Leaving Nola Begins at Crabby Jack’s

The notice at work has been given, the plane ticket has been bought, and the lease is up; I’m headed home to Oregon! This meant a lot for me both as a chef and a person. I have had multiple triumphs and failures here that have helped define who I really am over the last year and a half both in and out of the kitchen. The society here is decadent with rich food, plentiful drink, and generous conversation whether you like it or not. I decided to be homeward-bound after I spent time in Mexico and Oregon during the winter which reminded me of the beauty of nature and the roots of my upbringing in the outdoors. As I’ve been telling friends here, “this place is just too damn flat.” When I returned to the south I went away from the life of music I was trying to force and accepted a career of the culinary arts that was infinitely more fulfilling to me. So in homage to this beautiful place that taught me my foundations in professional cooking I’m on a month-long pilgrimage to learn as much as I can about southern food before bringing it back to Oregon! The journey starts at a shack on Jefferson HWY called Crabby Jack’s.

My partner at the coast last winter, before we were together. She is partly responsible for my reignited passion of the outdoors. She conveniently enjoys southern cooking as well!

I heard about Crabby Jack’s from a few friends here. The facts I got were: it is owned by the same folks that run Jacques-Imo’s, they have phenomenal local fare, and they share walls with a seafood distribution company. Turns out it’s all true. As I walked my bike up to the front window I saw painted words announcing what the have but not that it’s the best or biggest, which is unusual for this area. The walls inside were adorned with Dr. Bob’s art all depicting his signature phrase, “Be nice or leave!” in one way or another. I knew the tips were well founded when I stepped in. I decided on a catfish poboy to test the freshness and try a flavor I was familiar with along with a half bowl of gumbo to see if mine at the bakery measured up.
I sat down and checked out the clientele. It seemed like I was the only non-regular in the joint with most of the folk being Jefferson parish construction workers and office workers from down the highway. It was refreshing to feel out of place for once!
Easy to miss, hard to forget!
Dr. Bob is everywhere in here!

My name was called and my meal was brought to me contained in unceremonious butcher paper and styrofoam bowl that has become the standard for cheap southern lunches. There is no “for here or to go?” at this place; it’s all the same. I carefully unwrapped my tasty gift and popped the top off of my soup. That’s when it hit me: this is what I smell when I walk or bike past a food shack and begin salivating. It’s fat, salt, heritage, and love. The sandwich was perfect. Cheap French bread, dressed(meaning lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles), with crunchy battered catfish as fresh as you can get. Of course, I’m no fool so I doused it in Crystal hot sauce like any good southerner would. The gumbo was filled with chicken and andouille with a roux base that was bit light for my taste, but damn good nonetheless. Since the catfish passed the test, I might have to return and try the Fleur de Brees which has ham, roast beef debris, and gravy (maybe after a hefty day of biking).

If your poboy seems dry, you probably didn’t add enough hot sauce.

Overall, my first stop on my last month’s culinary pilgrimage was a great success and I hope it gets even better when I check out the po-boys and jambalaya at Sammy’s in the Treme this week!

April in New Orleans

As the month of April comes to a close, I’ve had some great experiences to reflect on as a chef. I spent some time with my friend Steven and his brother Eli whom are both climbers, backpackers, and adventurers, as well as admirers of good food. I made a point out of making dinner at some point and we had finally gotten together to make something of Steven’s requesting: filled pasta.

Of course, ravioli and tortellini are very dear to my heart by being about 25% Italian and growing up enjoying casseroles and pasta dishes since I could eat solid food. I had learned around my first years of college that I had a knack for working a pasta machine and a fire in my eyes as I tossed the sturdy dough around. Whether it was in my blood or just something I wanted in my belly I was sold on making pasta by hand whenever possible. This time with Steven was extra special though, since I’ve sent my pasta machine back to Oregon and had to make the entire batch manually. I also decided to attempt a dough made with pure “00” soft wheat flour and all eggs rather than durum and water. The dough was tough; really tough. It didn’t return like a heavy gluten dough but certainly didn’t roll by hand like durum. The work was magnified by the tiny hot kitchen and I felt like I might as well have been on one of the burners. After 30 minutes of slaving with my tiny novelty sized rolling pin, I had 4 satisfyingly thin sheets of beautiful yellow dough.

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Steven and Eli had their own contributions to the meal via their fillings: spiced sweet potato and a remarkable vegan cheese sauce using cashews, nutritional yeast, and tahini. They’ve been developing it for some time and it is phenomenal how it turned out! The marriage of traditional and innovative cooking is something that truly represents the human spirit in food. We finished the pasta off with a classic tomato and garlic herb sauce for the cheese and I made a reduced balsamic for the sweet potato. Out on the patio we talked of people, work, and travel over our well earned meal. Conversation amongst great food and great friends is one I strive for and that night I got just what I wanted.

Another great occurrence this month was coming into my own as a chef at home. I work full time at a mostly vegan bakery using animal free products in 90% of what I make. Every soup I make is one I’m proud to put out and I can honestly say, from the statements of others, that my vegan soups not only rival but often outshine my non-vegan ones. However, combining my imagination and a lack of ingredients can get frustrating so last week I decided to splurge and for good reason: my partner was coming into town and she was inviting guests.

Lately my home meals have been simple and cheap: oatmeal in the morning and lentils and rice at night. My most extravagant cooking has been happening at work and it’s far from the artistic cuisine I admire. This was it, though! A chance to spread my wings, buy the ingredients I so sorely missed, and hit the kitchen with all the tricks I had. When I shopped for the week I was like a hyper-crazed child laughing maniacally while I dove down each aisle. I was unbridled in the culinary world once again and I wasn’t going to miss any chances. I made catfish meunière, creme brûlée, and corn and bean summer chowder with aged cheddar and real chicken stock! I even got a chance to make my famous fat-laden scones with all the goodies stuffed in them.

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Possibly the best scones in the world. I am immensely proud of this recipe! They made extremely good packing food for the long walks we took.

But I never once thought the food was just for me. Maybe I got to show off some skills but my satisfaction was in the pleasing silence while everyone ate dessert and smiled between bites. When one of the guests had a gluten allergy I quickly modified the grilled cheese sandwiches to grilled cheese crepes (the balsamic glazed bacon wasn’t a bad move either). Everyone deserves happiness and everyone deserves to eat good food! Last week I got to share that ideal with many people, not to mention my partner who I believe was quite fond of the waffle s’mores with toasted coconut and pomegranate syrup. Food is still my finest way to share love with the people around me and I will always raise my glass to that!

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Camping food was a little less luxurious but no less satisfying or romantic for us.