Langlois, New Orleans
What: An "interactive dining experience," with personal instruction in a small-class setting.
Where: 1710 Pauger St., New Orleans, LA
Best for: Serious home cooks, or food enthusiasts, who want a lesson in preparing authentic Southern meals in the New Orleans style. And people who like a good history lesson with their food.
The secret to good red beans and rice is the freezer.
Same goes for fried chicken.
The cooking lesson at Langlois in New Orleans more than just freezing food, but that was the biggest of any eye-opener. I went in late January for a one-off session in cooking dishes endemic to the area: Fried Chicken, Red Beans and Rice, and Bananas Foster.
Red beans and rice hold a special place in my strapped-for-cash personal history. It was staple dish when I worked early in my newspaper gigs. Budgeting went like this: Rent, beer money, food. Use the change to do laundry. The beer was usually cheap, and the food similar. A box of Zatarain's red beans and rice can last you half a week with a pound of smoked sausage and an extra can of beans tossed in there. So I'd have it for lunch - and often after a late night out before I went to bed. Economical and plentiful are the culinary goals of anyone who is broke, and that's often found in one-pot stews, soups, casseroles and such. I still think fondly of those pots of beans and rice. Maybe this class would put me in touch with that part of my past, or show me how to redefine it into adulthood.
At the door of Langlois I was greeted by Lauren, with tattoos hidden under a long-sleeved shirt, who handled front-of-house stuff, and Chef Tess, in glasses, with the countenance and control-the-room presence of a kitchen boss.
Lauren made sure water glasses were full, coffee was refilled and we were generally comfortable. Chef Tess would spend the next three hours in a working lecture, demonstrating knife skills, kitchen tips and plenty of history about the ingredients - including a small sermon on food allergies. She stopped short of being preachy, but Chef Tess does speak with authority on her food.
A middle-aged father and his daughter, perhaps in her mid-20s were in the class too. That's three of us total for the hands-on cooking class. The place has larger sessions that aren't as handsy. But I wanted to get a little dirty.
We were greeted with a biscuit, hard-boiled egg, a grapefruit with cartelized brown sugar and a praline. Hell, you can see the menu right up there. I wolfed my portion down, and wish I could've had a little more, even. But we had to get to cooking and I wasn't there to simply eat.
This kitchen belongs to Chef Tess. She's big on being the boss of the food, which is one of the first concepts we were explained. It means being in control.
And one of the most important parts of being in control is having the right knife. So Chef Tess had us select our knives. I chose something close to the old 8-inch Dexter-Russell I have at home. But, you know, chef-ier looking.
Out knife skills lesson stuck with vegetables, so we didn't have to worry about handling raw meat. I was able to bone up on cutting dice for onion, and learned about cutting peppers the Chef Tess way. Be the boss.
The biggest takeaway, other than the freezer, was cutting green onion on the bias. All these years I've been holding my knife at a perpendicular off angle. Really I should just stagger the ends of my green onions about one-half inch in a little flat stair step and hold the tip of my knife at angle in relation to where it points from my body. I've already employed that one at home. Also used a trick to deal with some of the sulfur-based compounds released when cutting an onion - just have a lit candle nearby. Tears averted.
Oh, and I got the reminder on using a little pile of salt to create a paste when you're smashing up garlic. Totally forgot that one.
We also learned how the freezer can be used as a gadget. Chef Tess put the single-breaded (once and only once) chicken pieces in the freezer for about a half hour prior to frying. I forget exactly what the science was behind this, but it made for a tasty single piece of breading/skin instead of breading, then skin, then chicken.
As for the beans, you soak them overnight, then stick them in the freezer on cookie sheets. Water expands in the beans, the tissue inside breaks down and you have creamier beans. Too bad I didn't know this in the beans-and-rice days.
There was a lesson in dietary restrictions, and how the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and chilis) creates compounds some people can be allergic to. We dwelled on histories behind the dishes we cooked - got some interesting stories on how the region influenced the food. Bananas Foster, for example, is a N.O. signature dish built on chefs trying to figure out how to get rid of a whole pile of bananas at once. I also learned the fun of throwing a dash of ground cinnamon at an open flame. Yes, it's cool. We also made crepes.
In all this was on of the better plates of beans and rice I've ever eaten in my life, including those days when I showed up at home at 2 a.m. after a hefty bar tab. The fried chicken helps add oomph to the tasty factor. (Don't ask how that tasty factor math works.) But it's important to say that you're not paying simply for the food here. You're getting a history lesson, some personal instruction and a terrific meal. And you end with recipes to take back home at try on friends and neighbors. So my people in Knoxville can expect some of that in the future.
I'd recommend it to those folks who are serious home cooks or just general food enthusiasts and want to have a good time in a class that's more than watching someone cook under a mirror from a table in the back of the room. Here you're standing next to the flame, chopping up ingredients and being led by a deft hand. You get a little dirty, but nothing much more complicated than you'd deal with at home by making a salad and using a sharp knife to do it. I had a great time, learned new things and had a tasty meal from the morning.