ing me dangerously close to a greivous error. I hit on page of events, a cooking class among them, that happened to be hosted by Ethan Phillips (Neelix on DS9). I wasn't paying too much attention, as I immediately clicked through to the New Orleans School of Cooking and Louisiana General Store. But then I came across a Cocktail Tour and, wouldn't you know it, it was hosted by Robert O'Reilly (Gowron on DS9 and a host of other characters throughout the Roddenberryverse, most of them in heavy makeup).

Being a total dumbass, I thought, "Wow, that's a coincidence! Could it be that the Big Easy is where second-tier Star Trek actors go to die?" It is, of course, the Web Page for a Con.

I didn't really care for the feel I got for the cooking classes at the NOSOC website, so I looked further. I found a dozen or more similar quickie classes, none of which grabbed me. When I came across New Orleans Cooking Experience, I liked the fact that they actually hosted cooking vacations (my afterlife, if I have one, had bloody well better be one long cooking vacation). Anyone that hardcore can host my half-day class anytime.

The website is very pretty, but not the best venue for actually conveying information. I found out from a third-party website about the cost and format of the classes and so forth. If the website has some shortcomings, Judy and Jane, the brains behind the operation, more than make up for it. I sent off an e-mail at about 5:30 PM, asking about availability during the week of our honeymoon, and before I left work for the day, I had a response from Judy saying they just happened to have two slots for Wednesday afternoon. She held them for me, and gave me her cell phone number. She suggested the gift certificate idea as well, and hand delivered it to the Sheraton. By the time I woke up Wednesday morning, Jane had sent me my receipts and detailed information on how the day would play out.

We'd hemmed and hawed about driving versus taking a cab, but the dire warnings about independent cabbies in the info packet eventually swayed us to delve into our mint-in-box rental car. The Yahoo directions left a lot to be desired, pointlessly sending us on an expressway only to find that the specified exit was purely mythical. Sadly, the magical nextel GPS picked this inopportune moment to fail thoroughly while still sucking battery life.

We had wisely left plenty of time for getting lost, though, and we made it to the gorgeous House on Bayou Road in good time. The house was built in 1798 and was run as a "petite" Indigo Plantation. We only saw the common areas, a large room off the main entrance, a pass-through parlor near the stairs, the cozy (really! It's small, but not cramped), and the Kitchen, AKA the set for my afterlife.

It has an L-shaped counter with the long part off to the right, past the to-die-for fridge. Part of this was taken up with one cooktop and a potrack set back inside the original chimney, which had been hollowed out, leaving the original brick framework. The upright oven/broiler was just beyond that with a bit more counterspace past it. The double sink took up most of the short bar on the far side from the entrance . Nestled inside the L is a long, wide island with a perfectly sized sink and yummy. yummy. cooktop, with plenty of room for the ten of us to pull up stools around it for the presentation.

There were two sets of French doors opening out on to the yard and the pool, one directly behind those of us sitting on the long side of the bar, and another past the breakfast table, which was just on the other side of the sink. There were also racks of beautiful, fragile-looking stuff behind us, which I lived in fear of shoving backward into.

Other than us, the students included two sisters and their mother who had driven in from Lafayette (I think); a couple probably in their late 50s/early 60s who seemed to run a food and wine website; another couple who were guests at the bed and breakfast (and who seemed foolishly uninterested in the class); and one lone guy who had some connection the NOCE people and had taken a number of classes already.

Our Chef was Frank Brigsten, and he's definitely my gourmet chef boyfriend. I don't think M will mind, because I'm pretty sure Frank's his gourmet chef boyfriend, too. He started as an underling at Commander's Palace when Paul Prudhomme was Executive Chef there. When Chef asked how he felt about soups and sauces, Frank wisely exhibited enthusiasm for both that he hadn't known he'd possessed until that moment, and off he went to K-Paul where he started out as Night Chef and eventually became Executive Chef. In Frank's words, Paul pushed him out the door when he was ready and loaned him the money to start Brigsten's. And with this touching story did my weakness for food!porn and collegiality!workplace happiness!porn cross paths. Bury me at the House on Bayou Road, people.

While I was suffering through my finals, I fangirled all over Chicagowench about scoring the reservations, and she revealed the hidden Chef Frank connection. One sad fact that I learned during the course of the day is that he seldom travels to do dinners elsewhere. In fact, he's only made two exceptions, and one of them just happens to have been the dinner that 'wench, and J (and possibly AKS) attended at Forty Sardines, the restaurant we regularly terrorize when we're guests at Casa Wombata. It seems that Frank is a friend of Debbie and Michael (the chefs at 40), and even trained up their Sous Chef (I want to say Big John? Memory is dim with so many Manhattans between us) in Louisiana cooking.

