Cooking up Creole

It’s more than just a few letters that distinguish the Cajuns from the Creoles in the Pelican State.

While the terms are often used synonymously, the gulf between these two regional Louisiana styles of cooking is as wide as Lake Pontchartrain. So in preparation for Fat Tuesday, the one day of the year when that gulf is bridged, I caught up with two local chefs for a better understanding of these tasty traditions. 

Robert Iaccarino was born and raised in New Orleans and spent nearly 20 years in Europe as a self-described “journeyman chef.” He then worked in several New Orleans restaurants, including stints in the kitchen with legendary Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme, an Iaccarino family friend, before his passing.

Iaccarino tells me that creole cuisine is drawn from European influences, from what he calls the “top of the aristocracy.”

“These were the people that had the means, the education and the money to purchase a lot of fresh foods, produce, meats, sausages and the like,” said Iaccarino, executive chef at Sazerac Creole Kitchen and Cocktails, 4340 N. Campbell Avenue, “and that’s what our food is based on at Sazerac; 19th century style cuisine with modern appliances.”

In addition to classic creole dishes such as crawfish etoufee and jambalaya, Iaccarino’s menu also features some original selections, like the bronzed salmon filet with meuniere, a sauce made from a veal demi-glace that Iaccarino defines as “rich, decadent and complex.”

If the Creoles were the cultured ones from the city that must mean the Cajuns were those who spent their time closer to the swamp. 

“These were the country folk who didn’t have financial means and had to forage for whatever they could get,” Iaccarino said. “Squirrels, alligators, essentially whatever they could put in a pot of gumbo.”

I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen squirrel on the menu at Travis Peters’ southern-style gastropub, but alligator has been known to crawl onto the menu from time to time. And Peters thinks Fat Tuesday is the perfect backdrop for showcasing the gator in all of its glory. 

Peters enjoys the versatility of these swamp-swimmers and likes to brine, marinate, smoke, grill and even fry them.

“The gator resembles pork tenderloin in texture, with a mixture of dark and white meat, it’s really the perfect marriage of pork and chicken,” said Peters, partner and executive chef at The Parish, 6453 N. Oracle Road.

He admits that the hardest work is in the skinning, which requires “a masterful knife,” but the inner beauty is revealed once it’s stripped.

“Much of the meat comes from the four areas of the tail, but when we really break it down, we also go after the ribs and legs and just kind of pig-pick it.”

The gators that Peters prefers typically weigh in at about 25 pounds, what he calls “teenagers,” and he ritualistically leans over to give them each a smooch before they hit the heat. 

The Parish will celebrate Fat Tuesday on Feb. 28 with some Mardi Gras madness including whole smoked alligator, a crawfish boil, Louisiana beers and live music.

Sazerac Creole Kitchen will start their Fat Tuesday celebrations on Monday, Feb. 27 and keep the party going through the following day. Other merchants in St. Philip’s Plaza will join the party in the courtyard as well and local high school marching bands will entertain guests with Mardi Gras tunes.

There is much that distinguishes the Creoles from the Cajuns, the cities from the swamps, but the good times will roll in a spirit of unity later this month and we have people like Iaccarino and Peters to thank.

Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 5 to 6 p.m. Saturdays on KQTH 104.1 FM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 AM.