A pair of pedigreed chefs combs the bayou in search of dinner
Author ROD O'CONNOR
TWO MEN COME TRUDGING through the brush at Palo Alto Gun and Rod Club, a hunting ground in tiny Donaldsonville, La., shotguns and frogging nets in hand. Clad in camouflage and just a little sweaty from stalking fresh meat around the banks of the bayou, they seem like any other hunters wandering this vast wilderness. Only they’re nationally famous chefs. And they’re looking for swamp critters. For their restaurant.
Celebrated Louisiana-born chef John Folse of Lafitte’s Landing and his new partner, James Beard winner Rick Tramonto of Chicago’s Tru, are in the process of launching their first joint project, Restaurant R’evolution, in New Orleans’ historic Royal Sonesta Hotel. There, they will present Cajun and Creole food as nature intended: containing frog, quail and sometimes even raccoon. “We view every animal from the swamp-floor pantry as a possibility,” Folse says, as he attempts to flush out some grub from a copse of oaks.
There’s an old joke in southern Louisiana: If the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries wants to control the population of a particular species, all it needs to do is circulate a few recipes. Famously voracious eaters, the Cajuns residing in these parts have long incorporated into their cuisine all manner of wild game, whether it flies (quail, snipe, chukar), runs (squirrel, raccoon, nutria) or swims (gator, bullfrog). It’s a tradition that dates back to 1765, when French-Canadian exiles settled in swampland 65 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. With the help of their Native American neighbors, these settlers and their descendants — called Cajuns — became capable hunters and even better cooks, serving up country meals that took full advantage of the area’s bounty.
Back on the bayou, their ingredients bagged and skinned, the two culinary stars spend the afternoon cooking in a simple log-cabin kitchen, fine-tuning dishes for their opening menu. Folse stuffs two fresh quail with oysters, andouille sausage and rice for a clever creation he calls “Death by Gumbo”; Tramonto prepares a saffron-infused white wine sauce that he pours over plump frog legs crusted with yellow flour.
Chukar, a kind of partridge, is braised in a stock made from the bones of deer and boar until the flavorful dark meat becomes melt-in-your-mouth tender. All the dishes are solid country fare made with elegant techniques, honoring Louisiana’s rich culinary heritage while simultaneously pushing it forward.
Alas, the chefs’ hunt for nutria, the semiaquatic rodent that may represent the swamp-floor pantry’s outer boundary of palatability, came up empty. But Folse predicts that the animal’s “magnificent white meat … similar to domestic rabbit” will appear on special menus at Restaurant R’evolution — as will gumbo made with raccoon, whose slightly red meat is an “absolute delicacy” when smoked over pecan wood.
“Knowing how to cook these meats and present them makes all the difference in the world,” Folse says. “If you’re going to eat raccoon, I want you to eat it with me.”