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 Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) was established in 1946 to advocate on behalf of the state’s foodservice and hospitality industries.