Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Love, laughs and lunch at The New Orleans School of Cooking.

I come from a long line of cooks on both sides of my family. But there are some things I never picked up on my own. My grandmother was known for making a mean jambalaya, but all I got from her was how to make biscuits. Growing up in the big city might have been part of that.

Most of what I’ve learned about cooking outside my small south Arkansas culture has been as an adult, through TV and books and cooking classes taken whenever and wherever I can. And just about every time I find myself in New Orleans I end up at the New Orleans School of Cooking. Classes are offered every day on everything from gumbo to red beans and rice and everything in-between.

But I don’t just go for the knowledge. I go for the food -- the school’s food is some of the best Cajun and Creole fare you’ll get in the French Quarter. And I go for the stories.

Kevin Belton’s one of my favorite chefs at the school. When you say someone’s larger than life, you’re usually referring to attitude. With Kevin that applies, but it’s his stature that people tend to recall first. He’s six foot, nine inches tall and in the range of 400 pounds… of what, you might ask? “It’s not fat,” he insists. “It’s credibility. Would you trust someone without some credibility?”

Like the other chefs at the school, he’s full of knowledge and wisdom about southern Louisiana cooking. He’s also full of tales and teasing. I don’t mind that at all.

Kevin will tell you, as will the other chefs, this simple mantra. “Use what you got. That’s the heart of Louisiana cooking. You got this recipe, you don’t have crawfish, use shrimp. No shrimp? Use chicken. Use venison. Got a garden? Use squash. It don’t have to be perfect.”

On my most recent visit, we went to learn how to prepare shrimp and artichoke soup, crawfish etouffee and pralines in a Saturday afternoon class. The classroom was packed with folks from all over the United States. Kevin went through the class, asking each of us where we were from. There were a couple there from Wisconsin, which made Kevin wince.

“Oooh, Wisconsin. You people are mean up there. We teach our children down here by the time they are three to go unlock the car door, put the key in the ignition and to turn that air condition up to high. You have to have that down here.

“I was up there not too long ago. Been working all day and they had this van, it had been sitting all day out there, hadn’t even been started up. Driver gets in, I get into the front seat. He reaches over, turns the lever all the way to as hot as it would go, and then turns on that fan. I was so cold, my eyes were watering.

“How come you don’t teach your kids to start the car?”

As he’s talking, he’s moving through the steps of each recipe. He started with the etouffee. “Now, if you come home some night, men, and you ask your wife what she’s making and she says AYE-too-FAY? You’d better turn around, go get some flowers or something and be ready to apologize. The dish is pronounced ET-too-fay. It means to smother something. AYE-too-fay means to smother someone -- and you don’t want that.”

Kevin shares wisdom in the process of making three or four dishes in each class. He’s not alone. I’ve taken classes over the years with the other members of the NOSOC staff. Michael was my first instructor. I went back in 2008 and took the same class I first took in 2000 again, the class on corn and crab bisque and shrimp creole. I’ve taken all the courses there so far -- I did miss out when they used to make catfish, but they don’t offer that now as far as I know.

Learned a lot over the years. After my first visit I spent hours perfecting my quick-whisked roux. Somehow over the years I hadn’t managed to pick up how to go about making gravy, but afterwards I was making summer sausage gravy, beef gravy, chicken gravy and whatnot.

After my second visit I got more adventuresome. I cooked up a pineapple bread pudding for about 200 people at an event. I started making big pots of chicken-and-chicken-sausage gumbo for gatherings with my friends. I made Shrimp Creole for Paul’s dad.

The methodology of the class is perfect for my sort of learning curve. I’m entertained. I’m educated. I’m fed. It’s a good meal and about as expensive as what you’d pay for a restaurant that serves up that meal -- $24 for the three-course afternoon classes and $29 for the four-course morning ones. And every single time I go, I really do learn something new.

This time around, Kevin showed us how to make a dry roux. “When you whip up that butter, that oil with your flour, you’re cooking it to a certain temperature for a certain amount of time. Roux is like toast. Bread is good but when you toast it, it tastes different. Some people like brown toast. Some like it light. You can make it however dark you want to make it.

“Get your flour, and get a pan. Put your flour in the pan at 350 degrees for an hour and a half to three hours. Every 45 minutes or so, break up the flour -- what’s on the bottom is going to cook faster than what’s on the top. Keep it somewhere in your kitchen. When you have company come over, you can have gravy just like that. Just get your butter melted in your pan and whip it right in there.”

The interaction is strong and the chefs at the school are always engaging. The sous chefs come along at intervals throughout the program, checking the refrigerator to make sure the chefs have what they need, dispersing ice tea and Abita beer and lemonade to the class and providing a little comic relief. “Don’t give that lady a beer, Thaddeus,” Kevin directs one young man. “She’s dangerous.” The crowd laughs.

