723 Dante Street
New Orleans, LA 70118
(504) 861-7610 www.brigtsens.com
“What I’m not trying to do is change the world with my food. I’m not trying to recreate the wheel. I’m only here to make people happy, and gumbo does that. And—and I think, you know, for me to be a chef in New Orleans is a very special thing because I’m part of a very long continuum of great cooks and chefs that have kept this cuisine growing and kept it alive, and I think now more than ever that’s important. And I also believe that just because something is 200 years-old doesn’t mean it’s not good anymore.” – Frank Brigtsen
A young, broke, newly girlfriend-less Frank Brigtsen had no idea that he was about to begin his life’s work the day he answered a classified ad for aspiring Creole cooks at Commander’s Palace. It was the 1970s, and Paul Prudhomme was Commander’s revolutionary executive chef. This was also the defining era when Chef Paul opened his own restaurant, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, in the French Quarter—a restaurant that, according to Frank, was the first in New Orleans to serve home-style Cajun specialties such as jambalaya. Soon enough Chef Paul hired Frank to direct K-Paul’s kitchen. Several decades and thousands of pots of gumbo later, Frank has a landmark restaurant of his own, Brigtsen’s, where the rabbit and andouille filé gumbo is a deep brown, velveteen potage. His secrets? Baking his roux slowly in the oven, rather than browning it on the stovetop, and sautéing the filé powder with his seasoning vegetables. And one more thing: always keeping his Louisiana heritage close to his stirring arm.
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original
interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire
transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Frank Brigtsen
Date: July 26, 2007
Location: 723 Dante Street—New Orleans, LA
Interviewer: Sara Roahen
Photographer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s Thursday, July 26, 2007. I’m in New Orleans, Louisiana, at Brigtsen’s Restaurant, and I’m sitting here with the chef and the owner. And if I could just ask you to say your name and your birth date, please?
Frank Brigtsen: My name is Frank Brigtsen and my birth date is December 9, 1954.
Thank you. We’re in Brigtsen’s Restaurant. How long has this restaurant been around?
We are in our 21st year; we opened in 1986.
What did you do before then? Is this your first restaurant?
This is the first restaurant of my own, yes. Prior to this I was the executive chef at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen for seven years and met Paul Prudhomme when I was an apprentice at Commander’s Palace in the late ‘70s, when he was the executive chef there. He taught me how to cook.
I’m curious what took you to Commander’s and sort of put you in that sphere.
Well that’s a very interesting question. I—I attended LSU University in Baton Rouge and I worked in food service there—casual food service. And when I moved back to New Orleans, I took a job in a kitchen of a casual restaurant and at the tender young age of 24 I found myself in a rather precarious position. I had quit my job; they sold the building I was living in and kicked me out. My car died and I broke up with my girlfriend, so I made the call to mom to see if I could come home because I had nowhere else to go. So that’s what I did and after two weeks of being at home I decided to—to start rebuilding my life and so I picked up the classifieds one day and there was an ad in the paper for Commander’s Palace. And it said, “Commander’s Palace now hiring Creole chefs or people willing to learn Creole cuisine.” And that—that wording is something I responded to because I wanted to learn and I wanted to make it a career. I enjoyed being in the kitchen. And so it was an opportunity for me to get serious about it, and fortunately I was taken on as an apprentice, and the six months that I spent at Commander’s Palace was really my culinary school. I got the chance to work every station in the house, learned how to shake a skillet, learned how to produce high-quality food at high-volume, and got my feet wet sort of. And at the time K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen was open as a restaurant but only for lunch. They had been open a few months and K and Paul decided that they wanted to open for dinner. And so one busy Sunday morning at Commander’s I was setting up the line for brunch and Paul called me over and he said, Frank, how do you feel about sauces? And I said, Well hmm—he caught me off-guard with that. And I said, Well I really like them a lot. And he didn’t—That’s not what I mean; he said, How would you like to learn how to make sauces and I’ll show you all the nuances that make cooking great? I said, Sure, Chef, whatever you want me to do. So he invited me to come to K-Paul’s, which I had never heard of. It was relatively new and I just did what Chef asked me to do. And so it was very—it was very interesting times.
Can you tell me—I’ll move onto gumbo for a little while—what was the sort-of paradigm for gumbo in the house where you grew up in New Orleans? And then I’d like to know how working with Paul Prudhomme changed your ideas of the possibilities of gumbo?
The gumbo my mom made, for lack of a better word I call it a Creole gumbo because it had a lot of everything in it: deep dark brown roux, smoked sausage, shrimp, oysters, crabs, and sometimes even chicken. So it was kind of a—a gumbo. It was everything that was available. [Laughs] And it was—it was a meal. You know it’s—to me growing up as a kid, gumbo was not what you see today in restaurants as an appetizer; it was a meal. It was also—and still is I think—sort of social event as well. You don’t make gumbo; you make a[emphasis added] gumbo. I’m making a gumbo—ya’ll come over. So it’s always been to me, again, about people. It’s about sharing and getting together over a pot of gumbo. And you know in—in for instance, in the late ‘70s at Commander’s Palace, Paul was experimenting with the idea of gumbo. Now gumbo is something that’s over 200 years-old here in Louisiana and has a long rich tradition, but it was a point when Paul felt that, you know, a cup of gumbo was too heavy as a starter for a meal because it was, you know, it’s got a roux and it’s—it’s very hearty.
