Something’s cooking Downtown

I don’t normally review restaurants, but you all know how much I like to eat. And, now that I am officially an award winning celebrity chef, I figure why not. If you are in downtown Baton Rouge and are looking for a delicious, unique meal at an affordable price, I would suggest that you give Cordon Rouge Bistro a try.

cordon rouge

Recently opened at 343 Third Street (across the street from City Bar), Cordon Rouge is an epicurean delight. The owner, Rhonda Crosswhite, previously operated a restaurant known as Cordon Rouge off Jefferson Highway. Cordon Rouge has been reincarnated at its downtown location and I predict that it will become a downtown fixture. In the interest of full disclosure, my son Matt is one of the managers, but I am gonna shoot you straight about the food.

Cordon Rouge is a small place, with a cozy dining room, with additional tables on the patio and on the sidewalk on Third Street. The menu is simple, but the food is wonderful. Everything is made in house from scratch, including the breads, buns and pastries. The bill of fare is country French cuisine, with a Louisiana flair. All of the sandwiches are served on French bread or brioche buns made fresh in house. The salads are both interesting and delicious, with some new twists that are worth trying. However, I am not a salad person, so let’s get to some more substantial items.

On my first visit, I tried their signature dish, the Duck Burger. Fresh ground duck breast, seasoned and grilled topped with Swiss cheese, heirloom tomato, farmer’s market romaine, and red onion on brioche bun baked in-house. Oh dear Lord is that good! It also comes with fresh cut pomme frittes, double fried in duck fat, with housemade blueberry ketchup. Yeah, you read that right, blueberry ketchup. For dessert, I tried the creme brule’. Believe me, I know sweets and this was probably the best creme brule’ I ever tasted.

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I went back for lunch last week and ordered the steak sandwich. I was not disappointed. It came out fresh and hot. Steak grilled to order, then sliced and served open faced over French bread, with mushrooms and cheese. It was delicious! I was impressed by a sweet taste I could not quite place. When I asked, I found out it was dressed with their homemade onion jam. Mmmmmmmmm. Yeah it was that good.

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They are currently open for lunch and a dinner menu and expanded hours are coming soon. They are also open for breakfast, so stop by and grab a cup of coffee and pastry on your way to work. If you are looking for something good to eat down town, stop by Cordon Rouge. Don’t forget to tell them Robbie sent you!

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And First Place goes to…..

“And 1st place goes to….”. Every year at the Annual Watson Bird & Sausage Gumbo Cook Off, the crowd waits for those words. The anticipation is nerve racking. Everybody wants to know who won; who, on this day, had the best gumbo around. When the announcement comes, the celebration is boisterous and vocal. But, much like a beauty pageant, for the other competitors, it is bittersweet. You applaud and smile politely, giving a friendly nod to the winner. But in your heart, you are a little disappointed that it wasn’t your name that got called. I’ve been in that also ran group every year since this thing got started. But, that changed Saturday, January 30, 2015. Turns out that was OUR day!

The Annual Watson Bird and Sausage Cook Off is the brainchild and pet project of my friends Bobbi Jo and Berlin. They thought this up 6 years ago, mainly as just a way to get some friends together, have a good time, cook some good food and raise a little money for charity. The first year, it took place in their backyard. A total of 12 teams competed and the crowd was somewhere just south of 500 or so. Over the years, they built this event up. Four years ago, it got so big they had to move to a bigger venue. Now that venue is looking too small. This thing has grown to be “the” event of the Watson social season. (I know, I never thought I’d write that sentence either, but hey, times are a changing.)
Everybody looks forward to the event. It is a microcosm of what makes Louisiana, and Watson in particular, such a great place to live and raise a family. It brings together the three great cornerstones of what we are about around here. Good food, good friends and helping someone else who needs it. If you want to know more about the history and what happens at the cook off, you can read some of it here in my blog from last year.

COOK OFF BLOG 2015.

Our team name Is Los Amigos, which is Spanish for “the guys”. My friend and partner in crime Calvin Jones and I cooked in the very first cook off and have made every one of them since. We have always had a lot of fun, but the closest we ever came to getting the brass ring and gumbo immortality was the second year, when we took second place. Calvin and I make a good team. I do all the planning and cooking and he brings all the beverages and handles the PR. This year our team also included my youngest son Joel, and some very useful technical help and advice from my son Matt and his friend Rich, who are both excellent cooks in their own right.