The school, like so many other New Orleans businesses, took a hit after Hurricane Katrina. I went for one of the first classes when they reopened, sitting in on a Thursday afternoon in June 2006 with a friend learning about corn and crab bisque and Shrimp Creole. After that class we talked with Kevin for a while, who recounted to us how the waters had damaged his domicile and how it affected himself and his sons. At the time he had urged us to keep up the talk about New Orleans as a destination.

Five years post-Katrina, people still ask and assume. Kevin shares with the class. “People come down here and they ask, where’s the water? We didn’t keep it as a souvenir! It’s been gone a long time now. We’re pretty much back where we were before, except some of the hotels and restaurants are still working on a skeleton staff. That’s where you can help. You come down here, these places can afford to hire their staffs back.”

And he’s right -- as my subsequent visits to the city can attest. Yes, there are areas that will never be the same. But for tourists visiting the Crescent City, there’s little difference.

He doesn’t dwell on Katrina… few do, any more. He keeps on going, teaching and sharing. He got into the next dish, the shrimp and artichoke soup, with pointers all around.

“The most important thing to remember when you’re making a cream soup is that it’s a one to one ratio. You can make anything out of it. You can get yourself a butternut squash and cut it up and put it in there for a while and get it real soft and blend it on up. Or you can put that butternut squash in the oven for a while and roast it and then put it in the soup. Or an acorn squash.

“But when you make this good soup up, be prepared. You get some friends over and they have this stuff and they know how good it is. Next thing you know, you’ll be going over to someone’s house and they’re like ‘oh, come on in the kitchen and make up that good soup again. We got all the ingredients.’ You won’t need a recipe. See how much cream they have, and however much that is, is how much broth you’re going to put in. They have two cups of cream, you’re going to have two cups of broth. You following me?”

He opened a container of cream to pour into the soup, looking over at my photographer to make sure his camera was ready. My photographer had amused him greatly, taking all sorts of photos along the way. Once he was sure the camera was ready, he poured, continuing the conversation with the class.

“You may go to the store or you may have on hand some milk or some half and half. You have that, make chicken noodle soup. If you’re going to make cream soup, make cream soup.”

“You got friends watching you cook?” he asks as he puts more green onions into the shrimp and artichoke soup. “You can mess with their minds. Do something like this,” he says, dumping the whole bowl of green onion into the soup, then picking out a bit. “ ‘Ah! Too much! Too much!” He laughs. “They ask about something you put in, make up something. Use a name of something you saw on TV. ‘Yeah, those onions really increase your levels of Propecia.’ I tell ya, they will nod their heads knowingly and say ‘yeah, I heard something like that.’ ”


Throughout the class, Kevin reiterated what seems to be the school’s philosophy. “The key to Louisiana cookin’ is, use what you got.”

There was a woman in the crowd who mentioned she was gluten-free, couldn’t eat anything with flour in it. Not only did Kevin give her ideas on other ways to make these food (most involving cornstarch or arrowroot, rice or potato flour or the like), he offered to make her up a plate so she had something to eat that wouldn’t mess with her system.

And they’re like that there. I went before and had sat in on one of Michael’s classes on gumbo and jamalaya -- and he was talking about “you may not like coconut, but you should try the bread pudding even though it has coconut in it. You may think you don’t like Andouille, but you should try it, you will like it.” He saw me take a picture of my plate and not touch it and started to chastise me about it.

I quietly told him “but I can’t eat it, it’s pork, I’m bad allergic.”

He looked at me with sad eyes for a moment. “You really can’t eat anything I’m cooking today, can you?”

“I can eat bread pudding and pralines!” I volunteered.

He pulled aside one of the sous chefs that walks through from time to time and had a quick conversation with him. The chef brought out some ingredients, and as Michael continued with the demonstration and telling stories, he whipped me up some shrimp and chicken pastaletta, just for me. Now, I’ve been to a lot of cooking classes, but few have ever made sure I would go away full and work around my allergies. I so appreciate that.


Almost ever class ends with the making of pralines. Not pray-leans, prah-leens. As Michael once mentioned, pray-lean is what you do after a night of drinking on Bourbon Street -- you lean against a building and pray someone doesn’t see you urinating.

Kevin will tell you why you can’t variate from the menu. In each class he explains the history of the praline -- how some French guy sugar-coated almonds and claimed they were healthy. “You got something you like no one’s ever tried before and you want more of it, declare it’s healthy.” He talks about how the French came here and wanted their sugar coated almonds and people told them “we ain’t got no almonds here, use these.” And they used the pecans, because that’s what they had here.

He explains why you bring the pralines to softball, not hardball stage. He demonstrates the moment the pralines come off the heat, dropping a little mass of sugar and nut goodness on the paper. “You could wait five years, that praline is never going to set up, never going to harden. Never.” He explains the importance of whipping the air into the mix to bring the temperature down, how if you add a flavor to it that it cools faster and you have to work faster, how you should only make pralines exactly by the recipe because there’s no way you could double the batch and get them out of the pan on time before they hardened up.

