Doing it by taste

by Mary Tutwiler

Who'd a thunk it? One of the best gumbos in town can be found at Vermilionville.

Usually, when a restaurant is dubbed "Mom's Cooking," or in our Francophone case, "La Cusine de Maman," the standard advice is run, run, in the opposite direction. No home cooking there. It took an act of desperation - too much Jameson's Irish whiskey on an empty stomach - to nudge me into buying a bowl of gumbo at the last Louisiana Crossroads concert held at Vermilionville. I spooned in a mouthful and did a culinary double take.

"Who made this gumbo?" I asked. "We make it here," said a cheery round-cheeked woman who was serving bowls of the dark brown stuff. "At Vermilionville?" I think I responded. "But it's good."

Attempting to make amends for my rude faux pas, I slurped down another spoonful. That sip was better than the first. It was so good, I made my buddy, chef Pat Mould, take a taste. "Where'd you get that?" he asked, eyes wide. I just pointed, slunk off and downed the rest in a dark corner. And then had to admit to myself I had eaten the best bowl of chicken and sausage gumbo in town, brewed in the kitchens of Vermilionville's restaurant, La Cusine de Maman. Talk about eating crow, er chicken.

A day later, I called Vermilionville's Food and Beverage Operations Coordinator, Debbie Angelle, to confess and to ask for a recipe. Angelle peeled with laughter, she remembered my astonishment from the night before, and invited me to meet the cook, her dear friend and colleague Connie Landry.

Angelle and Landry are quite a team. Both born in the Cecilia area, they each found their way into cooking through their mothers and grandmothers, women who worked without recipes, who cooked by intuition, experience and taste.

Angelle started her culinary odyssey at Pat's Riverside Inn in Henderson, then did a stint at Mulate's before she wound up as manager at Miss Helen's in Scott. Landry was a prep cook at Lafayette General, moved into "pot cooking when they saw what I could do," and then left for the Acadiana Catfish Shack before she too entered the kitchen at Miss Helen's. The year was 1995. Angelle and Landry recognized a culinary soulmate in the other and began to build a repertoire based on a shared view of how good food comes about.

"We were always taught never to cook with recipes," says Angelle, of her growing up. "Cooking is an art. Any menu that I put together - she can execute it without a recipe, she has that true cooking touch."

"If I'm cooking gumbo," adds Landry, "I know the flavor I'm looking for. I do it by taste. They say why are you so small?' cause I taste my food so much."
Angelle decided to hone Landry's talent by entering cooking competitions. "The first time I entered a cook-off," says Landry, "I came in third. I came home and cried." Angelle kept after her, and in subsequent years they started winning the New Iberia Gumbo Cookoff in the professional category. Chicken and sausage one year, seafood the next.

"When they'd see me get out the truck in New Iberia, them chefs would throw their aprons down. They'd know they weren't going to win that year," laughs Landry. They challenged themselves, upped the ante, and a few years later swept both first place categories. Then they entered the Eunice Crawfish Etouffee Cookoff and beat renowned chef James Graham with their first place dish.

Eventually, both women moved on from Miss Helen's. They worked together at the Catfish Shack, then Angelle left to manage River Oaks Catering and Landry manned the pots at Shiney D's. Last year, Angelle landed a job at Vermilionville, Landry called her friend looking for work, and the team was back together again.

Angelle revamped the entire menu, Landry executed it.

As to be expected in mama's kitchen, Cajun comfort food reigns. Etouffee, macquechoux, jambalaya, rice dressing, red beans and rice, fried seafood, poboys, bread pudding (Miss Helen Burch's recipe), and gateau sirop abound. That extraordinary gumbo bubbles on up on the menu every day but Monday, when the restaurant is closed.

Aside from the great food, Vermilionville may have the most beautiful dining room in Acadiana. The back, glassed-in porch, overlooks the Vermilion river and a garden of native plants, which are in full flower right now. We locals tend to overlook what's right under our noses, mistaking Vermilionville as an attraction only for tourists. But think again. What is richest and best about our Acadiana culture - the language, the historic architecture, the crafts, the native plant lore and of course our cooking tradition are being practised daily right there, in the middle of town.

There's no admission charge if you're headed to the restaurant, though it's well worth taking a postprandial stroll through the village. You'll get a good dose of heritage and culture under the spring sunshine. You'll get more than you bargained for in visiting Vermilionville except for one thing - the chicken and sausage gumbo recipe. That's not because Angelle and Landry are loathe to share. It's just that there isn't one.

Vermilionville's La Cuisine de Maman is located within the property at 300 Fisher Rd., Lafayette. Restaurant hours are Tues-Friday, 11 a.m.- 2 p.m., Sat-Sun, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. For more information, check out the Web site, or call 233-4077.