There’s no place like NOLA
Is there any city in America that evokes such a profound salivary response as New Orleans? Just listen to the name, and you can taste it. Every time I visit New Orleans, I’m reminded of how truly special this city is. From the amazing food to the robust music scene, there is serious passion pulsating through the Big Easy.
A mix of influence from Europe, Africa, the West Indies and the American South, you can’t really put your finger on what New Orleans feels like. It’s unlike anywhere else in the US, or the world for that matter. Bringing Bizarre Foods America here was a no-brainer. I could shoot 10 more shows in NOLA and still not run out things to talk about. We never got to half the restaurants, markets, family homes, 2nd line parties, dives and joints as I would have liked to, and before I die I am going to get John Besh on one of my programs if it’s the last thing I do. But, moving on!
I’ve spent a lot of time here, and it wasn’t until this last trip that I learned this fun fact: New Orleans is home to the largest population of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam. Literally right outside the city proper, you could easily convince yourself that you’ve stumbled into Southeast Asia. Makeshift backyard gardens fronting the canals that run through the neighborhoods, markets specializing in fresh Vietnamese produce and traditional Vietnamese cooked foods. What I especially love is how this enclave has adopted many local ingredients like boiled peanuts and made them their own. Conversely, locals have come to appreciate Vietnamese cooking traditions. It’s a cross-cultural pollination of the best kind, and will only help the city continue to grow and evolve. I met a few duck and chicken farmers in the parking lot of a Viet market one weekend morning and walked up to chat with them. They looked like they were straight out of a Hee Haw skit, the spitting image of every rural Southern stereotype you can imagine. And they were eating rice noodle pancakes with chopsticks. I asked them if they ate a lot of Vietnamese food and they said that yes they did, every day. They said it was spicy, flavorful, healthier than their own cooking and cheaper than eating at a fast food joint. Music to my ears. They also said that Post Katrina the Viet community sheltered their friends and family, fed them (the Viet survival skill package is pretty awesome!) and helped them rebuild. What’s more , is that the Vietnamese buy hundreds of fresh live poultry every week from their farms…that’s an amazing story.
Other highlights? Cooking this with musician & amazing Creole cook Kermit Ruffins. Don’t recognize this furry creature? Hint: you may have seen it rummaging through your trash.
Hunting frogs in the bayou with my friend, Chef Don Link. I spent the next day cooking and eating with his family. They were the most gracious hosts, and I was touched that they let me, a Jewish guy form New York, try his hand at Cajun cooking for the day.
A big shout out to the folks at Rick Phillip’s Seafood Company for some of the most amazing crawfish I’ve ever had. Cleaned my sinuses right out. And let’s not forget this amphibious treat [photo]. Whole-cooked gator seasoned with Cajun napalm (their intense homemade spice rub), cooked in a ‘Cajun microwave’– basically an impressive homemade version of the famous Cuban-Chinese Caja China. Now that’s some ingenuity.
Feasting on po’ boys (lots of debris, please), shucking oysters, eating the best fried chicken–ever (thanks Willie Mae’s), making boudin and hog ponce from scratch with a guy named Bubba Frye (you can’t make that up), and I even got a cooking lesson from the Queen of Creole, Leah Chase.
This city never ceases to amaze me. Watch the episode and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. Catch the Bizarre Foods America: NOLA premiere on Monday, January 30 at 9|8C.