Monday, March 28, 2011

Setting the Bar

Assietes of crudo for the Restaurant R'evolution bar
We’re in the midst of formulating the cocktail and food programs for Restaurant R'evolution's bar. We’re tentatively calling it “Bar R’evolution” – what do you think? We’re in what I call “think tank mode” right now, generating and polishing up our ideas, which we’ll present to the team in tastings next month. The bar menu will offer seasonal, market-driven cocktails with a pre-Prohibition theme, great wines by the glass, artisan beers, and its own food menu. Molly Wismeier, our director of wine and spirits, has been working closely with us to develop the beverage side, and she‘s going to give you a little sneak preview of that this week.

Andouille black sea salt potato chips for the R'evolution bar

My focus, with John and our chef Jody Denton, has been on the food, which will include small plates, crudos, and salumi. Think playful. Things like house made potato chips with black sea salt flavored with andouille sausage, assietes of crudo, our own spins on some classic NOLA dishes like crawfish balls and a pot de crème that’s infused with all of the flavors of a traditional crab boil. We’re really playing with the flavors of New Orleans in fun new ways that we think will be appealing with the drinks that Molly is concocting.
Smoked sea trout panzanella for R'evolution bar
On a more personal note, something has been on my mind recently during this bar-focused piece of the process that I want to share. I’ve been thinking about how I approach the bar as someone who has struggled with addiction in my past. Maybe it’s because this chapter of the restaurant development process has fortuitously aligned with the release of my memoir, Scars of a Chef, which openly shares some of the struggles I’ve had with addiction in my life. It’s been a really important part of my evolution as a chef to realize that I can treat wine and spirits like food. It’s about tasting and appreciating, not consuming. Nowadays when I taste wine or spirits, I’m not tempted to overdo it the way I was tempted by drugs and these things in my youth. It’s not a battle anymore. But then again, I also know that I can’t sit there and taste ten cocktails in a row either. I have a very healthy respect for my sobriety, so I’m very aware and cognizant of my limits.
Another important lesson I’ve learned is that I’m better off leaving most of this piece of the puzzle to others. I’m all about the food part of it, understanding what the flavor profiles need to be in order to match up well with the wine and the cocktails. But at the end of the day, I leave a lot of the beverage piece itself to the experts, like Molly. And with someone as talented as her in charge, I know we’re in good hands. Again, watch for more on the drinks from Molly this week.
- Rick

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Courir de Mardi Gras

Courir de Mardi Gras costumes
When folks hear Louisiana Mardi Gras, thoughts automatically run to Bourbon Street, beads and bawdy behavior. Many don’t realize that there is another Louisiana Mardi Gras, a country Mardi Gras, that is only found in the rural communities of Acadiana.

The Courir de Mardi Gras, literally the “running of the Mardi Gras,” is still celebrated in rural South Louisiana, but is a far cry from what most people associate with Mardi Gras and Carnival. While the principle is the same, a last day of mischief and revelry before Lent, pageantry and balls are replaced by parody and pranksters.

Once a part of pre-Lenten festivities in most French parts of Louisiana in the 19th century, the Courir de Mardi Gras has ancient roots dating back to medieval rites of passage. During the festivities, a band of revelers don strange disguises and elaborate masks while taking to their horses. Riding wildly through the countryside, they go from farm to farm and beg for chickens or other ingredients for the communal pot of gumbo. They often sing loudly or play pranks until the farmer or homeowner produces something for the pot, usually a live chicken that must be caught. While each band includes an unmasked capitaine to keep the peace, the celebration is still a raucous one.

The tradition was all but forgotten in many parts of Louisiana, but in the mid-20th century it began to make a comeback both in an effort to preserve the Cajun culture and as an alternative to the huge crowds of tourists that descend on New Orleans. Mamou, Eunice, Church Point and a handful of other rural communities feature a Courir de Mardi Gras in the week or so prior to Lent. Always featured is a surplus of chicken and sausage gumbo, music and fun.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fishing in Cajun Country

Fishing on the Mississippi River
I'm American by birth, but Cajun by the grace of God. To be born and reared in the heart of South Louisiana’s Cajun Country is indeed a gift. There is absolutely no better time to live in Louisiana than in the spring. Louisiana turns bright green come February when most of the rest of the country is dismal grey or covered in snow. Along with the warm days of late February and the guaranteed 85-degree temperatures of March, it’s time to go fishin’.

John Folse with sibilings in the late 1950's
(back row, fourth from left
next to his father Mr. Royley Folse)
You see, each spring the snows melt in the northern part of the United States and the Mississippi River fills and flows south, bringing along with it miles of driftwood and tons of freshwater fish. It was during the “June Rise” (that’s what we called the northern snow melt) that Cajun Boys growing up on the River Road gained a mastery of fishing the waters of the mighty Mississippi, which lapped at our front steps. The Mississippi River overflowed its banks into the batture creating bar pits and ponds held back from our home by the 20-foot high levee system that had been revamped after the flood of 1927.

