Lake Charles is home to the rich Cajun culture of Louisiana, and now, home to the Queen of Louisiana Seafood. Executive Chef Amanda Cusey of The Villa Harlequin brought her classic French culinary training, and love of Italian cuisine, to the Louisiana Seafood Cook-off (LASCO). She cooked against chefs with varying backgrounds, but it was her simple plate of seared redfish over tomato polenta that earned her the crown.
“I liked being able to meet the other chefs and have the chance to chat with them,” said Chef Cusey. “It was a diverse group of people. It wasn’t all chefs from fine dining restaurants.”
Chef Cusey will represent Louisiana and compete amongst chefs from across the country in the Great American Seafood Cook-off (GASCO), held in conjunction with the LRA Showcase on August 6. Upon returning home from the LASCO event in Lafayette June 7, Chef Cusey was recognized immediately, which is something a bit new to her. LASCO was held in conjunction with Eat Lafayette inside the Cajun Dome. Local restaurants were on-site sampling their best dishes, and with their audience of almost 2,000, plus social media coverage from dozens of outlets, people all over Louisiana now know her name and face, and The Villa Harlequin.
“It’s was a cool experience, but it was different for me, and definitely been getting noticed, and stopped by random people, it’s kind of strange,” said Chef Cusey. “I can see an influx of business which is good.”
The Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board (LSPMB) produces the cook-off every year to highlight the importance of local restaurants using local seafood. According to the state’s Department of Health, Louisiana is one of the nation’s top producers of oysters, crab, shrimp and crawfish. LSPMB reports between 80 and 90 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported, half of that being farm-raised. Chef Cusey is from Arizona, but she fully understands the tight-knit relationships Lake Charles has with local fishermen. Her source sends over a catch list at the start of each week, and that’s how she chose the redfish for her LASCO dish.
“It’s so important because we’re supporting our local fish markets, and it all comes back around,” Chef Cusey said. “They support us, we support them. When you support them, they’ll go above and beyond for you. I say ‘I want this, can you source it?’ and they’ll do what they can. Within a couple of weeks, I get the call that they’ve got it for me.”
It was her Sous Chef Collin Nunez who came up with the finishing touch of the dish—the Louisiana crawfish mustard crème sauce was concocted by Chef Nunez himself which they use at The Villa Harlequin.
“He’s very talented and super driven,” said Chef Cusey. “We do a couple of different mustards at the restaurant, and one of the mustards we use is a house made beer mustard. He suggested using this confit fat to cook the green beans in. This really added complexity to the beans.”
The dish packs complex and powerful flavors in one bite, while still being true to Louisiana’s Cajun roots. Chef Cusey achieved her goal of showcasing Louisiana on the plate.
“I wanted it to really feel like Louisiana, but elevated,” said Chef Cusey. “You’ve got your soul food in there, and I threw in my Italian spin on it.”
Chef Cusey traveled across the states with her family growing up. Her love of food sent her to travel Europe, and enroll at Tanté Marie Culinary Academy in England. At the time, it was the oldest independent operating culinary school in the UK, since 1954. She then found her way to Ireland, and worked in brew pubs and Irish American diners before migrating down South.
She moved to Lake Charles to be close to her parents, who chose the lush Bayous of Louisiana as their retirement location. In 2016, The Villa Restaurant was in the process of merging with another local favorite, The Harlequin. She applied for the job, and the rest is history. Her home is Lake Charles now, where so many have welcomed her, and her innovative takes on Cajun & French Creole cuisines.
“I use a little more spice now, and love to make good of the local ingredients,” said Chef Cusey of her transition to living in the South. “People have been pretty accepting to my takes on their dishes. The richness of southern food has blended in really well with my cooking style.”
Now, her preparation for GASCO is ramping up so she can bring the same energy to her plate.
“I like to exceed expectations with people, so it sounds like it’s a good dish on paper, but I want them to take that bite and go ‘Whoa, I was not expecting that,’” said Chef Cusey. “And that dish definitely delivers that.”
The LRAEF and The Emeril Lagasse Foundation have been working together for years to support the culinary education of Louisiana’s youth. This year, the LRAEF was among the twelve beneficiaries who received funding from The Emeril Lagasse Foundation. The sizeable grant will help the LRAEF broaden their reach in Louisiana.
