"It's almost a revolution, what's going on in New Orleans' kitchens today," says Chef Joseph Carey, founder and chief instructor at the Memphis Culinary Academy, whose new book, Creole Nouvelle, explores the latest trends in New Orleans' oldest cuisine.
Carey was born and raised in New Orleans. He became a combat photographer and journalist while serving in Vietnam. When his hitch was up, he moved to San Francisco, where he lived for 16 years, opening a series of restaurants, including a Creole place in Oakland.
"I left New Orleans and only went back after many years away, so I saw it with brand-new eyes," he says. "I saw it as a person from the outside."
What Carey saw in New Orleans was a brilliant cuisine stunted by an excess of tradition and menus that were increasingly submissive to the tourist dollar. But in the San Francisco Bay area, that crazy quilt of colors, cultures, and lifestyles that clash and coalesce in unexpected ways, Carey wasn't oppressed by tradition or hemmed in by tourists with expectations.
"I found this place called the Housewife's Market in downtown Oakland," Carey says. "It was like a European marketplace. There were butcher stalls with meat. There were stalls with fresh produce, good cheeses, fresh seafood from Louisiana, crabs, and shrimp. There was even a guy who made his own sausage: andouille and boudin blanc. Before I found this place, I didn't know there had been a huge migration of blacks from New Orleans to Oakland. But there was, and since I was running a Creole restaurant, this was absolutely wonderful for me.
"So I was able to get all of these great ingredients. Then I started changing some things. I started learning more Asian techniques," he says. "I started taking jambalaya, which is traditionally a baked rice dish, and preparing it as a stir fry. I kept trying more and more things, and I started to really like what was happening with all of these changes."
Another change: Carey moved to Memphis in 1984 in order to open the Memphis Culinary Academy.
"There were already too many schools in San Francisco. And there was nothing in the middle of the country. There wasn't even a school in New Orleans," Carey says.
He has also opened several restaurants over the years, including the Cafe Meridian and the King Cotton. And now comes the cookbook, Creole Nouvelle, which was released this month, and two more books are in the planning stage.
In Carey's hands, King cake, the blandest of all New Orleans' desserts, takes on a new life. The cinnamon-laced filling is rich and creamy, and the semisweet dough leans heavily in the direction of brioche. His seafood gumbo is almost airy, emphasizing the herbed stock, the shrimp, and the crab over the charred, nearly chocolate flavors of traditional brown roux.
"Most of the recipes for gumbo start 'First, you make a roux.' Then you throw everything into the roux," Carey says. "In classical French cooking, you add the roux last. That's what I do. And I use a lighter roux [so you can treat the gumbo] more like a soup."
Even the decidedly blue-collar oyster po' boy, a soggy French loaf stuffed with battered oysters and slathered in mayo, is given a glamorous makeover in Creole Nouvelle. Crispy fried oysters are served open-faced on an onion roll with an aïoli spread, shredded romaine lettuce, and just a dash of Tabasco. Compared to the original, it almost seems healthy.
To round out his book, Carey has included traditional Creole recipes twisted into something new by some of New Orleans' most creative chefs. Anne Kearney of Peristyle, Susan Spicer of Bayona, John Harris of Lilette, Donald Link of Herbsaint, and Peter Vasquez of Marisol have all contributed to the recipes collected in Creole Nouvelle.
When Louisiana cooking became a national rage in the 1980s, buoyed by the marketing savvy of Paul Prudhomme and the syndicated success of Justin Wilson, the flavors were mostly Cajun.
"Cajun cooking is a bit more rustic. I like to call that kind of cooking 'down home New World French,'" Carey says. Creole cooking is more refined and less fiery.
New Orleans was founded by French colonists in 1718, and "Creole" is derived from a word meaning "born domestically." Creole cooking, which absorbed elements of Spanish and Italian cooking, was America's first fully realized domestic cuisine where Old World techniques were applied to the endless supply of nontraditional ingredients available in Louisiana. From the beginning it was defined by chefs working in restaurants, not by people cooking at home.
In Creole Nouvelle, Carey and his guest chefs expand the Creole palate by extending the list of ethnic influences. The results: crab and coconut soup, boudin-stuffed quail with fig sauce, and brazed duck on a buttermilk biscuit with blood-orange marmalade. And that's just for starters.
For more Carey and Creole Nouvelle, watch local bookstores throughout November when Carey will demonstrate recipes and sign copies of the book.