A new generation of Acadiana chefs navigates a changing environment of chain restaurants, culinary education and salary challenges.
It took a move to Wisconsin for chef and Lafayette native Nicole Meier to experiment with Cajun food. "I made my own boudin while I was there," says the 40-year-old Meier. "They had a meat market that I'd bring the boudin to and have them stuff it. It actually gave me a chance, besides cooking the traditional stuff at home. I'd never worked in a Cajun restaurant."
Meier, a graduate of Delgado Community College's culinary program in New Orleans and esteemed national culinary institute Johnson & Wells, had worked for the now-defunct Spazio restaurant for four years before relocating to the small mid-western hamlet of Lake Tomahawk. Not satisfied with the northern town's standard fare of steak and potatoes, she opened her own restaurant and introduced northerners to jambalaya, pecan-crusted catfish, etouffee and boudin. But after six years of being away, her restaurant's building went up for sale, and Meier took it as a sign that it was time to return home.
Meier was hired as executive chef at Bella Figura last August ' the restaurant's first woman to earn the title of executive chef. She's only the second female executive chef in Lafayette, joining Charley G's Holly Goetting, who was promoted to head chef at Charley G's two years ago.
The rise of two females to head positions in Lafayette's fine dining restaurants is just one of the changes rippling throughout the local chef and restaurant community. Independent operators are grappling with the influx of chain restaurants into Lafayette; the culinary education system is striving to prepare chefs for an increasingly competitive industry; restaurants are expanding from regional cuisine to offer more international fare and diverse ingredients; and almost every restaurant now has a head chef. The seeds of a movement that started more than 30 years ago are bearing fruit in unexpected ways.
Lafayette's culinary scene dates back to the mid-60s, when dining was an experience that could last for hours. Restaurants were independently owned, and the only chain was a Western Sizzler. Chez Pastor, located where Blue Dog Café is now, set the bar for upscale dining, while Don's Downtown filled the seafood and family dining niche. Earl Hebert had Beef & Ale restaurant, and in 1972, he and Charlie Goodson opened Judge Roy Bean's Saloon, the town's first singles bar that would eventually become Café Vermilionville. Charley G's opened in 1985, its open kitchen and wood-burning grill a new concept for Lafayette, and Prejean's hit the scene in 1980.
As Lafayette's restaurant landscape was heating up and beginning to show signs of innovation, Louisiana Technical College noticed the need for a program that would supply restaurants with trained chefs. The Lafayette campus started its culinary degree program in 1980. Matt Broussard, a current business instructor at LTC who moved back to Lafayette after teaching at Johnson & Wells in Charleston, S.C., and Chef Pat Mould were in the first graduating class. "We had no groceries," remembers Broussard. "We were able to set up a storeroom, develop recipes." Mould also remembers the experience well. "We actually got to set up all the equipment. It was kind of like starting a restaurant from scratch," he says. "It gave us a real good perspective."
The school's kitchen is now fully stocked with new stainless steel equipment, and students study under Head Chef Instructor Earline Thomas. The kitchen opens to a cafeteria and restaurant, where the students serve faculty, staff and other students regional and international dishes. The program also recently added a Culinary Arts and Occupations degree option that results in an associate of applied science degree after two years of study and is designed to transfer to UL Lafayette. Thomas says most students go on to work in different aspects of the industry locally, from restaurants to hospitals, or advance to other colleges and culinary schools.
Mould interned at Chez Pastor after graduating from LTC and was later hired as Café Vermilionville's first sous chef, under Paul "Leopold" Langoria. At the time, the designation of "chef" was becoming a prestigious title. "There were very few chefs around," says Mould. "Most of the cooks in the kitchen were the old Creole cooks, old Cajun ladies cooking up pots of gumbo." Mould and Langoria merged their cooking backgrounds to create the menu, Langoria's classical French European taste blending with Mould's Cajun palate.
Goodson says there weren't many high-profile chefs in town when he opened Judge Roy Bean's, which served hamburgers and gumbo. "Paul Prudhomme made the chef's position and the kitchen popular. It made it fun," he says. "Before that, it was the back of the house, it was closed off, you didn't see anybody back there, but Paul made it a viable and exciting career. You saw a lot of younger kids going into the culinary schools and saw a big change in the industry where these kids were learning how to be chefs."
Linda Vincent worked closely with a lot of those budding chefs. Vincent retired as dean of UL Lafayette's Hospitality Management program in May, after 20 years with the university. Although the program focuses on hotel and tourism management, Vincent says restaurant operation is included, because food is such a part of our culture. "We don't specifically train culinary, but because we're in Acadiana, we do emphasize food preparation a great deal," she says.
