Comfort Food From Afar

A look at five chefs who have broken free from their Cajun and French training to create their own New Orleans-style Asian fare

ILLUSTRATION BY TONY HEALEY

A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.


 

Most comfort food springs from childhood memories of home cooked meals — warm, satisfying dishes like chicken pot pie, macaroni and cheese or, for New Orleanians, gumbo.

Ask what comfort food means to Bill Jones or Richard Horner of the wildly popular new restaurant Blue Giant, and the resounding answer is Chinese food!

While working together in the kitchen at Cochon, the pair discovered a shared love for Chinese-American food, something Jones describes as “crunchy and firm with no sliminess, like the chow mein and eggrolls of childhood.”

Jones hails from the Northshore, while Horner was born in Baltimore and grew up in Great Britain. But for both, Chinese food was always the first choice for birthdays and special occasions. The two discovered these commonalities over after-shift drinks at Barrel Proof in the Lower Garden District. Suffering from what Jones describes as “palate fatigue” resulting from endless hours cooking Cajun at Cochon, the two began to explore the canon of Chinese-American cuisine, often using YouTube for tutorials.

As their obsession grew, the seed for what was to become Blue Giant was planted.

Jones and Horner traveled together, spending whole days eating their way through Chicago’s Chinatown, moving from dim sum shops to Chinese bakeries, testing flavor nuances from Cantonese to spicy Szechwan. Those adventures led to more road research. In Manhattan, the curious chefs focused on wontons, ducks and noodles, going from spot to spot in search of the best.

Back in New Orleans, the duo quickly snapped up a prized location at the corner of Magazine and Thalia streets when it became available. That quick start was followed by more than a year of delays caused largely by permitting and construction, but Jones and Horner finally opened Blue Giant’s doors this past January. The giant blue neon catfish, a favored fish of both China and the American South, provides a welcome to astounding lines of hungry eaters waiting in queues that stretch down the block.

Despite crafting his own style of house- made hoisin sauce and using Louisiana oysters in an otherwise traditional, steamed bok choy with oyster sauce, Jones adamantly decries any element of what he refers to as “the ‘f ’ word” — meaning fusion. Blue Giant’s menu is intended as a purely classical riff on Jones’ beloved American-style Chinese food.

Conversely, Chef Michael Gulotta was all about fusion when he teamed with his brother Jeff and high school buddy Jeff Bybee to open MoPho in 2014. All three had worked in fine dining but dreamed of opening a real neighborhood restaurant in New Orleans’ Mid-City area — a neighbor- hood they, as well as many of their fellow hospitality workers, called home. Until MoPho, Gulotta had trained and spent much of his career in what he calls “the iron grip of classical French cooking.”

On their days off, Gulotta and his chef cohorts flocked to New Orleans East to relieve their own palates, grown weary of heavy, complicated European sauces. There they explored the tastes and techniques of traditional Vietnamese food, which informed and inspired MoPho’s Southeast Asia meets Southeast Louisiana fusion.

Looking back now, Gulotta reflects, “I wasn’t always sure at the start what I was doing — just cooking food I loved but didn’t know much about. At the end of the day, I believe we succeeded because MoPho is simply what we set out to create, a good neighborhood restaurant.”

With an insatiable appetite for taste exploration, in late 2016, Gulotta “went off the rails” exploring the culinary heritage of Asia in its entirety, marrying together the flavors of Laos and Thailand at his latest restaurant, Maypop, which opened in December 2016. There, fusion efforts resulted in the delicious madness of dim sum-style hogshead-cheese soup dumplings and pork and cane syrup stuffed sesame balls. Gulotta’s Sicilian legacy shines through in a more recent addition, spicy snapping turtle pasta Bolognese and crawfish etouffee curry over gnocchetti pasta.

No matter your usual comfort zone, New Orleans Asian-style comfort food has some- thing to fill the bill.

 

Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.