The menu for the day was: Oysters Rockefeller; Chicken and Andouille file gumbo; Trout Meuniere with shrimp; and pecan pie. We basically sat and sipped delicious tea while Frank did all the cooking. All the ingredients had been prepped in advance, which allowed us to concentrate on higher mysteries than how to dice an onion.

We started with the pie, due to the time necessary to coax it to perfection. I suspect that the decision was also motivated by the little magic trick he showed us right off the bat. I tend to avoid dessert production whenever possible, leaning to more forgiving gustatory areas, such as bacon-based dishes (which reminds me: Yo, 'wench! I have TOPPED THE BACON DIP. I repeat! I have mastered a dish that will kill us much more quickly and efficiently than THE BACON DIP).

I don't have the patience or eye for detail that most desserts require, and dough is a huge part of that. The dough is, in general, not a friend. At least not without Chef Frank's magic trick: You FREEZE the butter and then GRATE it into the flour and viola! No giant fatty chunks of butter that. won't. blend. in! As M said, "If he'd shown us that and said, 'Thank you, that's my presenation. That' be $20,' I'd have walked out of there satisfied." He also advocates doing as much as possible by hand (no dough blender touched the crust, and the rest of the recipe, including the whipped cream, was mixed by hand with a wire whisk).

The second key element was to use a combination of crushed, roasted pecans (which tend to lie low in the pie and infuse the lower parts with that flavor), and unroasted medium pecan pieces, which float up and roast during baking, without burning. No, this is not rocket science, but in Og!World, it falls under the heading of "sufficiently advanced technology and therefore indistinguishable from magic."

We started on the Rockefeller next, and he told us a little bit of the history of the dish and attempts to duplicate Antoine's recipe on no bigger a clue than the fact that it was based on ingredients commonly found in relish trays. His recipe did not contain spinach, substituting other greens instead, and I note that spinach is widely assumed by experts to have been a myth perpetrated by Roy Alciatore to throw people off the scent.

As he did all the cooking, Frank kept us amused with tidbits of history and bits advice on how adventurous to get and in what arenas. By the time he'd finished the Rockefeller, I was a convert to the "prep everything first" school of thought, which is completely antithetical to my slovenly nature (I often start a dish only to find that I'm lacking at least two key ingredients [and don't even ask about the killer risotto {that's killer in the bad and literal sense}]). I was also relieved to have the burden of shucking my own oysters lifted from me (Tampopo convinced me of many things, but the sexiness of slicing into your own palm with an oyster knife was not one of them), and in the future, I shall feel free to shamelessly beg empty shells for serving.

And then there was the gumbo, sweet gumbo. His recipe is nonstandard in a number of ways. First, he caramelizes a portion of the onion with a portion of celery and bell pepers in the stock pot before he does anything else. I and at least one other woman sat tensely by while he chatted for a good 10 minutes while those cooked over high heat, giving them only about two casual stirs the whole time. "Brown is the color of flavor." Eureka! How man conversions can one woman undergo in one day! Second, he pan fries the chicken (and that oil is used as the basis of the roux) and oven roasts the andouille before either goes into the broth. Most shocking of all, though, he makes a brown roux and adds it as the very last step.

Making a roux is a harrowing experience, and I think I'd never have tried it if I hadn't been able to watch him in action. My firm belief in thickening what needs thickening by adding ever more cheese (see above re: the race to kill us all) is based on fear (well, and the desire to kill us all). But having watched the process, seen the signs, rolled the bones, and sacrificed the chicken, I Can Do This. That said, I panicked my first time out (New Year's Eve) and added too much flour.

Before he'd started the roux, he worked perhaps the most valuable magic of all. We're talking one hoopy frood who always knows where his towel is levels of cool: He taught us how to make foolproof rice. The recipe we got says "Brigtsen's perfect rice," but he acknowledges that it was really the perfect rice recipe he received secondhand from the kitchen of "Chef Girard." On the "know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em" front, he set his timer for 17 minutes and said, "Why 17 minutes? Because Chef Girard said so."

The preparation of the Trout Meuniere was likewise a cooking and history lesson combined. With my anti-French-Teflon-Coated Wernicke's Area, I had no idea that "Meuniere" meant "in the style of the Miller's wife." To his mind, the name demands a sauce that has browned bits of flour from the cooking of the fish. Thus, he uses the butter and pan from that to make the sauce, deglazing the pan all the while. Most recipes sternly warn against getting any flour in the sauce, but it was heavenly Frank's way.