During her tenure, one of her hopes was to establish a culinary school in Lafayette, with Paul Prudhomme as its leader. She contacted Prudhomme in 1990 and organized a press conference with local restaurant owners and chefs to announce the idea. "It never materialized," she says. "There was some interference by New Orleans about Paul coming here versus staying there." The press conference was canceled and rescheduled, but the idea never moved past the concept stage.
Vincent says Lafayette missed a great opportunity. "We have Paul Prudhomme, John Folse, some of the world's best-known chefs, but there's never been an effort in the state to put together a Louisiana Culinary School," she says. "We have a great potential here."
UL President Ray Authement says the university chose the hospitality management route over culinary because of cost factors. "Culinary would have to be chef-based, and we didn't feel we wanted to go into a program that would be very expensive," he says. "There was also a facility issue: Where would the kitchen be located? It looked like too expensive a proposition for us."
The university does have a restaurant on campus, where senior-level students in the hospitality management program learn to run a kitchen and create a menu. Authement says future plans for the program include hiring a replacement for Vincent and incorporating the hospitality program into the business college, because "it's become such a business discipline." Students will also be able to get experience at the new University Hotel's planned pan-Asian restaurant, and Authement recently met with LTC Vice Chancellor Chris Williams about a partnership so that community college students can work in the University Hotel.
Although Lafayette is known for its food and tradition of Cajun cooking, many chefs leave the area in search of higher-paying jobs and more diversity in bigger cities. "In order to get some of the better salaries, they choose to go to work for the larger companies," says Vincent. "The majority of them have left town. They've told me to get the better salaries, we have to leave."
Coty Fruge is a 2001 graduate of LTC's program and a private chef in New York City. "My thoughts on the culinary scene in Lafayette are mixed," she says via e-mail. "We are lucky to get our start in a place like Louisiana, but they don't pay you what you're worth, and they will certainly pay a man more than you," she continues. She moved away to further her career and gain more skill in the kitchen, in addition to increasing her salary. "There is always some new technique or envelope being pushed here," she says. "This isn't the kind of town that serves rice and gravy with everything."
Fruge works for a retired couple in Manhattan, shopping for fresh ingredients five days a week at local markets, then cooking a four-course meal each night. "My pay rate works out to be four, sometimes five times more than Lafayette, depending on overtime," she says.
She also says Lafayette uses the term "executive chef" loosely, because most are not certified by the American Culinary Federation. (Certification by ACF involves taking 90 hours of classes, a 100-question exam and four hours of viewing and judging by other chefs.)
"I don't know if I'll ever actually get to that point [of being certified]," says Bella Figura's Meier. "That's a lot of work, and I don't know how recognized it is. There are a lot of chefs out there who are executive chefs and have never even been to school."
Jerry Sonnier, culinary instructor at LTC and former chef at the Cajundome, says the college's new degree option will result in higher salaries for students when they graduate. But Broussard adds that many restaurants want to train their own employees and may not want to pay a chef more for having a degree. "It causes some threats," says Sonnier. "It's going to be a big hurdle to cross in the area."
According to the Louisiana Restaurant Association, chefs with a culinary degree can make anywhere from 30-60 percent more than chefs without a degree, depending on the culinary school they attended. "Any degree would elevate you right off the bat," says LRA Vice President of Communications and Research Tom Weatherly.
Goodson says degrees have raised the bar for chefs but not necessarily resulted in higher local salaries. "That really hasn't entered into our particular mix," he says. "I think that would be the case in a very, very chef-dominated market, like New Orleans or New York or Chicago. It's helped the industry in general, the position, to be more of an accepted professional position and pay a good salary, but it hasn't affected this market too much yet."
Prejean's restaurant has served as a training ground for local chefs since it opened in 1980. Some of those chefs include Roy Angelle at Oakbourne, Colt Patin at Clementine, Earnest Zamora at Blue Dog Café and Brian Smith at Jefferson Street Café.
Prejean's head chef, Donovan Solis, is self-taught. Solis grew up in Port Sulphur, helping his mother in the kitchen and working on his father's oyster boat. He started as an oyster shucker at Prejean's at the age of 18, when the restaurant's legendary Chef James Graham was still in the kitchen.
"I didn't know what I was going to do until James told me I had a lot of potential," says Solis. He remembers watching Graham make apple dumplings one day, and by that afternoon, Solis had mastered the dessert. "James told me he couldn't have done it better," he says. But learning on the job wasn't always that easy.
"You have to be on your toes," he says. "James fired me about 10-12 times." Solis learned on the line, also watching Chef Brian Smith. He sautéed for about seven years, before moving up to expediter (the person who oversees dish presentation before the food leaves the kitchen) and then executive sous chef. Sous chefs do the cooking and are second-in-command to the head chef. "That's where the heart [of the kitchen] is," he says. Solis says he has plenty of room to be creative and has diversified Prejean's menu, adding southwest chicken, spinach salad with blackberry vinaigrette and shrimp Diane.