So for a while we were making a rouxless gumbo: filé gumbo with seafood but with no roux, so the flavors were there without the roux. So the flavors were there without the roux. Now I understood the concept of it but—but frankly I never did like it. And—and at K-Paul’s we did it for a while too, and I had to make it, but I never did like it. And to me, a gumbo implies the use of a brown roux. I mean for us in Louisiana, a brown roux as opposed to a blonde roux or white roux is not just a—a thickener or a leavening agent—or a liaison rather—but it is a flavoring agent. You know when that flour is browned it has a particularly nutty deep roasted flavor that to me is essential in gumbo. But at K-Paul’s what we ultimately transitioned into was filé gumbo, and that was something that—that I did not really eat at home. My mom didn’t make a straight filé gumbo, and by that I mean a chicken and andouille gumbo: no seafood, no okra.
And so that was the benchmark for—for us at K-Paul’s for many, many years and still is. So here was a gumbo that to me personifies the heart of Cajun cuisine because Cajun cuisine—if you understand Cajun culture the Acadians were, and in many cases still are, relatively poor people who are trying to feed their family a very satisfying meal with very little money. So if you’re Paul Prudhomme’s mom, for instance, and you have 13 children and it’s time for Sunday supper and your husband is a sharecropper who can't even afford to buy the land he’s farming—what are you going to feed your family? You might have 20 people over for dinner every night, so are you going to go to the chicken coup and get 10 spring chickens and make roast chicken for everybody?—No, because those chickens are too valuable to the family farm. They can be sold at market for hard cash. But in the back of that chicken coup there might be an old hen who is kind of past her prime and not laying as many eggs as she used to and not contributing to the family farm. That one old hen and a couple of pounds of sausage can make a big pot of filé gumbo that will feed 20 people. So that to me is the heart of Acadian cuisine. It’s—it’s a cuisine that’s in a way born out of necessity: very humble ingredients, no caviar, foie gras, or truffles; very humble ingredients that are turned into a very satisfying meal, and that’s done with seasonings but mostly with technique. And the technique of a filé gumbo is totally unique, and it’s something that I find still today—I’m very proud to make filé gumbo. We make it everyday here at Brigtsen’s.
Now my gumbo won't turn up on the pages of—of a food magazine, but that’s not why I make it. I’m only here to make people happy with it, and it does make people happy. So that is to me, you know, the way in which gumbo personifies what we do in Louisiana with food. It’s a very—it’s a kind of dish that you get emotionally attached to and you crave it, and in fact when we were—when my family and I were evacuated after the storm, you know we spent a month in a hotel in North Louisiana, and you know having to eat out every night which sounds glamorous but it’s not. I—after a few weeks I told my family, I said, You know when—whenever we get back into our home with a real kitchen I’m making a big pot of filé gumbo. That was the one thing I craved more than anything.
So we finally ultimately—we rented a little house in Shreveport, and it had a kitchen, and so I went and bought the pot and ingredients to make gumbo, but we were in the middle of a heat wave. It was 102-degrees and the kitchen was really hot. I said, I am not doing this, so we waited ‘til we got home in New Orleans. And—and in mid-October I made a huge pot of chicken andouille filé gumbo at home and—and I called up all of our staff members that were here and we got together at the house [Emotional] and it was the best gumbo I ever had.
Thank you for sharing that with me, with us. I’ve heard a couple stories like that with gumbo being the moment of coming back together and survival after Katrina—emotional survival.
A gumbo is something that I think, you know there is—there’s as many ways to make gumbo as there are cooks in Louisiana and what’s interesting—you know we talk about emotional attachments to food, and I mean people will argue about how to make gumbo like they argue about football teams, you know. My gumbo will kick your gumbo’s—you know, and I just think that’s fascinating. And a few years ago—I always do a cooking demonstration at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. And so one year the Jazz Fest folks asked me if I would also participate in a panel discussion and I said, Okay, what’s it about? Well it’s going to be about gumbo, and I said Okay, what’s the details? And they said, Well it’s going to be an hour and a half and it will be you and a few other people. So I said, Man, we’re going to spend an hour and a half talking about gumbo? Well as it turned out we could have spent a day and a half talking about gumbo. It was myself and Richard [Stewart] from the Gumbo Shop, and my dear sweet friend, Miss Leah Chase. And we—we were at a table talking and we—we wanted to let people smell a brown roux, so I had my sous-chef onstage making a brown roux while we were talking. And of course the aroma was—was very alluring. But anyway, I started talking about gumbo, my mom’s gumbo for instance, and every now and then I’d look over at Miss Leah shaking her head like, No, uh-um, uh-uh; that’s not the way we do it; uh-um, uh-uh, uh-um. I mean she had, and still has, ways of doing things you know, and—and rules really: No, we’d never do that; oh we always do this and—. And I love that. I guess I’m a little more of a rule-breaker, but that just goes to show you the variety and—and the diversity of our culture in the way we approach things.