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The funny thing is, I almost didn’t cook this year. After 5 years, there were a number of reasons why I thought I was going to sit it out this time. First, believe it or not, cooking in this thing Is hard work. There is all the prep work of getting everything together and getting it up there. Then on Saturday, you start before daylight, work all day and then have to clean up and pack up. Second, this is a very busy time of year for my wife, Jo Ann and I. The weekend of the cook off was looking like the only ‘free’ weekend we would have for about 3 months. And, to be honest, after 5 years of not winning, I was feeling a little sorry for myself. But that changed one night when Calvin asked me if we were cooking this year. I explained what I was thinking. His response was simple and to the point. “This will be the first year we ain’t cooked in it” Touche’ my brother. So the decision was made. Sign us up.
For the participants, the cook off experience usually starts on Friday evening, when you bring your tent and chairs to the grounds and claim your spot. Then, on Saturday morning, check in starts at 7:00 a.m. This year there were 50 teams competing. It looks like a small army, outfitted with all manner of cast iron pots, stainless steel boilers, propane burners and stoves, barbecue pits, ice chest full of chickens, ducks, sausage and onions and celery by the truckload. Thanks to Bobbi Jo and her dedicated staff, it is well organized and before 8 o’clock, everyone is in place and ready to go.
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We got set up and were ready to get started. We were around some good people again this year. We were right next to our buddy Jeff Gill and his Daddy.

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On the other side was Melissa, Heidi and “the girls”. Right on the other side of the Gills were some of my favorite local idiots. Jeff Betz and his crew, which this year included none other that “Big Sexy” himself, LOHS head coach Brett Beard.

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As the siren announced it was time to start cooking, everyone got into action. Not long after that, the spectators started drifting in. For a contribution of $10, they got to stay all day, eat all the free food they wanted and pass a good time. And they come, young and old. If you want to see pretty much anybody and everybody in Watson, you should come on out to the Gumbo Cook Off.
Our recipe this year was simple chicken and andouille, with a little duck sausage. We took it slow, being patient and not rushing things. We boiled our chicken and used the broth to brew our own homemade stock. Then it was time to really start cooking and make our roux. Ask any Louisiana cook and they will tell you that making a roux is both an art and a science. It is just flour and oil, but it is the most important part of making gumbo. Like the foundation for a house, everything else rests on it and if you get it wrong, everything else is going to suffer. You have to get the fire hot, but not too hot. It needs to be dark, but not too dark. We got it going and started to stir. I even managed to get Calvin to stir the pot and he did a masterful job. I sort of felt bad that I had to keep stirring during the opening prayer and the National Anthem. But our roux was at a crucial stage, and everybody knows when that is happening, you keep stirring even if the house catches on fire.
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Once the roux was just right, we started putting all the other ingridients together. Before long we had simmering pot of some of the best stuff you’ll ever put in your mouth. Then the trick was to be patient and not rush things. Go slow and let everything meld together. As we did that, we did some tasting and, with the help of Rich and Matt, made a few minor adjustments to the formula. After about 3 hours of simmering, we finally decided we had it right. Cut off the fire and put the lid on it. It’s ready.
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While we were cooking, there was a steady procession of friends old and new. We went about our work, stopping often to visit and do a little talking.

 

 

 

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We spooned out plenty of gumbo during the afternoon and got some good compliments. I also had a chance to walk around and check out some of the competition. They were all good and after tasting 7 or 8, it is hard to say which one you think is best. Finally 2:00 o’clock rolled around and it was time to submit our gumbo for judging. We spooned it up, dark and steaming hot. At that point, all you can do is just wait and see.
Bobbi Jo, Berlin and the wonderful staff they put together work really hard to make this event one of the best. The amount of work they put in is amazing, both before, during and after the event. The funny thing is, most of those folks are the same old Live Oak High people we’ve known all our lives. Makes me proud to be an Eagle. And, there is a lot more going on around here than just cooking gumbo. The staff runs a 50/50 raffle, sells t-shirts, aprons, caps and other ‘logo’ merchandise. They sell beverages and other stuff, the profits of which all go to designated charity. These people rock!
Finally about 3:30, it was time. The winners were going to be announced. The crowd gathers around the bandstand and dance floor and it begins. First, they announce the winner of the raffles. Then they give out awards for the best decoration and other special prizes. Then they introduce the judges. You never know who the judges are until they announce the winners. But, over the years, Bobbi Jo has done a great job of recruiting a roster of celebrity judges who know gumbo and Louisiana cuisine. One year, Chef John Folse was a judge. Others have included renowned cooks, food writers, media personalities and just plain folks who love to eat.
This year’s judges included some of my local culinary heroes. Duke Landry is a former neighbor of ours, whose family started the Don’s Seafood eateries, is a World Champion Oyster shucker and recently opened Watson’s newest restaurant, Duke’s Seafood. Kendall Day is a former cook off participant and owns and operates Day’s Smokehouse, one of the finest specialty meat establishments around. Ramona Addison manages and operates the deli at Oak Point Fresh Market in Watson. Each of these folks know food and put out some of the best tasting stuff I have ever put in my mouth. Other judges included Richard Condon, a food writer and a representative of Tony’s Seafood. Quite a line up if you ask me.
Then it was time. I have always told people that the announcing of the winners goes something like this: When the announce third place, everyone cheers and claps. When they announce second place, everyone cheers and claps, slapping the second place team on the back. Then they announce first place. Most of the crowds cheers and applauds, while 49 other cooks are saying “this is bulls**t!” Only in Louisiana!
Third place this year went to Donald Lambert and his team, Faithful Companions. Donald is married to one of my old schoolmates, Linda.