The Meuniere preparation really beautifully summed up his whole approach and what was so appealing about the whole experience. None of the dishes was "His." They were deliberately, emphatically standard New Orleans dishes. But still, each was his take on it, and at every step he explained why he made the choices he did. He never once had anything negative to say about another chef's take on the same dishes. The closest thing I heard him say to a negative was that New Orleans cooking is incredibly trend resistant, and even that was said so pleasantly that I wasn't entirely sure he was listing it as a minus.

When he'd finished the trout demonstration, we all repaired to the dining room and started in on the wine as he prepped the rest of the actual meal (magical rice in quantity and 12 servings of the trout). In light of Frank being M's brand new gourmet chef boyfriend, he took the plunge and tried the oysters. If one is anti-oyster, Rockefeller is the way to go, as the squishyness is roasted out and topped with deliciousness. I feel like a rotund Solomon, but it is impossible for me to choose between these and the Chorizo Oysters Rockefeller I had at Salpicon for Valentine's Day two years ago. The gumbo and magic rice came next and we were nearly reduced to tears by its beauty.

While we were trying to figure out how to stuff as much gumbo as possible into something portable, the good folks of the house (the cooking school, actually) visited with us. Judy and I had bonded via e-mail over the fact that her husband, too, is an anthropologist, and she told me more about the story of the school. She'd been working in marketing and PR and she crossed paths with her childhood sweetheart when he was nearing the end of his rope with grad school. They'd both spent their childhood in NO, and decided that they wanted to go back there.

They married and moved back and she fell into another dissatisfying PR job. When she told a friend that she'd always dreamed of doing a unique type of cooking school, he encouraged her to draw up a business plan. She hooked up with Jane who helped her find investors and they started scouting locations. The House on Bayou Road was the first place they saw and, even though they knew it was perfect, they shopped around but kept coming back to it. More collegiality!porn for moi---it's obvious that everyone involved truly loves the project. We were also visited by Ping Pong, the sleek, one-eared Siamese cat who tried to fool us into thinking that he got fed from the table.

Once the trout was served, Frank came out and chatted with both tables, whisking the veil from the final mystery of the afternoon. One might think that battered trout (or flounder, as it happened, as any "Firm, tender, flakey, white, like Frank" fish will do) in a rich butter sauce could stand alone. Not in the Big Easy, it seems. He explained that in New Orleans, if it doesn't have crabmeat, oysters, or shrimp on top of it, people simply will not order it. In the early days at Brigsten's they tried several dishes never sold a single order until they added one of the usual suspects to the top.

Neither M nor I is a particular fan of pecan pie, not, like, in a "death to it" sort of way, but it's not at the top of our lists. This was pie perfection. No doubt about it, it was where pies went to die---slightly warm, wonderful texture, not overwhelming in sweetness, and a crust that was more than the envelope you tear up and throw away. And to accompany it? A perfectly pefect cup of coffee.

Judy gave us a mini-lecture on the house's history and architecture before we had to venture out into the pouring rain. I managed to stave that off a few moments longer by having an "ooh shiny!" moment in the main room, which had a cabinet filled with gorgeous jewelry designed by the manager of the bed and breakfast. She has been kind enough not to bankrupt me further by not having a website for the jewelry and asking an amount out of my price range (I mean, not in TLBO price range or anything, but still).

We rolled back to the hotel to plot out our evening. We decided to venture down to Canal Place to see Sideways: Leave it to us to pick a movie about failure, relationship implosion, and infidelity for our honeymoon. We both enjoyed it, but I can't say that I see what the raves are about. I concur with the sentiment that Paul Giamati was sadly overlooked for American Splendor and they're trying to make up for it now. Also, I spent the whole movie unnerved by how much Giamati's voice and speech patterns resemble those of Tom McBeath (Maybourne from SG1).

Afterward, we headed to Crescent City Brewhouse for a late, relatively light dinner. Tasty food, as always, but really lousy service. After ignoring us for nearly half an hour, our server half-heartedly apologized, blaming the prep time for one of our dishes. I can't see what that has to do with not offering us another beer or even some freakin' water, but hey.

The siren song of Harrah's called on the way back to the hotel, and we played a bit of three-card poker and some video machines. I'd found myself a nice video blackjack machine until a woman came and sat next to me and proceeded to light cigarette after cigarette without taking a single drag. This ensured that every last molecule of smoke was blown directly in my face by the ventilation. Yeah, I know, casino, I'm not really bitching about something I could have easily avoided, but it's strange behavior to someone who's never smoked.

And so, to bed.

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