Three noted chefs dish about Mardi Gras in Alabama and Louisiana.
By Joe Pollack
Parades and parties, jazz and beads are a vibrant part of life in February along the Gulf Coast as folks prepare for Mardi Gras, which will be Feb. 21 this year. But there are other activities to this holiday, including fine dining. Food always has been a big draw for visitors to New Orleans, while Mobile, Ala., has grown as a food destination in recent years.
Dooky Chase Restaurant’s rebuild has included the display of its impressive and valuable collection of African-American art that was saved during Hurricane Katrina. Ann L. Pollack photo
Three notable Gulf Coast chefs recently shared their memories of Mardi Gras in preparation for this year’s party.
“It was the only time we were allowed to eat on the street,” said Leah Chase, the doyenne of Dooky Chase Restaurant in New Orleans.
“We were lucky enough to have a corner room on the second floor of the Monteleone Hotel, which provided a perfect view of all the parades,” said Frank Brigtsen, whose eponymous restaurant in a small, white frame house at the bend of the Mississippi River is a New Orleans treasure.
“Mobile had the first Mardi Gras, you know, and it’s a wonderful time (here). Very festive,” said Wesley True, whose Mobile restaurant, True, is ranked as one of Alabama’s best.
Each chef admitted that multi-course, elegant meals no longer play a major part of Mardi Gras. With more of the parades aimed at families, traditional dishes like gumbo, red beans and rice, and po-boy sandwiches are among the most popular items.
It starts with a good gumbo
Gumbo is synonymous with Mardi Gras in Louisiana, and this hearty dish helped to put Dooky Chase on New Orleans’ culinary map. Rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina with the help of restaurateurs, suppliers, and fans from across the nation, the small brick building in the Tremé neighborhood (2301 Orleans Ave.) is currently open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Gumbo, fried chicken, and red beans and rice always have been mainstays at the restaurant. The chicken is as tender and delicious as can be found anywhere, and the gumbo has a terrific pop.
Chase uses fresh thyme in the red beans and rice, which she insists is a key ingredient. She also features a traditional, classic version of gumbo, Gumbo Z’Herbes, served on Holy Thursday during the final week of Lent.
After 65 years of involvement with the restaurant, Chase still shows up every day, although her son, Dooky, is in charge of the kitchen. It’s a vital part of her life, but as she says, “My daddy always told me, ‘When you get up in the morning, you pray and you work and you do for others.’ Those were the three rules we lived by.”
Brigtsen’s memory of Mardi Gras is led by po-boys, jambalaya, beans and rice, and gumbo, a Mardi Gras mainstay at his restaurant (723 Dante St.), which has been a part of the New Orleans culinary scene since 1986.
He credits most of his success to the legendary New Orleans Chef Paul Prudhomme.
“I was at a real down time in my life,” Brigtsen said. “I was out of work, about to lose my apartment because the building was being sold around me, my car had stopped running, I’d broken up with a girl, and I had moved back home when I saw an ad that Commander’s Palace was looking for people. I went down there and Paul hired me.”
While Brigtsen is a New Orleans native, his gumbo is different from that made by Chase, who he admires. A key difference is that Brigtsen uses filé (sassafras), which brings a slightly different aroma and flavor.
“Every New Orleans family probably has its own recipe for gumbo,” he said. “They’re all different, but they’re all gumbo.”
Although his restaurant isn’t open for Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, during the pre-Lenten days he often has gumbo, turtle soup, and dishes that feature oysters and crawfish. Brigtsen’s Restaurant also is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
Tradition with a twist
Despite what he has achieved as an adult, food was not a big part of True’s boyhood.
However, that changed rapidly in later years. He attended the University of Mississippi until his junior year, when he left to enroll at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y. After graduating and receiving extensive opportunities in New York, True returned to Mobile after eight years in the Big Apple.
Four years ago, True opened his first restaurant in Mobile at 9 Du Rhu Drive. Last August, he opened a second, less-formal restaurant, True Midtown Kitchen (1104 Dauphine), where the menu reflects his Southern roots and regional cuisine. Lunch is served Monday–Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., with dinner offered Tuesday–Saturday from 5:30 to 9 p.m.
“True has a much larger French influence and a higher price point,” he said, “but the Kitchen blends Southern cuisine with influences from around the world.”
He’s currently researching recipes in old Southern cookbooks. “I'm hoping to create some special meals around old Southern recipes and ingredients.”
For lovers of fine food, Mobile and New Orleans are sure to satisfy at Mardi Gras or any other time of year.
Joe Pollack is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.
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