As the driving force behind the Culinary Classic and Washington, D.C.'s annual Mardi Gras ball, Joe Broussard knows how to put Lafayette in the spotlight.
Photo by Terri Fensel
Joe Broussard never walks quietly into a room. You can hear his animated chatter before he even enters, and the tall and silver haired-man with the military posture commands attention like a circus ringmaster.
“He’s driven,” says Joe Rault, a New Orleans real estate investor who along with Broussard is one of the five senior lieutenants running the Washington, D.C., Mardi Gras ball. “He’s a very hard working, dedicated kind of guy” — what it takes to put on a three-day nonstop party where Louisiana’s business and politics mix with the joyous abandon that is Mardi Gras.
The 72-year-old Broussard is not only the impresario behind the annual success of the ball, he is its true prince, resident magician and ancient archivist. “I’m the only person I know living on the face of the earth today who has been to every Mardi Gras ball,” he says. “I say that tongue in cheek. I was baby-sat for the first two, but in 1948, I was sitting at the table. I was in 8th grade at St. Michael’s elementary school in Silver Spring (Maryland), run by the now-defunct order of the Sisters of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”
At the age of 13, Broussard had the privilege of being the youngest person there because he rode in on his father’s coattails. In 1944, Broussard’s dad, the late Felix M. “Dan” Broussard, a Carencro native, was a member of the Louisiana State Society, a social club for expats living in Washington, D.C. That year, there was a dance scheduled for George Washington’s birthday. Society President C.J. Bourg announced that there would be a “surprise demonstration of the spirit of Mardi Gras” at the social. “Even though Mardi Gras was dark in New Orleans because of World War II, they decided to do something for the locals to bring back a little nostalgia from their home,” says Joe Broussard.
That night Felix Broussard got into trouble, as he puts it. “I got up and said it would be a great chance to bring the culture of Louisiana to Washington. That night they put me in charge of the future balls,” the senior Broussard says in Golden Memories, a history of the Washington Mardi Gras balls, written by Joe Broussard, Roberta Hamlin and Joe Rault.
“That’s considered the beginning; that’s the seed he built on,” Joe Broussard says.
Felix Broussard invited the Louisiana festival queens to participate in 1948. By 1953 the ball had grown so big he was looking for financial backing. He approached Congressman F. Edward Hebert, who reigned as the first king in 1944, and offered the position of ball chairman to the congressman if he would oversee finding contributors to the event. Hebert agreed. From then on, the ball’s chairman was selected from Louisiana’s congressional delegation.
The young Broussard’s first duties were as a page. He grew into being a member of the court and at times acted as chamberlain, but it was his negotiating skills behind the scenes that showed his real clout. In 1957, Russell Long was chosen chairman and decided he wanted to create a krewe. Broussard was 21 years old, a pre-med student at Georgetown University. “Russell Long and my father’s ideas were diabolically opposed to each other,” says Broussard. “Russell wanted to run Mardi Gras with his krewe, and my father didn’t want to give up his old school pageant. I was always in the middle of these huge battles. We’d solve them by Bob Hunter, who was Russell’s administrative assistant, and me, my father’s representative, meeting outside of the two of them and making the decision and going back and telling them, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’ I was kind of the mediator in the early years until my father got out of the picture and I took over.”
Broussard inherited the responsibility for the ball in 1976. The next year he decamped from D.C. to Lafayette, and the work of organizing the ball came south with him. He left behind a bitter divorce and a successful stockbrokerage business to set up shop catering in the Hub City. “I always liked to cook,” he says. “My mom was a very good cook, but she cooked German. Just by pure coincidence, when I was growing up we had a Cajun neighbor in Washington. During the war he was raising chickens; we’d go over and get hens and eggs. It was like a little Louisiana. His wife was a great Cajun cook.”
The families would put on an annual neighborhood gumbo, Joe’s father and friends bantering in Cajun French. As an adult, Broussard cooked for his buddies at socials — and he had the advantage of powerful Louisiana connections. “I’d make rice dressing or étouffée. My relatives were all farmers; they’d send up crates of sweet potatoes, pecans, even cherry bounce.” John Breaux, then a newly elected congressman from Acadiana, shipped crawfish to Broussard.
As he became established in Lafayette, Broussard worked the system to build his business. During the oil boom of the early 1980s, Broussard’s Catering was doing everything from catering on private jets to massive oil field picnics that fed his renowned fried catfish to thousands. In 1985 he secured the contract to be the caterer in the newly built Cajundome. (The name changed to Quintess Catering and eventually Broussard sold out to entrepreneur Larry Smith, but he continued running the business until 2002.)
In 1983, the Culinary Classic, a chef’s competition, arose out of the establishment of a local chapter of the American Culinary Federation. Broussard competed in some of the early contests, garnering gold and silver medals. In 1985, he took over the Classic, established emerging nationally celebrated chef Paul Prudhomme as a proponent and judge, and brought the contest into the Cajundome.
That summer, Broussard was taking an ACF-required nutrition certification class at USL as part of his membership in the organization. After several classes, he asked the professor for a date. Dr. Linda Vincent was skeptical at first, but their shared interest in food and wine proved too powerful. Their first date was to the ACF banquet. Their second was a working one, a crawfish boil Broussard was catering for wine aficionado Dick Dowty. “We were friends professionally,” Linda Vincent Broussard says. “We chaired the Culinary Classic together for years. We argued all the time.”
