Cajun cuisine continues to grow and evolve

State of the Plate: Paul Prudhomme's legacy lives on in the growing and evolving Cajun items on menus, says RB menu trends columnist Nancy Kruse.
Lazy Dog's Lumberjack Pancake Tacos
Lazy Dog's Lumberjack Pancake Tacos. | Photo courtesy of Lazy Dog Cafe.

State of the Plate

There is a clear element of predictability to each new menu cycle. Chefs can be counted on to compete for dining dollars by larding their dishes with premium ingredients like, say, lobster; and/or items that are globally inspired with touches like kimchi or curry; and/or comfort foods, as with the seemingly endless wave of fried chicken fare.

And for the past several decades without fail, each successive menu cycle has also featured Cajun-inflected items, a recurring theme that both nods to the enduring appeal of a uniquely American cuisine and pays homage to the region and the chefs who popularized it.

Star power. The larger-than-life character who played a leading role in introducing thefoodsof his native Louisiana into the American mainstream was the late chef Paul Prudhomme. Outsize in both girth and influence—at one point he reportedly tipped the scales at more than 500 pounds--he wore his love for Cajun cookery on his size-XXXL sleeve.

Prudhomme was the first American to helm the kitchen at New Orleans’ vaunted Commander’s Palace, which he left to open his seminal K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in 1979. With his subsequent TV appearances and cook books, he elevated the image of the entire culinaryprofession and became the first celebrity chef.

Flavor forward. The Cajun trend hit the meat-and-potatoes mainstream like a bolt from the bayou. Though unfamiliar to most consumers, the fact that the assertively-flavored dishes and ingredients were home grown and hailed from the storied Big Easy helped to disarm the fear factor and encourage trial.

Throughout the 1990s as casual dining operations were in a growth mode, Cajun became a lynchpin of their menu R&D efforts. A sampling of bills of fare from 1998 reveals that The Cheesecake Factory offered Cajun Jambalaya Pasta, Rock Botton Brewery touted Crawfish Quesadillas for a “taste of the Big Easy,” and Applebee’s went all in with 10 specialties including Broiled Cajun Trout and a N’Awlins Skillet.

shrimpin aint easy

The Shrimpin' Ain't Easy Bowl from Lucille's Smokehouse Bar-B-Que. | Photo courtesy of Lucille's Smokehouse Bar-B-Que.

Twenty-five later, items like Houlihan’s Jambalaya, TGI Friday’s Cajun Shrimp & Chicken Pasta and several Applebee’s have remained fixtures on those menus, where they’ve been joined by numerous recent additions that add Cajun dash to some unexpected dishes.

Lazy Dog’s new Lumberjack Pancake Tacos, for example, come with a side of Cajun gravy, Genghis Grill’s Lonestar Bowl features Cajun sausage, and East meets South in Ms. Cluck’s Chicken & Dumplings’ Cajun Karaage Chicken Sando with nori-buttermilk ranch.

Prep forward, too. Besides introducing the broad dining public to previous unknowns like boudin or crawfish, Prudhomme also put technique in the spotlight.

His inventive use of blackening, in which he dipped redfish in butter and cayenne before searing it in a super-hot skillet, spawned legions of not-so-good knock-offs. For several years, diners with soot-ringed nostrils exhaled clouds of black dust as they stumbled out of pseudo-Cajun establishments around the country.

Decades on, the technique is still in wide use, albeit with substantially greater finesse. Last fall, Popeye’s, which was founded in New Orleans and knows it way around the Cajun kitchen, rolled out a “breading-free, flavor-full” Blackened Chicken Sandwich that was several years in development.

This summer saw the debut of Lucille’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que’s Shrimpin’ Ain’t Easy Bowl with blackened tomato gravy and fried tasso ham; Bar Louie’s New Orleans Chicken & Shrimp Pasta with blackened chicken, andouille sausage and homemade Cajun cream sauce; and Velvet Taco’s Fried Green Tomato and Blackened Shrimp Taco. Served with rémoulade, this last was a Weekly Taco Feature in late August.

Second acts. Few culinary movements stand still. That’s especially true in this country, where they are melting potted, mashed up and adapted to the times and tastes. Today, the Cajun-foods phenomenon is getting a very strong second wind from the Vietnamese immigrant community. In fact, Viet-Cajun cuisine has emerged as a bona-fide trend in its own right.

This isn’t entirely surprising given the similarities between the two food cultures. Both reflect a strong French influence, and neither is afraid of flavor. And they share an affinity for seafood: Vietnamese-Americans are said to represent one-third of fishermen in the Gulf-Coast area. A recent article in Food & Wine further reported that a substantial 80% of Vietnamese-Americans in that region are engaged in the seafood industry as fishermen and processors, equipment suppliers and seafood retailers.

The result is an emerging category of Viet-Cajun seafood-focused restaurants. Houston is a hotbed of such operations, and Atlanta is not far behind. The latter is home to Crawfish Shack, which claims to sell a head-turning one ton of crawfish each week.

These are decidedly hands-on, high-touch eateries that invite patrons to roll up their sleeves and dig in. That’s true at The Boil Daddy, which is rapidly expanding off its base on the West Coast and whose young founder has been profiled in Forbes. On the menu at its 26 units in seven states are signature seafood boils with a Cajun accent, along with items like chicken wings with Cajun sauce.

Boil Daddy

Viet-Cajun restaurants, such as Boil Daddy, are growing. | Photo courtesy of Boil Daddy.

International travel. Speaking of Cajun dipping sauce, it’s not surprising that these flavors have made menu headway abroad, and it’s even less surprising that McDonald’s has been a conduit. Three years ago, the chain introduced the BTS Meal, said to be created in conjunction with the seven-member K-Pop sensations of the same initials. It included 10 Chicken McNuggets and a new Cajun dipping sauce inspired by the brand’s South Korean recipes.  

This spring, the chain offered a Cajun sauce for a limited time in Malaysia, and just last month it brought back Cajun dipping sauce to its Canadian stores.

While the item is currently missing from the brand’s domestic units, it’s worth noting as an aside that Buffalo sauce, which is on offer, owes much of its perennial, flavor-forward popularity to groundwork laid by Prudhomme and his fellows.

Lasting legacy. The extraordinary wealth of culinary talent in Louisiana didn’t begin in Prudhomme, and it demonstrably did not end with his death. Nor was he alone in popularizing its gastronomy. Emeril Lagasse, who followed Prudhomme into the back of the house at Commander’s Palace, graduated to The Food Network, where he “bammed” his way to near-ubiquity.

Chef John Folse, who opened and still runs Lafitte’s Landing Restaurant in Donaldson, LA, in 1978, became a literal culinary ambassador:  He introduced Louisiana’s indigenous cuisine to Japan, Beijing, and Paris. And in 1988, he made international headlines with Lafitte’s Landing East, which he launched in Moscow to coincide with the Presidential Summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. In his spare time, he operates a culinary school, appears on TV and publishes a raft of books.

Chain restaurants have emerged to capitalize on the allure of Louisiana cookery, like Walk-Ons Sports Bistreaux, Razzoo’s Cajun Cafe, Ralph and Kacoo’s, Popeyes and others; and the state continues to support an especially vibrant community of independents.

But it was Paul Prudhomme, with his easy charm and ready smile who paved the way. He knew what he was talking about when he told People magazine in 1985, “Cajun makes you happy. It’s emotional. You can’t eat a plate of Cajun food and not have good thoughts.” Thank you, chef.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this piece misidentified Lucille's Shrimpin' Ain't Easy bowl. 

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