Here Comes Papa Noel
Isaac Toups is a serious Cajun. Reared in smalltown Rayne, Louisiana, he grew up in a food-loving family. “Everyone cooked—we couldn’t get out of it,” he says. These days, he’s found a place in the restaurant industry championing the foodways of South Louisiana and showing diners Cajun is much more than a spice blend. Together with his wife, Amanda, Toups runs two restaurants in New Orleans. The first, five-year-old Toups’ Meatery, is billed as contemporary Cajun. Expect cracklins, crab claws, and rabbit livers. The newcomer, Toups South, opened in fall 2016 inside the Southern Food and Beverage Museum with a culinary geography that looks beyond Louisiana—think biscuits with crab fat butter and goat tamales. We caught up with Toups to talk Cajun food, holiday traditions, and what’s on his Christmas list.
“I didn’t know it then, but I grew up with a great dichotomy of Cajun cuisine”
How did your Louisiana upbringing influence your cooking?
I grew up in South Louisiana. My father is a coastal Cajun—he’s the one who taught me how to catch crabs, shuck oysters, and cook crawfish. My mother is a prairie Cajun—from farther north, but still in South Louisiana. Their food has Native American influences and lots of rice dishes. I didn’t know it then, but I grew up with a great dichotomy of Cajun cuisine.
How do you describe the food at Toups’ Meatery?
Toups’ Meatery is exactly what I want to do [with food]. It’s guttural. It’s rich. It’s how I came into the culinary world. I call it contemporary Cajun. There are old-school dishes—cracklins, dirty rice—and also dishes that fit the Cajun mentality but aren’t necessarily traditional, like lamb neck. A Cajun would eat this, because he’ll eat anything, but I braise it in red wine like a Spaniard would.
And what about Toups South?
Toups South is what I became as a chef. With the second restaurant, we wanted to branch out to the rest of the South. Let’s get Caribbean influences, Texas brisket, a little Lowcountry with biscuits and crab-fat butter. It’s Toups [Meatery], elevated. What’s one misconception about Cajun food you’d like to correct? The thing that pisses me off most is what you see on menus all around—“I’ll have the Cajun-style chicken.” What the hell does that mean? Putting red pepper does not a Cajun dish make. A lot of people think it’s one-dimensional, but there’s inf luence from Mexico, from Native Americans. We don’t buy Alaskan halibut and put Cajun seasoning on it.
You’ve got a book coming out in fall 2018. What can you tell us about it?
It’s an exploratory Cajun history based on my upbringing. How I came about and where my influences came from—the hunting camps, boucheries, my mother and father. How my culinary mind got to where it is right now.
How do you celebrate the holidays?
We go to my mother’s house. There’s a huge spread with several meats, sides, and so many cakes, teas, and sweets. There are babies running around and cutting up, cousins playing, aunts and uncles cursing. There’s a pig cooking outside and people are drinking by the fire, stirring stew, holding babies. It’s revelry.
What’s the best culinary gift you’ve ever received?
My wife got me a signed copy of Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here for the Food. It was the sweetest gift ever. Back in the day I was really enamored with him. He writes great recipes, and for a young cook that makes a big difference. If I’m looking for a recipe, maybe for a pie crust, I still look for one of his.
What types of gifts do you like to give?
Knives. We play secret Santa every year, or one of those convoluted gift-giving games. I give pocketknives, hunting knives, throwing knives. That, or whiskey. No one complains.
Toups’ wish list
“High-end cheeses are my jam. Find your local cheesemonger and become friends,” Toups says. “Around the holidays I appreciate the funkiest of the bunch.” Some of his favorites? Époisses and Brillat-Savarin. “We put them on the table as a starter when people come over. As my dad used to say, ‘It’s just enough food to piss you off.’”
CHARTERED DUCK HUNT
Toups grew up an avid outdoorsman and duck hunting has always been his favorite. “A chartered hunt is a great way to get in touch with Mother Nature,” he says. “Spend the extra money on a good camp and guide. If you can’t, grab your closest Cajun.”
MYERS + CHANG AT HOME
Toups’ friend and fellow chef Karen Akunowicz co-wrote this “killer at-home version” of the Southeast Asian food at Boston’s Myers + Chang. “The book is a great way to get that type of cuisine down in a really easy-to-read format,” he says.
Using fresh spices will change your cooking world,” Toups says. Spices lose their flavor quickly, and there’s no telling how long those in the grocery store have been sitting on the shelf. “But a good spice company makes sure they’re fresh,” Toups adds. He recommends stuffing stockings with smoked paprika.
LE CREUSET BLACK EDITION
The classic French enameled cast-iron cookware is a standard for Toups. He’s had his large Le Creuset dutch oven for twelve years “and it’s in near perfect condition—I’ll be able to give it to my children,” he says. “Mine is purple. But black is badass!”
COLD STEEL POCKETKNIVES
“These are great knives at fair prices,” Toups says. He also buys tomahawks and throwing knives from Cold Steel, and loves the size of their pocketknives. “I have in my pocket now a knife that’s twelve inches long, with a six-inch blade. It’s way too large, and I like that.”
JEFFERSON’S OCEAN: AGED AT SEA
Toups is big on bourbon and loves the story behind these bottles, which are aged in barrels on open water. “Instead of aging it by year they age it by voyage,” he says. “It’s got these background salty notes you don’t get in other bourbon. It’s dynamite stuff.”
DR. MARTEN BOOTS
Forget Crocs: Toups wears Doc Martens in the kitchen. “They’re slip-resistant and comfortable. And good shoes maketh a happy chef,” he says. It’s a good thing the boots come with a lifetime warranty—he goes through a couple pairs every year.
COPPER PANS FROM E. DEHILLERIN
This shop is a must when Toups is in Paris. “It’s in the middle of metro Paris and when you walk in, it’s like you’ve walked into a 1950s hardware store,” he says. “It’s a destination for a chef. The last time I was there I actually ran into another New Orleans chef.”
A visit north to Kentucky for some distillery tours sounds like a perfect trip to Toups. “What’s more fun than that? You get some education, you get some history, you get some bourbon,” he says. “Most of these guys you talk to could read you bedtime stories they’re so cool.”
MIDDLETON MADE KNIVES
Toups digs this bladesmith out of Charleston, South Carolina. “They’re all handmade so none are exactly the same,” he says. “When it’s time to grow up and buy your first professional knife, there’s no need to go to Japan. Go to Quintin Middleton.”
JEAN MARC VINEGARS
A self-described vinegar fanatic, Toups says he always has at least thirty bottles around. “I have two dollar vinegars and seventy dollar vinegars—this is one of those. They’re worth the splurge,” he says. He recommends the citrus varieties. “A little goes a long way. I love a couple drops on a raw oyster.”
Spain’s prized cured pork is made from the hindquarters of Ibérico pigs. Toups’ wife once gave him a ham for Christmas and they served it at Toups Meatery’s staff party. “Then I took the scraps and made an Iberico XO.” (A sauce made from dried shrimp and ham cooked into a paste with ginger and garlic, then reconstituted with stock, soy, and butter). “It’s good with pretty much everything.”