The Classic flagged in the late 1980s. Broussard knew how to run the contest but didn’t have time to hawk tickets in the community. He turned to a friend, former Daily Advertiser social columnist Phyllis Walters, who was co-chairwoman of the Junior League. The league was looking for a new fund-raiser to replace its involvement with Christmas Comes Alive at Acadian Village. “They strung all the lights out there — that was very time consuming and physically demanding,” Broussard says. “I said, ‘Ladies, all you have to do to run the Classic is put on a cocktail dress and show up.”
“Black tie, that’s what happens when you get those Junior League women involved,” says Walters. “It was a really good marriage and raised a lot of money for charity.” Broussard brought in celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck, Larry Forgione, Susan Spicer and John Folse. “Joe is so connected,” Walters says. “You just throw a name out and he knows everyone. He’s so respected among the chefs. And he’ll help out anyone.”
With a typical showman’s aplomb, Broussard asked Vincent to marry him on the stage at the Classic. “I was furious,” she says. They wed a month later. Her career took him to Disney World in Orlando where the pair met chefs training for the Culinary Olympics — and where Broussard secured Mickey Mouse as a new judge for the Culinary Classic. “My god, that was the end of all things when Chef Mickey came in 1991,” Broussard says. “That was a great Classic.”
The Washington Mardi Gras Ball was growing bigger and bigger, requiring an enormous amount of Broussard’s time. Russell Long’s first Krewe in 1957 had about 40 members, comprising a virtual who’s-who of Washington and political circles. Barry Goldwater and Hubert Humphrey were members. “They bought their own costumes and did their bit. They came running in and jumped around,” Broussard recalls. “Al Hirt and the Famous Door Five were part of the band at that event.” Vice-President Richard Nixon escorted the queen. In 1976, Broussard’s first year running the ball, the festivities moved from the Sheraton Park Hotel to the Hilton Washington to accommodate the crowd.
What was once a Saturday night social has grown today into a three-day event that can accommodate the 500-member Krewe and 5,000 attendees. The Thursday night Louisiana Alive! party, a showcase for the state’s food and music, was instituted under Sen. John Breaux’s reign as captain of the krewe from the mid-80s until 2005. “All the seafood is sent from here,” Broussard says, “and all the chefs are from Louisiana. It’s the real deal. If you want to stay in the hotel and party for three days and three nights, you can. You never have to leave the hotel.”
New Orleans jazz pianist Ronnie Kole met Broussard at the ball in 1972. “We became really good friends. I call him a brother,” Kole says. Broussard brought Kole to Lafayette to play at the Culinary Classic, and in 1990 Vincent and Broussard were married in Kole and his wife Gardner’s living room in Covington. “It’s been a great love affair between the four of us,” says Kole. “I don’t think anyone knows what he’s done for the Lafayette area. Between him and Linda, with the networking, bringing in people to the Culinary Classic, the guy’s a genius. What he’s done with the Washington Ball... He’s a workaholic.”
“I don’t get to do too much partying,” Broussard says of his responsibilities during the week of the ball. He follows a dictum he quotes from Russell Long: “In order for you to be successful, you have to have reasonably sober lieutenants and reasonably drunk Krewe members.”
Kole, however, shines a different light on Broussard’s activities. “We always end up at Joe’s suite drinking good wine,” recounts Kole. “The Storyville Stompers come in and play — of course, this is after all the festivities are over. We just keep the party going. One night, late, like 2 in the morning after we’d been drinking for hours, we said we’ve just got to get something to eat. So Joe says, ‘Let’s go to Georgetown, and let’s go to Little Tavern.’ Now Little Tavern is this hamburger place like Krystal. Edwin Edwards was governor at the time. When Edwards was at the Mardi Gras, he always had a Louisiana State Police car up there. Here we are: I’m in white tails, everyone else is in a tuxedo. We’re in this limousine, with a State Police car leading us down to Georgetown to Little Tavern. I’ve got my ducal decoration on. So when we get there, they think I’m an ambassador. We ordered like 100-and-some-odd hamburgers. Everyone else had to wait. They just cleared the whole grill off.”
“We were hysterical,” adds Broussard. “We were killing ourselves laughing.” Says Kole, “By the time we got back, half the party had left. We ate those things for quite a few days.”
Broussard briefly retired from catering at the start of 2002. He was called back by Dr. Michel Heard to manage River Oaks in April of the same year, and then after another attempt at leisure, the City Club in River Ranch lured Broussard back to work in 2006 to infuse some new blood into the catering facility. He’s on his third attempt to slow down. “Linda and I plan to travel, have some fun,” he says. “But we both love to work. I don’t know what’s next.”
The ball in Washington and Broussard’s role in the Culinary Classic in Lafayette are two facets of the same desire — to take his love of food and music to another level, one that will benefit the greater community. “He’s created a big Lafayette presence [in Washington],” says Senior Lieutenant Joe Rault, who’s been involved with the festivities nearly as long as Broussard. “The three days of the ball with a multimillion dollar budget are rolled into an economic force that has a life of its own. Lafayette’s one of the leading areas, with its culture and tradition. (For the first time in the event’s history, the king and queen, Wayne Elmore and Autumn Nicole Armentor, are both from Lafayette this year.)
“It does have a political side to it,” says Rault, “in the sense that the ball is given in honor of the elected officials on a national basis by the krewe. The krewe consists mainly of the private sector. So it’s the business people honoring their elected officials on a national basis. It’s a balance between private and public. Overall, it has a very serious end result.”
Broussard has lived with the work of putting on the ball all his life. “It’s a labor of love,” he says.
“In his modest way,” says Rault, “he has gone ahead successfully putting Louisiana on a national stage. It’s a huge accomplishment.”