Written by Carolyn Heneghan. This unique New Orleans cooking experience serves up a slice of local culture and cuisine.
The menu would stand out at any top-notch New Orleans eatery: Crabmeat ravigote, seafood-stuffed eggplant with shrimp and a lemon Parmesan sauce, followed by pecan pie.
But this table of ravenous diners were not having dinner at a high-end restaurant. They were watching a James Beard award-winning chef prepare a New Orleans-style meal step by step, courtesy of the New Orleans Cooking Experience (NOCE).
Currently held at the Rouses Culinary Innovation Center at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum (SoFAB), NOCE courses are a world away from the common tourist cooking class. NOCE offers an immersive experience in New Orleans’ rich culture, with cooking instruction and food, of course, as well as discussions of history, architecture and a mid-class tour of the iconic venue.
“All the way from the hot chili peppers on the chandelier and the antique building to the wonderful chef, it was New Orleans all the way,” said Judy Miller, a NOCE guest and an interior designer from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, “almost like a crash course in New Orleans.”
History of the Experience
After a career in television and advertising, New Orleans native Judy Jurisich decided to work on a “fun pre-retirement project,” she says. She spent six months in Florence, Italy, learning about the culture and cuisine through cooking classes, and it inspired her to offer a similar experience to guests to New Orleans. The result was NOCE.
“I just thought there was, at that time, a hunger in the way that people were traveling—a hunger for authenticity,” Jurisich says. She wanted her course to express the essence of New Orleans cuisine and culture, for guests to feel a genuine connection to its Creole and Cajun roots, its history, its creative spirit. “If we could be very authentic and true, people would find it interesting and fun. And they have.”
Jurisich wrote her NOCE business plan in the early 2000s and approached two local, acclaimed culinary figures to help bring her culinary school to life: Frank Brigtsen, a James Beard award-winning chef and owner of Brigtsen’s Restaurant, which has been serving Creole/Acadian cuisine to rave reviews since 1986, and Poppy Tooker, a classically trained cook, author and radio show host.
“We decided that we would try to figure out a way to give them that [authentic experience] of food at a higher level than what was being offered in the city,” Jurisich says.
NOCE had a soft opening in 2003, with classes moving to SoFAB in July 2016.
Classes are limited to a dozen students gathered around a demonstration kitchen to watch the instructor prepare three Creole and/or Cajun dishes. During the two-hour demonstration, instructors focus not on basic cooking skills, but instead on “unlocking the mystery” of Creole and Cajun cooking techniques, such as a dark roux, Jurisich says.
The instructors also share engaging stories about New Orleans history, dishes and ingredients, along with personal stories about their own cooking experiences. The history lesson continues beyond the initial cooking instruction; attendees enjoy a tour of the historic venue while the chef and assistants plate the final meal.
The unique and immersive class combines the thrill of dining out in New Orleans with vibrant conversations about local lore and cooking techniques. “What you’ll find here is something beyond the obvious,” Brigtsen says. “The chefs express their own personal cuisine in such a way that you can explore the diversity of techniques and dishes that make Creole and Cajun cuisine so enjoyable.”
Meet the Chefs
NOCE’s success and allure are derived in large part from its colorful team of instructors. In addition to Brigtsen and Tooker, courses are led by seasoned caterer and cookbook author Chiqui Collier, acclaimed local chef Gerard Maras of Mr. B’s and Gerard’s, and chef and author Janice “Boo” Macomber. Other guest chefs include caterer and restaurant chef Kirsten Schneider and James Beard award-winning Rising Star Chef of 2004 Allison Vines-Rushing. “Everybody does their own thing, and you have different personalities,” Brigtsen says.
“The common bond is that it has some roots in Creole and Cajun heritage. Everyone’s allowed to be themselves, express their personalities and inject some personal insight into the food and the culture.”
The locale is also key to the NOCE experience. “Part of Judy’s vision was that she didn’t want a sterile environment; she wanted something that felt like New Orleans,” Brigtsen says. “We’ve been lucky to have that over the years, and I think [holding events at] SoFAB is a good next step.”
Brigtsen says that a region’s food is a great medium to begin exploring a city, and New Orleans is particularly suited for it. “We’re able to convey an authentic, genuine picture into what is really a very deep and broad cuisine and culture,” he explains. “Oftentimes in today’s world, we get a simplistic snapshot of something. It’s only once you immerse yourself in a place that you really understand it.”