“We are so thankful to the Emeril Lagasse Foundation for their ongoing commitment to Louisiana ProStart,” said LRAEF Executive Director Jonathan Baynham. “Because of this grant we will be able to train more teachers, provide more resources to students and expand our apprenticeship program. The impact will be far reaching across the state.”
Community grants, funded in partnership through the foundation’s Grant Program, were allocated based on a focus of life development skills, and shared values which support Louisiana’s youth through culinary, nutrition and arts education.
“We have been very blessed this year with so much generosity from our donors,” said Chef Emeril Lagasse. “I’m humbled to announce these grants and contributions to organizations that align with our mission. Each one is doing good things for our young people and will leave a legacy for the future.”
The Louisiana Restaurant Association Education Foundation (LRAEF) saw big wins this summer with three of its Louisiana ProStart schools. W.D. & Mary Baker Smith Career Center, Washington Career & Technical Education Center and West St. John High School were among the 38 high schools across the country to receive a $5,000 Grown Grant from the Rachael Ray Foundation.
The National Restaurant Association Education Foundation (NRAEF) works in partnership with the Rachael Ray Foundation, and her non-profit organization Yum-o, to bring much needed funds to ProStart programs. The ProStart Educators can use the funds to strengthen their program, offer new equipment for students, and do anything they need to help grow their curriculum.
The three winning Louisiana ProStart Educators are excited about being chosen. LRAEF Program Manager Mistica Maples-Adams said she’s happy to know Louisiana was well represented in the pool of awarded schools.
Chef Lorenzo J. Edwards is head of the Louisiana ProStart program at West St. John High School. Located in Edgard, La., this 8th through 12th grade school has approximately 20 students enrolled in the Louisiana ProStart program. Chef Edwards is St. John the Baptist Parish School District’s High School Teacher of the Year in 2017 & 2020, and is an NRAEF Certified Secondary Foodservice Educator. One of his goals for the grant is to establish its school-based enterprise, a café on campus, fully run by Louisiana ProStart students.
“Our plans for utilizing the funds are to assist us with updating the culinary lab equipment,” said Chef Edwards. “Also, [we plan] to convert a space into a site for our student-ran café. Our program’s goals are to increase the number of students enrolling in the ProStart courses, as well as the number of students completing their Certificate of Achievements (COA).”
Chef Amanda Wildblood at Washington Career & Technical Education Center (WCTEC) has very similar goals in mind, like to increase student engagement with Louisiana ProStart. Since 2005, WCTEC has been offering the ProStart curriculum, in the small, rural community of Washington, La. Students travel from five different high schools in the parish to take advantage of their technical programs. This past year was Chef Wildblood’s first as a ProStart instructor and first at WCTEC, previously spending over a decade in the casino industry as a chef.
Her plans for the Grow Grant funds are to gain more student interest in ProStart, grow the number of students earning their COA’s, improve kitchen equipment and workflow, and to increase community awareness. She hopes bringing a more “professional feel” to the school’s kitchen will boost the confidence of graduates once they enter a restaurant job.
“It is opportunities like this grant that allows these things to happen,” said Chef Wildblood. “During the 2021-22 school year, our ProStart program graduated one student with his NRAEF Certificate of Achievement. This is something we look forward to increasing in the coming years with the help that this grant provides.”
As Chef Wildblood moves into her second year at WCTEC, she is feeling thankful for the opportunities given to her Louisiana ProStart students through the LRAEF, NRAEF and The Rachael Ray Foundation.
“Without opportunities like the Rachael Ray Grow Grant, our program could not afford to progress so quickly on the updating and changes,” Chef Wildblood said. “I am overwhelmed with excitement moving forward knowing just how blessed our program has been to receive [the grant] which allows for experience and education we never thought possible.”
A seafood platter is known for being piled high with the freshest seafood our Mississippi River has to offer. Once you decide which to eat first—fried oyster, shrimp or catfish—and take that crisp, juicy bite, it’s hard to think of anything else, but, have you ever wondered where your dinner was sourced? Instantly, you may think ‘The Mississippi River, right?’ The answer is yes, but the real answer goes much deeper into the muddy water.
