The Lesson: Eat, Drink, Learn and Be Merry

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 24, 2008

The elderly man had cautioned his wife not to lean in too close while chef Frank Brigtsen was heating the oil to fry the andouille calas, but she reminded him that they were attending the New Orleans Cooking Experience, and she was going to experience it.

Silence fell upon the group of nine students, seven plus the elderly man and his wife, and for a moment we didn't know what would happen next. Just in the nick of time, Brigtsen sensed a connection between the growing grouchiness and our rising hunger and defused the situation with his patented call-and-response technique.

"What's one of the main reasons people came back to New Orleans after the storm?" he asked us in the kitchen at the House on Bayou Road, an 18th-century inn 12 blocks from the French Quarter that moonlights as a cooking school.

The food! shouted we nine, united again. This was Brigtsen's cue to begin frying the calas (rice balls), which the chef explained can be traced to the "Bantu tribe of Africa" and are ordinarily dusted with powdered sugar and served like beignets. This evening they would be savory, suffused with andouille sausage and accompanied by a creole mustard sauce.

Suddenly, mid-fry, he stopped.

"We have to come to an agreement," he said. "We're not counting calories tonight." The implication: On most days one was simply an eater; tonight we were apostles of a creed whose twin gods were Creole and Cajun. And after a cooking vacation that included three intense days of classes and restaurant-hopping, we would go forth to our homes in Houston and St. Louis and even Tokyo, Brigtsen's recipes in hand, and spread the good news that one of America's most dynamic cuisines is alive and well.

"That'll kill the hunger while we go right into the pecan pie," he said, serving each of his grateful charges a steaming brown golf ball-ish cala.

Brigtsen is a large man, but also "tender and flaky, like my pie crusts," he says. A protege of Paul Prudhomme, he remembers well the early days when "we had no recipes and didn't even know what a measuring cup was," and K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen was introducing the world to the glories of blackened fish. Since then, he has opened his own celebrated restaurant, Brigtsen's, and watched from the sidelines as guys like Paul and Emeril built their empires and became household names. For his part, Brigtsen long ago decided he was a "one-restaurant guy," he told us, in part because he can't bear to leave his beloved Louisiana.

"The Food Network's loss is our gain," cheered one student.

By this time, the pie was in the oven, already filling the room with unearthly sweetness, and the class was on to its third glass of wine. Brigtsen, meanwhile, was busy with the crabmeat ravigote, a cold summertime appetizer that is served with a homemade mayonnaise, as well as the entree, broiled fish with a shrimp and corn sauce. Tonight's was only a demonstration class, I learned, and our hands-on experience would come only when we returned to our kitchens back home. By way of compensation, however, Brigtsen worked slowly, repeating maneuvers again and again, all the while taking us on an insider's tour of New Orleans that was equal parts Gray Line and tent revival.

"My late mother-in-law made pickled watermelon rinds. . . . I make a stock out of barbecued shrimp heads," Brigtsen told us. "Why throw out flavor, you know?"

"That's what I'm talking about," said a student to my left, testifying.

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