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Second place went to Tom Peak and his team, Curve Ballers. Tom is an old Live Oak alumni and long time friend.

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And then, they were making “the announcement”
“And 1st place goes to LOS AMIGOS!” Oh WOW! You gotta be kidding me! After six years we finally did it. It felt pretty good being up on stage, folks cheering, knowing that we were the winners.

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Of course, some of my fellow competitors we happily yelling “this is bulls**t!” Hey man, it is what it is. It felt really good and we spent the rest of the evening celebrating and accepting congratulatory words from the patrons and other competitors. And we celebrated some more.


I was also proud that 1st, 2nd and 3rd place went to some old Watson folks. But what I was most proud of was the opportunity to participate again in such a wonderful event. I am pretty sure that the final donation this year, which goes to Quad Veterans Transitional Housing Program, will be in the 5 figure range. We might have taken taken home the plaque for first prize, but believe me, everyone was a winner!

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Let The Good Times Roll… Watson Style!

Saturday, I had the opportunity to participate in a great event, the 5th Annual Watson Bird and Sausage Gumbo Cook Off. I had the privilege of cooking in the first Annual Watson Bird and Sausage Gumbo Cook Off and have made every one since.  I even won Second place one year, and I would not miss it for the world.

Last week, I wrote about our trip to Cafe’ des Amis in Breaux Bridge. One of the things I talked about was the Louisiana value of “Joie de vivre” or the joy of life. Another Cajun saying is ‘to live is to eat’.  Both of those sentiments were very prominent in Watson on Saturday.

In case you don’t know about the Annual Watson Bird and Sausage Gumbo Cook Off, it is a big deal. It was started 5 years ago by Bobbi Jo and her husband Berlin.  They were looking for something fun to do with friends around here around the first of the year.  January is the ‘dead season’ in South Louisiana. After Christmas and before Mardi Gras is in full swing. It is also ‘gumbo weather’.  So, they decided to throw a party at the barn behind their house, invite some people to come cook gumbo and pass a good time.  And, they decided to make it a fundraiser for a worthy charity.

That first year, a couple of hundred people showed up, 15 teams cooked, first place paid $230, the proceeds went to St. Jude’s and everybody had a good time.  Saturday, a couple of thousand people showed up, 50 teams cooked, first place paid $1000, the proceed went to Raven’s House, a shelter for homeless veterans and everybody had a good time. My how times change in a few years. And, at the same time, the more they stay the same in some ways.
Bobbi Jo and Berlin who work very hard to pull this thing off
Bobbie Jo and Berlin, who work very hard to put  all this together!

The rules are simple and have never changed.  Any type of bird and any type of sausage. No other meat of any kind. Make your own roux, no precooked ingredients.  No glass, no pets, and no pets in glass bottles, please. Turns out it took a couple of years for some people to figure out that shrimp, crabs, oysters, tasso and the like are not a bird. But now everybody pretty much gets it. People often ask me what time does it start and when is it over. My answer is always the same. Cooking starts at 9:00, judging is at 3:00 and it ends sometime early Sunday morning with the Sheriff’s Office shows up and tells everyone it is time to “get the hell out of here and go home”.

The teams cooked and there were 4 live bands through out the day, and even a dance floor that got a lot of use. Supporters came out, paid $10 for an arm band that entitled you to taste all the gumbo you wanted, plus everything else that was being cooked by the teams, like jambalaya, barbecue, boudin, grilled chicken and burgers.  There were games and a slide for the kids. You could even get a funnel cake or fried Oreos for $3, all proceeds going to Raven’s House.  From the size of the crowd, it is an event most folks around here don’t want to miss.

My day started early. I got to the venue about 7:30 a.m.  After the second year, it got to big to stay at Bobbi Jo and Berlin’s house, so it was moved to a bigger location.  Although my day started early, it started even earlier for the staff, including my wife Jo Ann.  They all got there about 6:00 a.m.

Some of the staff getting ready.