Catfsiherman Butch Smith
These bar pits, filled with spoonbill cats, channel cats, garfish, gaspergou and sweet Mississippi River shrimp, were not only our playground, but were also the origin of our entrepreneurial spirit. It was our father and grandfathers who lived along the River Road who taught us the art of hanging a drop line inconspicuously from a willow branch and how to string and bait a catfish line that spanned the length or width of the bar pit. But, one thing was for sure. Every morning at 6:30 and every afternoon after school at 4, each hook had a fish. Not only did we have supper, but a few dollars in our pocket from the sale of our bounty. Yes, we were fishermen.


The fish that lived in the bayous and swamps were another story. They were not necessarily our first choice for eating. In the late spring and summer, algae cover the surface of the water and fish living there eat the algae, giving its flesh an earthy or “off” flavor.

Although we spent many hours fishing for choupique, carp or buffalo fish, and alligator gar they were mainly used as bait. Sometimes, we sold them for 25 to 50 cents, depending on size, to the plantation workers in the area. Many times, though, the garfish meat was smoked at our family camp and put into a stew or soup to replace smoked pork sausage; after all, we Cajuns love smoke flavor in our food. From time to time when other fish were scarce, we would grind the coarse, tough meat of the choupique to make boulettes, which were flavored with the trinity, lots of garlic and cooked in spicy, red or brown gravy. The buffalo fish brought in anywhere from 50 to 75 cents and was a first choice fish for the African-American workers on the plantation. Yes, indeed, the swamp created young entrepreneurs out of the Folse boys, and when considering the live frogs that were sold to biology labs, we were global fishermen. 
Crawfisherman Gerard Perry
I almost hate to admit though that we weren’t big fish eaters. Living in rural St. James Parish our swamp-floor pantry yielded big game, small game, game birds and crustaceans that were more often consumed than fish on our dining table. Two seafoods were critical for our diet and were most often found in our cast iron pots: crawfish (photo 9) and channel catfish. Although crawfish did not become popular fare for the Louisiana table until the late 1950s, our humble, Cajun cabin certainly considered it a delicacy. In fact, we ate Crawfish Bisque for Easter Sunday; Daddy’s River Road Crawfish Stew for Mother’s Day; and late in the summer, boiled crawfish with corn and potatoes were a common occurrence. Yes, crawfish was fare for our holiday table. And, with nearly 1,000 acres of swampland at our backdoor, crawfish were plentiful and easy to catch with a few set nets and a chicken neck for bait. As crawfish became popular and peeled crawfish tails found their way into grocery stores, crawfishing became another of our money-making ventures.
Jay Folse with 103 lb catfish

The large, channel cat caught on drop lines in the Mississippi was Daddy’s first choice for a courtbouillon. His recipe for this fish stew is legendary in our family. To make a courtbouillon any other way would be sacrilegious. Daddy used the whole fish, head and skin on. He said the head and skin were important because they added that wonderful, gelatinous texture to the stew. Daddy removed the gills and whiskers from the catfish and then, with a Brillo® pad in hand, scrubbed the whole fish under running water from the cistern. The slime that protected the fish’s skin had to be removed, and there was nothing better than Brillo® for this task. Daddy also claimed that the skin kept the tender meat from falling apart during the two- to three-hour cooking process. Yes, it was crawfish and catfish in our house.
Cabanocey Plantation
As I look back on my youth so many years later, I realize what a great gift God gave to the Folse family by placing us on that small piece of land in St. James Parish, strategically located between the river and the swamp on Cabanocey Plantation. At the same time, He gave us a bonus. He made us Cajun. Today, our lifestyle is known worldwide for its cuisine and culture. With three great growing seasons, a semi-tropical climate, the freshwater of the Mississippi River, the lush swamp floor abundant with game and wild seasonings, the brackish waters where the salty Gulf meets the freshwater rivers, and lakes with names such as Pontchartrain, Maurepas, Bruin, Caddo and Toledo teeming with seafood and shellfish, how could anyone think of us as anything but Blessed. And, coming from our Catholic French background, we also realize our obligation to share our good fortune with the world

Thursday, March 3, 2011

R'evolution on the Road: Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival

Last weekend was the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, which Food Network puts on. I was honored to be asked to participate for the fourth year, this time representing Restaurant R’evolution for the first time. In my opinion, South Beach is one of the best food and wine events in the country, so it was great to get Restaurant R’evolution out there on a national level. We passed out a lot of information about the restaurant, and people seemed excited, which is always fun to see.
Michael Symon at Burger Bash. Credit:
Jody (my chef de cuisine) and I arrived on Thursday morning, and the fun kicked off that night at Rachael Ray’s Burger Bash. This is the biggest and most anticipated party of weekend, where 40-some nationally acclaimed chefs compete for best burger. There were around 3,000 people there, and the wait to get in had to be almost 2 hours long at times. But the burgers were amazing. Iron Chef Michael Symon, the defending champion from last year, once again took home the coveted People’s Choice prize, and Marc Murphy of New York’s Landmarc won the Judge’s Choice award. View photos from the event here.
Friday was when the food and wine stuff – seminars, demos, tastings – started. Danny Meyer did a great Shake Shack seminar. There were wine seminars and tastings, and demos on this huge main stage tent they have set up on the beach with audiences in the hundreds.

Bobby Flay and Michael Symon at Bubble Q.

Friday night was Bubble Q, Bobby Flay’s event that’s all about Champagne and BBQ. There were huge, elaborate ice carvings and outdoor grills and smokers. Rick Bayless was there doing these great tacos. The nice thing about South Beach is that all of the celebrity chefs actually come themselves, and they get to bring four people to help them (and most of them usually have at least 4 more), so the chefs actually get to greet guests themselves, pass out food and take pictures. It can make the lines pretty long, but it’s great that people get the chance to meet their favorite chefs. Each night, there were big stages with live music. One night it was KC and the Sunshine Band, and other nights there were famous DJs spinning, which really created a party vibe.

The Bubble Q tent. Credit:
Saturday was another day of seminars, demos and tastings. The main stage that morning kicked off at 11 a.m. with Emeril doing a demo, then Antony Bourdain and then Bobby Flay and Tyler Florence. It’s like watching the Food Network come to life, right on the beach. It also feels a little bit like the culinary version of Lollapalooza to me. Jody and I spent a good portion of that day prepping our dish for the event we were doing on Sunday, Paula Deen’s Down Home Cookin’ Sunday Gospel Brunch.

Saturday night was when the big sit-down events happened, which included a tribute dinner for Alain Ducasse, as well as the “Best of the Best” walk-around tasting with all of the top fine dining chefs. For the other big party that night, the theme was “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” based on the Food Network show. That was really fun because the chefs got to recreate their favorite dishes from OTHER restaurants. Photos here.
Paula Deen and Maryel Epps. Credit:
Jody and I didn’t party too hard because we knew that come Sunday, we’d need to have our game faces on for our event. I normally do the “Best of the Best” event, but this year because of R’evolution and our New Orleans connection, I did Paula Deen's Gospel Brunch, which was primarily Southern chefs. Maryel Epps, this incredible gospel singer, performed live, and all of the chefs were doing their renditions of classic Southern soul food – whole roasted pig, fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, black-eyed peas.

Shrimp & Grits "Bacon & Eggs"
We did our version of shrimp and grits: creamy grits with eggs chopped up and folded in, topped with head-on shrimp wrapped in bacon that we seared off and topped with a smoky tomato sauce. It was so great to get to do this event this year, especially since I’m a newcomer to the South. It was amazing working alongside Southern chefs like New Orleans' John Besh, Cat Cora (a proud Southern girl), Tim Love of Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Texas, and Joseph Lenn of Blackberry Farm in Tennessee.

Emeril Lagasse at the Let Them Eat
Cake event. Credit:
Even though South Beach has a completely different vibe from New Orleans, there were moments when I felt like I was back in the French Quarter. We went to Martha Stewart and Emeril’s “Let Them Eat Cake” event with Duff from Ace of Cakes, and the theme was actually Mardi Gras. There were 20 different bakeries from all over the country doing these outrageous Mardi Gras cakes. What was really cool was that they took the entire top floor of a parking structure and transformed it into this massive event space for 2000 people. You could see the whole city of Miami spread out around you. It was a stunning sight.

Back in New Orleans, the whole team is focusing on Mardi Gras right now. Jody, Muhammad and Molly are all helping out down at the Royal Sonesta, as they enter the craziest time of year for the hotel. Personally, I’m focused on my new book, Scars of a Chef, which launches this week, so the next four weeks I’m pretty much booked with book tour stuff. Right now I’m headed to Chicago for the International Home and Housewares Show. Then I’m in New York next week for some TV stuff, and it’s LA after that. Earlier this week, I was at Bittersweet Plantation, wrapping up selection of glassware, china and silverware for the restaurant. The kitchen design is finished, which is great. When the book tour craziness is over next month, then we’ll be starting on brunch tastings. Then we’ll be working on all the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes into opening a restaurant, but nobody knows about: systems, recipes, costing, hiring.
And then comes the waiting for the place to physically be built. It all feels like it’s still a long way off, but there are fleeting moments when I realize that it will be open before we even know it. So for now, it’s just one day at a time.
- Rick