With centuries of family history backing him up, Isaac Toups has definite opinions on what it means to be Cajun.
By Isaac Toups as told to Chris Mohney
After a decade cooking for Emeril Lagasse at Delmonico in New Orleans, Isaac Toups opened Toups’ Meatery in 2012 to fully express and evolve his own Cajun cooking. Since then he’s been a semi-finalist and finalist for multiple James Beard awards, plus earned TV appearances on Top Chef and elsewhere.
First I’m an eater, and second I’m a cooker. I became a chef just to figure out what to eat.
When we travel, I rarely do touristy things. I’ve been to New York fifty times, but I’ve never been to the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. I’ve never done the touristy crap. But man, I’ve got a map of restaurants where I like to eat. Same for France. Same thing when I go to Italy. What museum are we going to? Don’t know. Don’t care. Let me tell you where we’re going to eat.
All over the world, you can see styles of cooking not too different from what we have in Cajun country. I always find that fascinating. You can go to the big cities of any country, and they’re going to have nice restaurants. But visit the rural areas and see what everybody else is really eating, and you’ll see very similar dishes. Someone’s always got a chicken stew. In every country that has pigs, someone’s found a way to make crispy pig skin. Everybody’s figured this out. Everybody’s got a recipe for whole cooked pig. You go to Hawaii, and you have the luau. Go to south Louisiana, and you have the cochon de lait. You go to Prague, and they do their whole smoked pigs. Especially in the rural communities that don’t have a lot of money, guaranteed you’ll find a pig’s foot and a pot of beans somewhere. And it might be a different part of a different pig and some different beans. You know why sausage is made and eaten all over the world? It’s delicious. That’s why.
When me and my wife go out on a date night, I want to eat something new all the time. I don’t even eat leftovers at home—my wife gets on me about that—because I want to taste new things. And if I taste something new, then I want to recreate it. That’s the impetus for me creating new dishes. Oh, what’s this? It’s lemongrass. Okay, let’s get me a bunch of lemongrass, try to cook with it, and screw it up a whole bunch of times trying to finally figure it out.
I love to go to the international markets—the Asian one, the Middle Eastern one, the Northern European one. The vendors light up when they see me. They know I’m about to spend a couple hundred dollars on stuff. Now, you’ve got to throw some of that stuff away. Some of it turns out terrible. Oh, but good God, this hot European mustard I just found! I have like 15 mustards at my house. I’m a condiment whore.
Trying out new flavors, that’s my favorite fucking thing to do. You get inspiration in a bunch of different ways. Sometimes it’s in a cookbook, sometimes it’s in magazines, sometimes it’s talking with your peers. But most of my inspiration comes from eating food. That makes me happy, and that’s good for work. So it’s win-win for me. Going out to eat, and eating different foods that are killer and dynamite, and seeing what other people have, what direction they’re taking, with what ingredients—that’s what really gets me going.
I went to Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal and had foie gras poutine. Oh my god, that’s just over the top! I love it! I wanted to do something like that. While I’ve had fries with gravy and cheese on it, I’ve never really had the high-end poutine. I said, “Why don’t we do something like that at my restaurant?” But instead of foie gras, we did lamb sweetbreads. I made the brown gravy, but I made it with really dark roux, so I essentially made almost a chicken liver gumbo gravy. We deep-fried the sweetbreads, and then we got fresh cheese curds shipped to us. We told the customers, “Okay, this isn’t Cajun, this isn’t Canadian, this is some sort of mad scientist amalgam.” And no one cared where it was from. No one cares about the origin. No one cares if it’s Cajun. No one cares. What I care about is: Is it good, what you’re putting your mouth? You enjoyed it? Trust me. Once you come to eat in one of my restaurants, you’ll leave and say, “Oh, man, that was really good. Wait, was that really Cajun? I don’t care. I’m going back.”
Now, I’m always going to cook with the Cajun mindset. I grew up in the middle of Cajun culture. Dad’s a coastal Cajun, Mom’s a prairie Cajun. I grew up eating boudin and gumbo—it’s about as cliche as you get, but it’s true. I boil crawfish for fun. I throw tomahawks on the side. So I’m Cajun, but I’ve also spent 20 years in fine-dining cooking. I’ve got all these techniques, and since New Orleans is a port city, I can get almost anything. Anything I can’t get from the city, I can probably get through Amazon. I’ve got a private reserve Korean soy sauce. I’ve got some fresh wasabi from Japan. I use some northeastern European mustards. But I’m still always going to have that Cajun sensibility and background. So just because I’m cooking lamb neck with lemongrass, is that Cajun? It is. You know why? I’m cooking it.
But some things you can’t replicate, not exactly. Where do you find good Cajun food outside of the Gulf? You don’t. End of story. It’s like with New York pizza. New York pizza is great in New York. I have yet to find a good New York-style pizza somewhere else. We have some guys down here in New Orleans, they make good pizza. It’s not New York pizza. People say it’s in the New York water. I don’t know if that’s bullshit. But on the same note, you can’t find good Cajun food outside of the South.
Funny story: for some reason people think I want to go eat Cajun food in New York or Chicago when they treat me. But in fact I want to eat something completely different than Cajun food. Me going out to eat Cajun food, it just doesn’t happen. I don’t go to other people’s Cajun restaurants. I don’t go to Don Link’s Cochon. I barely like to eat my own food. I’ve been eating my own food at Toups’ Meatery for eight years. I taste it all the time. I don’t need to eat more of it.
My kids cook with me in our kitchen at home because it’s easier for them to try new foods when they’re preparing meals with me. My eight year old got her first knife at age six. And it’s sharp as fuck. But my kids aren’t growing up on the outskirts of a small town in Cajun country. They’re growing up in New Orleans on Magazine Street. We’ve got St. Charles and the Superdome, and we yell at the TV for the Saints. My kids don’t have a pond like I did. They’ve got a cement pond in the back. But they’re little Cajun babies, and they’re growing up with my version of Cajun food. And that’s life, c’est la vie.