They emerged from the steamy recesses of New Orleans' most famous Creole kitchens, lifting the lids on their closely-guarded culinary secrets.
Attentive, chewing patrons watched as the black master chefs transformed "pinch-of-that-dash-of-this" formulas into the gastronomic delights that have made New Orleans one of the cooking centers of the world.
Immaculate white uniforms began to reveal the trademarks of the wearers - a smudge of brown roux, a splash of turtle soup, a smear of strawberry sauce.
Around them, thousands of natives and tourists chomped through okra gumbo, artichokes Dunbar, red beans and rice, and barbecued shrimp.
Throughout the weekend, 30 chefs traded the professional confines of posh restaurants for the carnival-like atmosphere of the city's second annual Creole Feast, where competitors in one of the most exclusive New Orleans societies put their culinary skills on public display in the modern Rivergate exhibition hall.
New Orleans' biggest black festival gave the Crescent City everything its citizens and visitors relish - food, football and revelry with a touch of heritage. About 10,000 people participated in the Creole Feast and Battle of the Bands activities which began with a disco ball Thursday and concludes with a six-course, $50-a-head banquet tonight.
The Gramgling and Southern University alumni federations had spent the last several weeks prepping the city for Saturday's Bayou Classic football game that packed the Superdome with 72,000 fans and attracted alumni from throughout the nation.
The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan held their annual march through the French Quarter yesterday. Although Klan leaders denied that the march was timed to coincide with the festival, many blacks felt otherwise.
Some black organizations had threatened counter-demonstrations, despite protests of the city's first black mayor, Ernest Morial, but the parade of about 100 robed Klansmen was peaceful, with no confrontations.
"We're here for fun, not to fight," said Rudy Lombard, organizer of the Creole Feast. As a precautionary move, he delayed yesterday's Creole Feast activities an hour to avoid potential conflicts with the Klansmen.
The KKK match ended a few yards from the Rivergate, at Liberty Monument, a taunting reminder of New Orleans' past erected by a citizens' militia in 1974. The stone monument bears the inscription" . . . the national elections in November recognized white supremacy and gave us our state." When Klansmen arrived, they found the words covered with spraypainted "Black Power" slogans.
Meanwhile, festival-goers had begun eating at the Rivergate against a background of fiercely contending horns in Friday night's Battle of the Bands, the annual who-can-play-the-loudest competition between the Grambling and Southern marching bands.
And throughout the weekend, between mouthfuls of Creole cooking, participants viewed displays by black artists, including Jeff Donaldson, professor of art at Howard University and board member of the National Center for Afro-American Artists.
The Creole Feast was hosted by Lombard's fledgling organization, La Cuisine Creole, Inc., a group of black chefs. Lombard, a director of urban planning projects by profession and gourmet cook by preference, has co-authored a guide to New Orleans cooking. "Creole Feast, 15 Master Chefs of New Orleans Reveal Their Secrets." Nathaniel Burton, executive chef of the famed Broussard's French Quarter restaurant, is the other half of the team that released the cookbook last Wednesday.
"Everybody eats their food, but few people ever get to see the chefs who prepare it," said Lombard. "So we decided to give the people in the city a chance to have direct contact with the chefs.
"The 1850s images of mammies, slaves, marchand ladies singing 'Bel Callas Tout Chauds,' pickaninnies and the 'beloved' but economically and socially slighted female domestic cook are still entrenched," London said.
The culinary craftsmen dished out cooking tips and tales of their careers along with bowls of crawfish bisque and redfish court bouillon:
Chef Sherman Crayton of the Vieux Carre restaurant, who won't allow long fingernails near his chicken. "They are a hazzard to the food - you have to respect food."
Annie Laura Squalls, who began her career sneaking a drop of vanilla and lemon juice into the apple pies when the head baker was away, promising "not to do it again." Today, she's still adding vanilla and lemon juices - and she's the head baker for the Hotel Pontchartrain's Caribbean Room.
Louis Evans of the Hotel Pontchartrain: "A good chef has to be able to do two things. One, to put anything in a pot and cook it right; two, be able to supervise."
And the patrons continued to eat - pralines, chitterlings, mile-high ice cream pie.
The dozens of long tables in the exhibition hall became littered with shrimp shells and crayfish claws as visitors strolled from booths to tables and back - each booth boasting its chef's specially for $150. The cooks, including Ulysses Waler of Broussard's restaurant, proved equal to the task.
Chef Crayton paused in his preparation of turtle soup to give a passerby cooking tips.
"Hiding a receipe never was my style," he laughed, adjusting his floppy cap. "I like to tell people how it's done. I try to break the recipes down to their simplest ingredients so the average housewife can cook the dish without running to the dictionary."
Crayton is representative of most of the renowned New Orieans chefs. He worked his long way to the top starting as a dishwater in 1936. Most of the chefs have held their positions for more than a quarter of a century. But, according to Crayton, it's not impossible for a newcomer to break into the rank. "After serving as an apprentice and watching how the cooks prepare meals, if the hollering doesn't frighten you away, you can mack it up of a chef."
Samuel Pearson is executive chef for suburban New Orleans' Sevins restaurant. "but cooking food is my roots," he says emphatically. A cook for 36 years. Pearson notes. "It's up to the chef to taste everything before it goes out to the customer's table. If there's anything wrong, better he catches it before it hits the dinning room."
The bespectacled chef chuckled, reminiscing on an occasion when an apprentice look dumped sugar instead of salt into a French seafood entree.
The passersby continued to eat - Oreilles de cochon (pigs ears) black-eyed peas and ham, stuffed shrimp.
One chef at the end of the long row of bootis was absorbed in her dessert with intensity. Cooking is like a craft," explains Annie Laura Squalls. "You can always put yourself into it - a piece of you own spirit and thought."
A brown-eyed, pigtailed girl listened quietly to the explanation, licking the last smears of chocolate sauce from her sticky hands, and then edged toward the next booth and a French beignet.