"Hot" is how you could describe the cooking style of Joey Wells, executive chef behind Creole cuisine at Roux on Orleans in the Bourbon Orleans Hotel in the city's French Quarter.
"Creole has a lot of tomatoes; Cajun, a lot of hot." Hot, in every sense of the word, is how you could define the food scene in New Orleans, La. (NOLA), right now. It is also how you could describe the cooking style of Joey Wells, executive chef behind the Creole cuisine—with a hint of Cajun, too—at Roux on Orleans in the Bourbon Orleans Hotel in the city's French Quarter. "Creole has its origins in European-style cooking but with indigenous ingredients," the born-and-bred Louisianian adds. "More sauces, a little more elaborate, more 'city' food."
Cajun, he goes on to explain, is more "country food." Its roots are Acadian, harkening back to the Great Upheaval, when French colonists from the Acadia region of Canada were forced to move; many settled in Louisiana, drawn by the area's European French Colonials. And you won't find a tomato in these dishes. "The holy trinity of Cajun food is onion, celery and diced green bell pepper."
"Gumbo," he says, "is Cajun. But jambalaya, with all of its tomatoes, that's Creole."
There's a holy trinity for Creole as well—onion, celery and carrot (to add to the tomatoes)—and here at Roux, there's a trifecta of cooking influences on Wells.
First, his grandmother, Dolores Wells. "My grandma taught me about Cajun comfort food," he says and also the not-so-old-fashioned notion that nothing should be wasted. "Take Oysters Rockefeller, for example," he grins. "That all started with leftover creamed spinach!" Of course, Wells can't take credit for the Oysters Rockefeller creation—that goes to another NOLA dining institution, Antoine's, but the idea that it's all good in the jambalaya is ingrained in his cooking ethos.
Secondly, there's his mom. "She inspired me to get educated and to follow my passion." Wells' mom is more than an inspiration to him; she's also a chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court and a trailblazer, too: Justice Bernette Johnson is the first African-American to serve both as associate justice and chief justice in Louisiana, a position she's held since 2013.
And that last but not least ingredient? The city itself. After high school, Wells did a stint in the U.S. Air Force, went on to a Masters degree in political science and had a career as a NOLA police officer. A little bit country and a whole lot of the street sense of the city gave Wells a boots-on-the-ground feel for his hometown's culinary traditions and a reflection of its culture. A culture that has its own language, words like remoulade and jambalaya and étoufée and gumbo that sing and dance off the tongue the way the locals do on any given day on a corner in the French Quarter listening to their favourite street performers. Just like the top chef and high-end dining spots that are populating the famed area continue to sprout up on those same corners.
But five-star cuisine usually comes with a five-star price tag. So after a splurge—or two—at Roux on Orleans, where does Wells suggest we get our NOLA food fix? "Oysters are one of my favourites."
Head out of downtown to Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, he says. "Try Jaeger's Seafood and Oysters House or Acme Oyster House."
St. Roch Market, a food hall with stalls for tasting a variety of Louisiana eats, between the St. Roch and Marigny districts, not far from the jazz and dance clubs of Frenchmen Street
In the French Quarter
- The Gumbo Pot, on Decatur Street
- For po' boys, a traditional sandwich from Louisiana that usually contains fried shrimp and oysters, along with either meat or sausage or more fried fish and seafood, with a bit of lettuce, tomato and a schmear of mayo for good measure, heaped into a crusty, baguette shaped bun: K'Jean's on Bienville Street
- For muffaletta, another sandwich but this one originating with Italian immigrants and made with a round loaf of Sicilian sesame bread: Central Grocery, where the sandwich first got its start, on Decatur Street.
If you go: www.bourbonorleans.com; www.bourbonorleans.com/roux-on-orleans The Bourbon Orleans is part of the New Orleans Hotel Collection, a group of properties housed in historic New Orleans buildings, famed wrought-iron balconies included. Editors' Tip Have a tipple at the Bourbon O bar in the hotel for bar mistress' Carol Charming's version of the Ramos Gin Fizz, a New Orleans cocktail icon created by Henry Carl Ramos in 1887. Check in to the group's newest, the Hotel Mazarin, with its romantic courtyard for a hint of Old-World French glamour. www.neworleanshotelcollection.com
Feeling hungry for a few of Chef Joey Well's secret family recipes? See Recipes! Go Nola: The Art of Creole and Cajun Cuisine.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2016 issue with the headline, "NOLA Eats", p. 78-79.
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