An upscale bar with a local’s touch
Touché Bar, nestled on Royal Street in the Omni Royal Orleans, bears all the charm of the French Quarter neighborhood. The bar menu is complete with every local’s favorite small bites. Try the fried P&J oyster po’boy or the cochon de lait sliders, both with sea salt fries, complemented by a colossal cocktail. The wine and beer menu feature tantalizing takes on the classics.
While food and drink remain among New Orleans’ most beloved cultural characteristics, the people themselves who live and work in the city often make the most lasting impression on visitors.
Touché is no exception. Locals and visitors alike rave about the venue’s staff. That includes bartender Donna Seyer, who regales patrons with insider tips and lively stories while serving up one of her legendary French 75s or bloody marys.
Whether it’s a taste of local drink and cuisine or swapping stories with lively locals, a rich appreciation for the city can be had by any visitor of this beloved location.
Seafood Okra Gumbo
Yield: 12 bowl-sized portions
Chef’s notes: “There are as many ways to make gumbo in Louisiana as there are cooks,” says Frank Brigtsen, chef and owner of Brigtsen’s Restaurant. “This is a gumbo I usually make in the warmer months when fresh okra is available and shrimp season is open. You can be flexible with the type of seafood stock you use and the oyster liquor. Do the best you can with what you have available. The flavor of this gumbo is intensified by adding some of the ingredients in two stages.”
2 cups andouille sausage, sliced into half-rounds, ¼-inch thick
1 ¼ cups vegetable oil
1 ½ cups all-purpose white flour
3 tablespoons mild olive oil (pomace olive oil)
4 cups sliced fresh okra
1 ½ cups finely diced canned whole tomatoes
2 tablespoons mild olive oil (pomace olive oil)
4 cups finely diced celery
6 cups finely diced yellow onion
2 bay leaves
4 teaspoons minced fresh garlic
½ teaspoon dried whole-leaf thyme
1 teaspoon dried whole-leaf oregano
1 teaspoon dried whole-leaf sweet basil
2 tablespoons salt
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
8 cups shrimp stock
4 cups oyster liquor and/or crab stock
1 pound gumbo crabs (dressed blue crabs),
broken into halves
3 cups peeled Louisiana shrimp
3 cups shucked Louisiana oysters
1. Cook the andouille: Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit. Place the sliced andouille sausage on a shallow baking pan, and bake until the edges turn brown, 40-45 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.
2. Make a brown roux: Heat the vegetable oil in a cast-iron pot over high heat. When the oil is hot, about 375 Fahrenheit or frying temperature, gradually add the flour, whisking constantly. Cook, whisking constantly, until the roux becomes the color of peanut butter and becomes thick and grainy. Remove from heat and continue cooking, still whisking, until the roux thins out. Return the skillet to the stove over high heat. Continue cooking the roux, whisking constantly, until the roux becomes dark brown (caramel-colored). Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
3. Sauté the okra and tomatoes: Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the okra and cook, stirring constantly, until the okra softens and just begins to break up, 3-4 minutes. Add the tomato and cook, stirring constantly, for 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
4. Make the gumbo: Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add 3 cups of celery and 4 cups of onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions turn brown, 12-15 minutes.
5. Add the remaining celery and onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until the second stage of onions turn soft and clear, 4-5 minutes.
6. Reduce heat to low. Add the garlic, thyme, oregano, basil, salt, white pepper, black pepper and cayenne. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 minutes.
7. Add half of the okra/tomato mixture, the shrimp stock, oyster liquor, gumbo crabs and cooked andouille sausage. Bring the mixture to a boil.
8. Drain off any excess oil from the roux. Gradually add the roux to the boiling stock/ vegetable mixture and stir until fully incorporated. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.
9. Add the remaining okra/tomato mixture and simmer for 10 more minutes.
10. Bring the gumbo to a boil. Add the peeled shrimp and cook, stirring occasionally, just until the shrimp turn pink on the outside, about 2 minutes. Add the oysters and reduce heat to low. Cook just until the oysters become plump and curl on the edges, about 2 minutes. Serve with rice.
(Recipe from Frank Brigtsen of Brigtsen’s Restaurant)