Troy Gilbert, the President & Executive Director of Chef’s Brigade, had an idea spark over a cup of coffee one morning. His Chef’s Brigade organization started out of the COVID-19 shutdown, connecting New Orleans city government and restaurants to feed frontline workers and hungry citizens. Since its inception, 3.7 million meals have been served. The meal program is still in-place for future disaster situations like hurricanes and tornadoes.
The oyster shell recycling program, in partnership with The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, is a continuing success in helping rebuild oyster reefs and coastal shorelines. Gilbert wanted to pivot Chef’s Brigade and bridge the gap between New Orleans chefs and the Louisiana coastline. Also a maritime journalist, Gilbert claims to “always have boats on the mind” and then, it clicked.
“I thought that we don’t need to bring just a few chefs out to the coast, we need to bring all of them,” Gilbert said.
Thus, Chef’s on Boats was born. The new program brings professional chefs, restaurant staff and culinary students face-to-face with the seafood source, giving them a real life view of climate change and our eroding coastline. According to the Louisiana Seafood Board, 75% of U.S. commercial sea catches come from estuaries, and 35% of estuary marshes in the U.S. are in Louisiana. These estuaries are where generational fisherman have been making their living for decades, providing seafood to the legendary restaurant scene that is New Orleans. It’s these fisherman who are Louisiana.
“Here in New Orleans, the water is hidden behind these flood walls and levees,” said Gilbert. “The reality is that these oysters are coming from generational fishers. Those stories need to be told.”
According to Gilbert, the program has been successful from the start. Every Tuesday morning a registered group gathers in Empire, Louisiana and hops on a boat, led by Captain Richie Blink. Empire is at the bottom of the boot, where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It is the fifth largest seafood port in the United States.
“We knew this was going to be intriguing to the chefs, to literally climb onto an oyster boat while [the fishermen] are drudging,” Gilbert said. “What we didn’t realize was how intrigued these oystermen were going to be about talking to their customers, because they don’t communicate. There is all this stuff going on in the middle.”
The first half of the tour is spent viewing the bountiful, yet, eroding saltwater marshes. Where the Mississippi exits into the Gulf of Mexico, the river’s salinity declines and the Gulf’s begins to pick up. It is prime territory for oyster fishing, and for creating living shorelines to regrow the marsh. Gilbert says it’s a double edged sword.
“We’re able to cross the River, about a mile on the other side, where there is a natural diversion that has happened,” says Gilbert, “and we’re able to show them how quickly the River can heal these marshes. But, the problem with that is it kills the saltwater fisheries.”
The second half of the trip starts the discussion about the future of seafood in New Orleans’ restaurants based on what may be available 20, 30 years down the line. The loss of wetlands on the Mississippi River disrupts the ecosystems, and what is typically harvested in these areas could possibly change.
“We start to discuss what new bounties are available in this marsh,” Gilbert said. “How is the seafood platter in Louisiana potentially going to change and transition in the next 30 or 40 years with the introduction of more of these diversions? Things like frog legs, alligator, duck potatoes?”
It’s a mutual experience for the chefs and the oystermen Gilbert mentions. His goal for the Chef’s on Boats program is to bring attention to Louisiana’s eroding coastline, and how restaurants must practice sustainability. Culinary students and educators are also taught about the perils our state is facing from climate change. Gilbert and Captain Blink have picked out specific sites to give participants a good visual representation of how much land has been lost.
“To put this real life experience into them, it changes people,” Gilbert said. “For the first time it’s really tangible to them.”
Once the crew makes it back to dry land, Gilbert says that’s where the magic begins to happen. Restaurants like Sala NOLA, Riccobono’s Peppermill, Panola Street Café, Maypop, MoPho, Café Degas, Cochon and Gianna have all sent chefs and staff to partake in this free educational experience.
Gilbert loves hearing them throw ideas back and forth on the way home, because it’s all connected—New Orleans restaurants, the seafood industry, culinary arts and wetland conservation. He hopes they begin to set short-term and long-term goals which can bring their restaurant into alignment with helping to rebuild sustainable fisheries—something as simple as signing up to be part of the oyster recycling program.
“They’re talking back and forth, about different resources, things that could be changed,” said Gilbert. “When that chef hops off the boat, we want them to take back [this experience] to their restaurant and put into practice some immediate things that can help the restaurant treat the coast better. The program is making the climate change real. If you’re running a restaurant, you can have an impact.”