Solis credits Prejean's owner Bob Guilbeau with giving him flexibility and freedom. "If I want a foie gras or truffles, he tells me to order it," says Solis. "As long as he has good quality food and people are leaving happy, I'm free to experiment with what I want." Solis says he's thought about moving to a bigger market, but that putting in his time at Prejean's has paid off. "If you really want it, you have to stay and learn," he says. "It pays off in the end. Now, I'm head chef."
Mould says opportunity in Lafayette is what a chef makes of it. "I've had some wonderful opportunities here," he says. He offers culinary adventures through his Louisiana School of Cooking and holds a corporate chef position with LouAna Foods. "I often wonder if I made the right move in my career by staying in Lafayette. If I had to do it all over again, I might not. I've been very fortunate. I've made a decent living."
Charley G's Goetting, a graduate of the John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University, worked in Maine at Goose Cove Lodge and Resort in 2000 before finishing culinary school, but says she wants to be in Lafayette. "It was just really special that Charlie gave me that chance to move up and learn how to cook for everybody in Lafayette," she says. Goetting started in the pantry station at Charley G's four years ago, eventually became sous chef and then executive chef two years ago.
"I definitely had to work my way up more," she says. "In places I had worked before, I was on sauté. When I got here, I started doing desserts and salads, and I had already graduated from culinary school. So I just had to push myself."
Goodson says Goetting's gender was irrelevant in her promotion to executive chef. "She was young and fun to work with and had some good ideas, so we took a chance with each other," he says. "It brings something interesting to the mix." He sent Goetting to New Orleans to meet with Susan Spicer (Bayona, Herbsaint and Cobalt restaurants) and Anne Kearney (Peristyle) when she started. "I asked them to spend some time with her and tell her the challenges she's going to have being female and being in a male-dominated industry," he says.
LTC's Chef Thomas says getting acceptance as a female chef over the years has been grueling. "Women always have to prove themselves," she adds. Thomas is the oldest of 12 children and started cooking in her mother's kitchen. She moved on to cook at the former Angelle's, across from Prejean's, and was at Lafayette General before going to LTC. "You learn as you go," she says, "even if it's making a hamburger."
Bella Figura's Meier says it's simply about doing the job. "We are just as talented, and we always have been," she says. "There still probably are not as many women, and there definitely are not as many women holding a chef title as there are men, but there are probably as many women in that field."
Lafayette's two female executive chefs are putting their mark on their menus. Meier has created weekly specials like gorgonzola shrimp, duck and wild mushroom cannelloni and grilled tilapia with brodo sauce. At Charley G's, 28-year-old Goetting has injected some Asian influences into the seasonal menu, like crawfish wontons, and is holding themed wine dinners.
"We're having more influences from other types [of cooking] and cultures," says LRA's Weatherly. He adds that independent restaurants are doing well in Lafayette, especially in the casual dining sector, and that takeout has reached its peak. "More people are wanting that experience of going out to the restaurant and relaxing and sitting at the restaurant for a while," he says.
With Lafayette entering a new chapter in its restaurant history, the independents are hoping their history and chefs will help them thrive alongside the city's influx of chain restaurants. And many culinary observers are looking to the new Townhouse Restaurant to set the bar for the next generation. "It could set another trend," says LTC's Broussard. "Lafayette is ready for something like that."
The Townhouse lured away head chef Al Massa from New Orleans' Delmonico restaurant and opened for dinner at the beginning of the month. It features a 120-seat dining area, extensive wine cellar and southern Creole menu. Steaks are topped with a homemade Worcestershire sauce, the chef hand-pulls his own mozzarella, and one duck dish takes three days to prepare. "We want a place where people could have lots of different experiences," says Townhouse Marketing Director Angelle Judice, noting the chef's table and outdoor terrace. "We are a step into the future of what Lafayette's aspiring to be. You can have a multi-level, full evening experience or just a martini at the bar." (The Townhouse opens for lunch Aug. 22.)
Meier says chefs are what set local restaurants apart from chains. "That's the whole reason people come to restaurants that have chefs ' they know that there'll be something that will be a little bit different."
BY THE NUMBERS
Restaurant wages in 2004 for chefs and head cooks
Entry level: $9.90/hour
Source: Louisiana Department of Labor
Number of Lafayette restaurants: 867
Annual sales: $384 million
Direct employees: 11,685
Annual sales per capita: $987.87
Source: Louisiana Restaurant Association, February 2005