He also makes a big deal about using what you cook, even if it doesn’t come out perfect. “You get some pralines that don’t set up, you take and mix them with a bit more butter. Take some Brie cheese and wrap it in phyllo dough. Heat it up and let the dough get crispy and then pour that melted praline sauce over the top of it.”

“If your pralines are too soft, roll them out. Throw some coconut in there, some chocolate or whatever, roll it up and coat it with some more nuts and slice it. Someone will say ‘make that again!’ but you can’t, you were trying to make pralines.”

“I knew this guy, he was going to make this grand meatloaf. He was using his wife’s best cake pan and bragging about it to his daughters. Goes to turn it over and it falls apart everywhere -- he’d been so sure of himself he forgot the breadcrumbs. Turned it out on a plate and told the family it was ‘Ground Beef a la Park.’ "

It’s all goes back to the school’s philosophy. “Anyone can cook,” they tell you. “Use what you have.” And the big thing, they want you to have a good time and come on back… which I plan to do, every time I come through. I may have taken all the classes before, but I always pick up something new. Every single time.


You may be wondering why I haven’t shared any recipes with you from my experiences. Frankly, it’s not the same. For one, that’s part of the experience and I shouldn’t take that away from the school. I mean, yes, there’s a book for sale called “Class Act” that features recipes from all the chefs that work at the New Orleans School of Cooking. But there are so many nuances to pick up from each chef that changes the way you see each recipe.

And there’s the dining. I mentioned how good the food is. You’re not going to get small portions, either. Thaddeus helped pass out bowls of the shrimp and artichoke soup around the room, following them up with Abita beer for whoever wanted it. The soup was velvety and deep, those tangy notes of artichoke dancing over the perfectly cooked shrimp, the last item thrown in the pot. The class grew quiet as soup was slurped.

Plates of the crawfish etouffee were dished up, the dark roux being spooned over rice. “You want to try some of that Cajun sauce there on your table with this,” Kevin told us, and he was right. The etouffee, which came out a little under spiced, was perfect with the garlic-cayenne sauce on the table. Others around the ten-top tried a little jalapeno sauce or seasoning salt in theirs. My photographer, who had professed before our New Orleans trip that he didn’t care for crawfish, changed his mind right then and there. “I like these,” he told me. “Maybe I’m just not getting the right mudbugs in Arkansas.”

Seconds were available all the way around, and several people went up to serve themselves more soup out of the big pot on the counter. Kevin stacked the now-set pralines on plates and sent them around the room. They were perfect in the way true pralines are -- sugary, almost crisp, with that pecan flavor shining through. The edges looked firm but had the consistency of brown sugar in the mouth. These are an addiction of mine, and usually when I spend a good week in New Orleans I have to come by the shop a few times to pick up a couple to eat right then in the Louisiana General Store that makes up the front of the business. These can’t be shipped. After a day, they’ve lost that texture and consistency I am in love with. People who ship pralines are doing something strange to them, I’ve decided. They should never taste like caramel.

At the end of class, people slowly filter out. Some have other engagements they head off to. Others, like me, dawdle a bit. On that particular Saturday afternoon I talked with a group of women from Memphis that had been seated with us and shared some business cards, letting them know if they’re ever in Arkansas to let me know and I’d let them know where they should eat. A couple of Canadian women who were also seated with us shared their interest and hung around, too.

Some had Kevin sign a cookbook, others just went up to shake his hand.

He recognized me. “We have talked before,” he mentioned.

“Yes, and you know I’ll be back again, dragging someone else along.”

He laughed and held out a hand to my photographer, who had never been to New Orleans before this trip. “You’ll come back too, won’t you?”

I bet he will. I will. And you will likely return yourself, once you go that first time. It’s an experience you should avail yourself of if you find yourself in the French Quarter. I do recommend reservations, as classes tend to fill up. (800) 237-4841 is the phone number, or check out the website -- it’ll tell you what’s being taught in each class. Consider this my recommendation.


  1. Thanks for the reminder about this place. You encouraged me to check it out at the Chef Ball. We go in May. Looking forward to going!

  2. Hi Kat,

    This is Brandon of freewheelings and from the lonely planet blogsherpa group. I wanted to pop in and tell you how much I enjoyed your post on the NOLA School of Cooking. I've featured your post on my weekly segment Freewheelings Five Best Travel Articles on Friday. Here's link:

    I usually let people know vi twitter but I didn't see an account for you. Well, have a great day.


  3. I've been twice---too long ago. Your post assures me that I need to return soon:)

  4. Wow! Great article. I know it's been a while since you posted but I wanted to let you know we just featured the New Orleans School of Cooking on our blog, GoNOLA. There is awesome video segment featuring one of our local personalities telling all about the neat attraction in the French Quarter. Feel free to check it out:



Be kind.