The LRA Education Foundation (LRAEF) kicked off its Summer Educator Training at the New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute (NOCHI) on June 12. LRAEF Program Manager Mistica Maples-Adams was pleased with the large turnout, and welcomed a handful of returning ProStart Educators who will be re-entering the program this upcoming school year. Six new educators will begin teaching Louisiana ProStart, and participating schools have jumped from 49 to 58. Day 1 featured special programming designed for the new educators, giving them a base line of knowledge prior to the full cohort joining in on Day 2. The new and seasoned educators had industry interactions and training beyond the traditional presentations, offering hands-on culinary and hospitality knowledge.
NOCHI introduced the ProStart Educators to their campus, plus the culinary education tools available to their students upon graduating. Molly Kimball of EatFit NOLA spoke to the educators about plant based foods, and ways to engage their students with healthier eating habits. Day 2 activities continued with a trip to The Commissary, a market, kitchen and bar from Dickie Brennan & Co. This unique property has an onsite kitchen attached to Wetlands Sake, the first ever sake brewery in the state using Louisiana rice to brew their sake. Chef Jeremy Barlow is a ProStart alumnus from Grace King High School and has been employed by Dickie Brennan & Co. for almost 10 years now. Chef Barlow demonstrated the breakdown of a ribeye cut, explaining to the educators about the importance of portioning to help keep food costs stable.
While attending Grace King High School in early 2005, Chef Barlow enrolled in the ProStart program. He says being a part of Louisiana ProStart helped pave the road for a successful culinary career.
“ProStart opened up a lot of doors,” said Chef Barlow. “My first year was year before Hurricane Katrina. Our mentors were Tommy Cvitanovich from Drago’s and Greg Reggio from Zea’s. When we moved back into the city after Hurricane Katrina, Tommy offered us jobs, so basically, I was at school in the morning and Drago’s at night. So, between both of them, they opened up a lot of doors for me.”
The educators received a tour of the kitchen from Chef Lewis Smith, for a sneak peek into the making of duck & andouille gumbo. Chef Lewis demonstrated the de-boning of a duck, explaining no part of the duck goes to waste. He uses the carcass to make stock for the gumbo, served at Dickie Brennan’s Tableau.
The Commissary acts as a prep kitchen for all the restaurants under the Dickie Brennan & Co. group. Here, meats are smoked and cured, fresh bread and pastries are produced daily and the grab-n-go market offers restaurant quality foods to take home. The Commissary team provided a lunch buffet for the educators which featured an abundance of house cured charcuterie, sandwiches, soups and salads.
Day 2 finished on a high note with a six-course tasting menu and wine paring at Restaurant August, part of BRG Hospitality Group. Designed to illustrate, inspire and showcase elevated cuisine, Chef Corey Thomas and Sommelier Erin White narrated the evening’s decadent experience with LRA President & CEO Stan Harris. Sustainably sourced Louisiana seafood and local ingredients, plating, presentation and knife skills were discussed with the educators as each dish was presented. Starting with a yellowtail tiradito, using Louisiana citrus and mirliton, and ending with a key lime semifreddo, the Louisiana ProStart educators thoroughly enjoyed each course with plans to bring their experience back to their students.
“The summer training is an integral part of our continuing education experience as teachers in this ever-changing industry,” said Amiee Summerlin, teacher at Eunice Career & Technical Education Center. “Being able to network with other teachers and industry members allows us to stay in sync with trends in the restaurant industry. We are also able to make connections for our students interested in staking out a career. My favorite part was meeting teachers from various parts of the state and being able to discuss successful ways that they are reaching their students so that I can adapt and do the same. I look forward to summer training each year and this was by far one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. The nutrition portion was very informative and I can’t wait to begin to introduce the EatFit program into my curriculum.”
Stephanie White of Plaquemines Senior High School (above) feels very fortunate to have the LRAEF supporting her Louisiana ProStart program. The LRA member network gave memorable dining experiences and education presentations she will remember for years to come, and she plans on passing all the knowledge along to her students.
"The Ochsner EatFit Nola was so informative and I plan to bring a lot of what I learned about alternative foods back to the students, and introduce them to some really interesting food that can still taste awesome," said White. "The dining experience provided for us served some of the best dishes I've tasted."
The Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) was established in 1946 to advocate on behalf of the state’s foodservice and hospitality industries.