It still makes me proud that in a small community like Watson, so many people will give up their Saturday to make something like this happen and support a good cause.

I unloaded my stuff, set up my canopy and kitchen and got ready.  It was a cold crisp morning, but the weather was beautiful and the sky clear. My first task for the day was to cook breakfast for the staff.  I was ‘voluntold’ to do that by Jo Ann.  I got started.  Two dozen biscuits in the dutch ovens and a big Mountain Man meal in a cast iron pot.  Mountain Man is real comfort food. Ground sausage, hash browns, a dozen eggs and 2 lbs of shredded cheese.  Yes, it tastes as good as it sounds.

Got breakfast done and everybody full. Then it was time to start cooking gumbo!

I could smell the delicious aroma off cooks all around us getting the pot going.


My first step was to get my chickens ready for the pot. This year I decided to roast them in my infrared fryer and then de-bone them. Had them cooking and wasn’t long til they were ready.

We started cutting vegetables and slicing our good andouille sausage, so everything would be ready at the right time. About that time, the official photographer, The Picture Lady, came around taking team pictures.  We posed for ours.

In case you were wondering, that good looking guy in the middle is me. The other two are my friend Calvin Jones and my youngest son Joel. My middle son Matt was also on our team.  He helped us a lot later, but after a hard week, he slept in and missed the picture, so I took one of him myself.

 

With all the prep work done, it was time to get cooking. There are many great recipes in Louisiana. Funny thing is, at least half of the best ones all start with the same phrase “First you make a roux..” 3 cups of flour and 3 cups of oil, turn on the fire and we were ready to go.

Got the heat up and then, as Vernon Roger’s momma used to say, “Braise, braise, braise”, which in English means “Stir, stir, stir!” Before long we had a traditional Cajun brown roux.

Fried the onions and stuff, the it was time to put the ‘juice’ in.

Once we that simmering good, in went the bird and sausage.
Now all it needed was time to simmer and getting the seasonings right.

By this time, the party was really getting started. The first of the bands took the stage, people were lining in to get in and cooks were hard at it from one end of the place to the other.





And of course, as always, Bobbi Jo was keeping everything running smooth

“Move your car if you are parked on Arnold Road!”
Which brings us to what the Gumbo Cook Off is really all about. Yes, it is a fundraiser for a good cause. And, yes we serve up some good gumbo. But what it it really about is a good time with friends and family. Spending a nice day with friends you see all the time, reconnecting with old friends you haven’t seen in a long time, making new friends and spending some quality time with family. I would estimate that there were upwards of 2,000 people out there Saturday, and you could just look around and see they were all “passing a good time, Watson style”.

You always make some new friends at the Gumbo Cook Off. Saturday I noticed a guy standing near my pot, with a big smile on his face, just taking it all in. I did not know who he was but he obviously having a good time. When I was seasoning my gumbo, getting opinions, I asked him if he wanted to taste. He did and we struck up a conversation. He admitted that he was just standing by my pot because it smelled so good. Turns out he was a charter bus driver from Marrero, Louisiana, who had driven a group of people to a wrestling match at Live Oak High School. He was looking for something to do and heard about the Gumbo Cook Off. Like everyone else, he was having a blast, passing a good time, Watson style. Another interesting thing about this is that at least 3 of the 5 years, I have had the opportunity to serve some foreigner from “up North” their first taste of real, sho’ nuff gumbo. Saturday was no different.

 


That young man in the Michigan State shirt was there with his wife and a friend. They all teach at Glen Oaks High in Baton Rouge. He is a transplant from Detroit, ergo the Lions ski hat. He loved my gumbo and admitted that they ain’t got nothing like this in Motor City.

Later in the day, it was time to announce the winners. Actually, at that point it really didn’t matter, because everyone who participated was a winner, especially the displaced veterans at the Raven’s House. Just to show you how this works, one of the ‘prizes’ was the 50/50 Raffle. The lady who won claimed $757, and immediately handed the money back to Bobbi Jo to go the charity. You gotta love people from Louisiana. In case you are wondering, no I didn’t win anything, but like always, I went home with the real First Prize.

I went back Sunday morning to get the rest of my stuff and help Bobbi Jo and Berlin clean up. Bobbi Jo asked me how I thought it went. I told her it thought it went great, especially when I evaluate it like I do some of my wife’s extended family get togethers. Not too many people got real drunk, there were no fights, the cops only got called out once, nobody went to jail or the emergency room and everybody had fun. I would call that a successful day!! If you understand that analysis, maybe you should check out the Gumbo Cook Off next year. If you don’t, maybe you should avoid the Gumbo Cook Off and any future Herrington family reunions.

Cest la vie!