"The way [Hurricane] Katrina changed me," chef Brigtsen mused one sultry summer evening at the New Orleans Cooking Experience, "is that I'm more passionate about my home, more protective of my cuisine, and that's why I teach. I teach and I preach. As we diversify the types of food being cooked in the city of New Orleans, it's even more important to me to make gumbo and keep that going."
Along with his wife, Marna, they've owned Brigtsen's Restaurant for the past 28 years. Frank started his career as an apprentice in 1979 training under the great Cajun Chef Paul Prudhomme at the venerable Commander's Palace. In the early 1980s he moved with Chef Prudhomme to his revolutionary K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, the French Quarter's first upscale restaurant featuring down-home Cajun cuisine. Frank moved through the ranks from Night Chef to Executive Chef at K-Paul's before opening Brigtsen's Restaurant in 1986. Chef Brigtsen has garnered such honors as Food & Wine's 'Top Ten New American Chefs' (1988), New Orleans Magazine's 'Chef of the Year' (1994) and the James Beard Award for 'American Express Best Chef: Southeast' (2007).
Fellow New Orleans native Judy Jurisich founded the New Orleans Cooking Experience, focusing on Louisiana's Creole and Cajun cuisine in an elegant townhouse in 1994. With an enviable list of New Orleans chef/educators, New Orleans Cooking Experience offers small group classes in a spacious professional kitchen followed by lunch or dinner in the mansion's Queen Anne dining room. The venue is available for special events, multi-day cooking vacations and specialized private group classes. Chef Frank Brigtsen created the curriculum for the New Orleans Cooking Experience and teaches classes nearly every week.
"It's my mission in life. I was taught by Paul Prudhomme; it was one the greatest blessings in my life, and I want to give back and foster the next generation of New Orleanians to at least learn and respect the cuisine. Just because something's old doesn't mean it's not good anymore. I teach high school culinary kids; I teach university culinary school; I teach the public."
Growing up in River Ridge, in New Orleans north-western suburban Jefferson Parish, Frank was immersed in local Cajun and Creole foods at such neighborhood haunts as the dearly missed Charlie's Seafood. As an Acadian born in Philadelphia, and a chef/journalist, I wanted to entice from Frank his take on the confusion that often plagues most people's understandings as to the distinctions between Creole and Cajun cuisine.
There used to be a greater distinction between the two cultures. Based on geographic isolation in the bayous and class distinctions, there was a time when Cajun was like the 'N' word. "One of my best friends used to tease [his grandmother] that they're Cajun, 'Don't ever call me that; we're French people' [was her response]. It was a derogatory term."
That all changed in the early 1980s. "It was extremely formative years for American regional cuisine because that's when it became respected and a subject worthy for Gourmet and Food & Wine Magazine. And that had a lot to do with Paul Prudhomme and chefs like Larry Forgione in New York and Alice Waters in Berkeley."
"When Paul was chosen to be executive chef at Commander's Palace, that was before I knew him, it made front page because prior to that a European would get the position – a certified master chef perhaps. Not only was Paul not a European [with no] formal culinary training but a Cajun from Opelousas. It was a gamble by the Brennan's."
Then what Paul did at K-Paul's was take Cajun style cooking and put it into a French Quarter restaurant. Cajun food – one pot cooking – doesn't lend itself to the restaurant style yet he found a way to adapt without changing the ingredients. The explosion of interest in American regional cooking made Cajun food a buzzword. As trends tend to go it became overblown.
"People began to associate Cajun food with New Orleans, and we still kind-of snicker to ourselves when people say, 'I'm going to New Orleans to eat some spicy Cajun food.' The lines blurred, so we began to call it Louisiana Cooking as sort of an umbrella to describe this complex and multi-faceted cuisine."
"Like anything else in pop culture it got oversimplified, but I think the fact is, like any great regional cuisine, [Creole and Cajun] are based on local ingredients, and that's true if you're in Paris, Bangkok or New Orleans. The main thing [with New Orleans] is seafood. We have the mighty Mississippi River, which runs into the Gulf of Mexico creating this incredible estuary. The diversity of our seafood is unparalleled. There's literally always something in season. So to do this cuisine, whether you're in New Orleans or Paris or Bangkok, requires not only an understanding of the foundations but the ability to adapt, because the best seafood for you is the seafood in your backyard, not flying it from here."
"There's not a lot of meat associated with these cuisines, yet in fact in Cajun cuisine there's a lot. The roots of Acadian culture are living off the land and that means hunting. The heart of Cajun culture around Lafayette is not coastal. You can still get seafood, but it's New Orleans that's seafood oriented."
"Even in [modest size] grocery stores you'll find butchers. The pig is central to Cajun culture and we use everything, and you'll see not only sausages but also things like chaudin and ponce, which are the stuffed stomach of pig. Even gas stations will have boudan balls, cracklings, fried chicken...you'll find the best road food in [Cajun country]."
"For the 28 years that we've had Brigtsen's Restaurant I've never consciously made a decision to do any one style of food. Our menu changes daily, although it doesn't change dramatically. Two things I've learned in the restaurant business. First when I was changing the menu dramatically every day people complained, 'well I had this dish last week and I've brought my friends and now you don't have it,' so I learned I'm not cooking for myself; I'm cooking for my guests. And the second there are different kinds of diners. There are the cravers, the ones who are coming to the restaurant because they want a particular kind of dish, and then there's the adventurous ones who want that 'new thing;' they want something different every time. So you have to balance, and that's what we try to do."
"In food and in life, it's diversity that adds the flavor. I don't limit myself in any way. I continue to do what I've always done – cook seasonally, cook with local products. There's a term for that now, farm-to-table, but we've been doing that forever."
"Being a Creole chef there are no limits, because what ever the [origin of the] cuisine we're all tapped into it. Filé, sweet potatoes and corn are Native American foods. African slaves cooking for French aristocrats in the French Quarter, trying to learn French tastes, were going to the market buying ingredients from Native Americans and Sicilians." African slaves brought rice and okra. Hot peppers came from Spanish Mexico and Central America. A cosmopolitan interplay of cultures defines Creole.
"There are events in the world that have changed the way we eat here. In my lifetime [it was] the Vietnam War and the huge influx of Vietnamese [refugees]. Many became shrimpers and fishermen. They have their own community here in New Orleans East, and it's ever growing."
One thing that the Vietnamese changed was elevating 'trash fish' – tuna, mahi-mahi and cobia. Red snapper, pompano and speckled trout were the fish of choice for generations, anything else was trash. Louisiana lands more elephant tuna than any mainland state, yet it was only a game fish to past generations. K-Paul's changed that for the restaurant industry in New Orleans.
"It's interesting to see the city's continued evolution [especially] the cultural demographics of post-Katrina. I bet 20% of the population is new residents. So we have palates that weren't raised on gumbo. We've doubled the number of restaurants from 700 to 1,400, but I'd be hard pressed to name any of the new ones that are Creole or Cajun. It's not the food of the 20th century, there's all manner of things, and this is how the cuisine continues to evolve. Latin and Asian influence is huge."
"The [post-Katrina] city of New Orleans is better than it ever was in many ways. There are some areas that we needed to change. The public school system was decrepit, and now we have a lot of charter schools. Laissez-faire politics is less today; it's more civic minded. We are 'Hollywood South,' and we'll always have hospitality. Through adversity the spirit rises."
Disclosure: the author was a guest of The New Orleans Cooking Experience , 1519 Carondelet Street , New Orleans, LA 70130 (504) 430-5274
Brigtsen’s Restaurant , 723 Dante Street, New Orleans, LA 70118 (504) 861-761