By Nick BeJeaux
Saying Louisiana is famous for it’s food is like saying the the world is round; it’s old news.
Baton Rouge, on the other hand, is not — at least not as well as the cultural Mecca that is New Orleans (and I’m not talking about Bourbon St.). But if three of Baton Rouge’s biggest chefs are to be believed, the Red Stick will soon be a match for the Big Easy when it comes to food culture.
“Many restaurants are going back to the beginning and putting more emphasis on the simplicity of touching people through cuisine.” – Troy Deano
Deano, who works with Exclamation Point Hospitality Group and is currently endeavoring with the Louisiana Culinary Institute to open his own seafood restaurant called Brackish, says that Baton Rouge at one time was (and still is) a very corporate city with very few purely local venues. But he sees that changing and quickly.
“Many restaurants are going back to the beginning and putting more emphasis on the simplicity of touching people through cuisine,” Deano said. “One way that’s happening is that we’re getting more specific. Rather than have a menu with 30 items you have menus with 15 items, but you have more love and flavor in those dishes. I think that’s something you can see not only in Baton Rouge, but across the country right now. Sooner or later, you’re going to start seeing a guy who just makes and sells one thing — it’s a return to simplicity.”
For example, Chef Gongora just created a new menu for Lucy’s Retired Surfer’s Bar that has fewer dishes, but a lot more personality and flavor.
“We took a menu that was about 115 items and shrunk it down to 31,” he said. “We’re really trying to streamline and heighten our execution of dishes, and we’re now executing at a high level every time we produce a dish. When you have so many irons in the fire, it becomes hard to turn out quality food, but 31 is a nice manageable number.”
Of course, getting back to basics is more complicated than downsizing menu; a big part of it is getting in touch with your roots. Deano, a native of Chalmette, spent summers on his uncle’s shrimp boat helping him bring in nets bursting with shrimp, crab and fish. Gongora is a lover of Asian food and his own Mexican heritage and has worked to integrate both flavor profiles into Lucy’s new menu. And Andre, an avid outdoorsman, has found his niche at the new City Pork on Jefferson Highway – a restaurant that butchers its own protein.
“That is definitely what brought me there, and it’s something I’ve always enjoyed,” he said. “I’ve always loved working with primal cuts and exposing people to something they’ve never had before.”
It’s safe to say that not many restaurants in Baton Rouge offer goat on their menu, much less in tacos. But City Pork does, thanks to Andre.
“Having the freedom to try things out like that keeps me on my toes and it’s what I love most about being a chef,” he said. “I really hope that this trend of trendiness keeps going in Baton Rouge restaurants because it’s better for Baton Rouge.”
If you need more evidence of the shift in Baton Rouge’s restaurant scene you need not look any farther than the careers of these three chefs. Gongora, formerly of Fleming’s, an upscale chain steakhouse, moved to Lucy’s; Andre, formerly of Le Creole, is now working with more terrestrial game at City Pork; and Deano, formerly employed by Besh Restaurant Group and 18 Steak, is now in less formal, but equally delicious settings.
“It’s hard to explain, but I think everybody wants to more or less work on their own,” said Deano. “Once you get better at cutting red tape, it becomes easier to share your passion with others. Maybe going off on your own is a little selfish, or selfless, or both, but I get to share my craft with others. Working in a smaller establishment is more hands on and easily grows and that is what’s fun.”