For her, for instance, mixing seafood and meat in a gumbo is taboo. I’m not necessarily of that opinion but [Laughs]—but it’s all good. But getting back to K-Paul’s, you know we—Chef liked to take advantage of his cooks and their particular talents and skills, and you’ve got to realize that back in those days, the early days of K-Paul’s, we had no recipes—no recipes, no measuring cups, no measuring spoons. The only measuring devices were in the bakery for the bread makers, but we learned to cook by taste and that was it. And it was a great way to learn. Ultimately I discovered the beauty of recipes and their value as a tool for teaching, but—but we learned, you know techniques and flavors by taste. And we had a great New Orleans chef there named Stanley Jackson, one of the great Creole cooks of our—of our city. And Chef knew him for many years, and Stanley made a gumbo there called Seven Steak Gumbo. Now I had never seen this before in my life, but again it was sort of a—I guess mostly based on being poor as well, because you could go to the store and buy what they called seven steak for very little money. And it—and it’s a cut of beef, a very weird cut of beef that the bone is shaped like a seven, and you can buy it for dirt cheap. So it was a gumbo made by people without a lot of money, and it’s an okra gumbo—a beef and okra gumbo. I mean, now that is something that I had never even considered much less seen. And it also had a jalapeno component too, so it was spicy. But man this stuff was good, and—and again, it was a meal; it was something we served at lunch. So that was an eye-opener to me: I never thought of gumbo outside of seafood gumbo, seafood okra gumbo.
I think, just for the record, that I’ve seen a recipe for that in one of Chef Paul’s cookbooks.
Yes, yes. Yeah, I think it was in his first book, actually, and he and Stanley worked on it together. But different approaches and—and that’s the great thing about food: even dishes that are very old, you never quit learning. There’s always something new around the corner with food. And Paul, for instance when he—when he ate gumbo at the restaurant he put a scoop of potato salad in it. Now we all thought that was strange until we tried it, and it was absolutely delicious, and so what a great lunch to have a bowl of gumbo with a scoop of potato salad in it. It’s a meal, and again it goes back to his upbringing: you know, coming from a poor family that didn’t have much money. So you know there’s different approaches to it, and—and to me, I respect that and I think you have to keep an open mind even when you’re talking about very traditional dishes.
I wasn’t around in the ‘70s in New Orleans, but I’ve heard people say that they think that Chef Paul changed restaurant gumbo in New Orleans, or sort of the standard restaurant gumbo, and I’ve always had the impression that what they meant was that the roux has gotten a lot darker. I’m not getting that from what you’re saying necessarily.
Well that—that could be true. I think, you know growing up as a kid, if you went to a restaurant and ordered gumbo, what you got was seafood okra gumbo and the roux was there but it was not a very dominant feature of it. It—usually gumbos were thick and hearty, but with the okra and the seafood. When Paul helped the Brennans open Mr. B’s Restaurant—I think that was probably not the first time, but the first major restaurant that featured filé gumbo the way Paul made it, and that is what they call Gumbo Ya Ya. And that dish is still, I’m sure, Mr. B’s signature dish. But that filé gumbo, the Gumbo Ya Ya, made its debut I think at Mr. B’s, and so—and it is all about the roux. I mean that—that roux was chocolate brown, and it carries the soup. It’s kind of—I shouldn’t call gumbo a soup, but it carries the flavor profile of that dish. And you know there’s no cheating; you know you’ve got to make the roux right. And we—we certainly experimented a lot with rouxs at K-Paul’s, and I teach this in my classes.
But one day I was—I went into work at K-Paul’s, and we had—this is in our first year, second year—and we had gotten popular and we had gotten busy and we expanded into the upstairs and opened what we called the Grocery. It was a casual lunch place, but we also did a lot of sausage making and things like that. Well, we were doing probably 800 to 1,000 people a day in the restaurant: upstairs, downstairs, lunch and dinner. And so I went in to do my cooking one day and I was swamped; I was really busy, and I made roux almost everyday in a big rondel, and I had a four-burner stove to do my cooking. So I started my roux, and I looked at the clock and I said, I don’t have time to finish this; I’ve got too much to do. So I threw the whole thing in the oven, and it turned out to be the best roux I ever made in my life. And—and other people noticed it too: Chef Stanley Jackson and Chef Raymond Sutton—two very experienced Creole cooks that I learned a lot from—they came over and said, Look at this. And it was—it was velvety, it was mellow, it was smooth, no trace of bitterness, and I didn’t have to stand there and stir it for a long time. You know you didn’t have to baby-sit it. So today that’s the way we do our roux at Brigtsen’s.
I do something—and Miss Leah will get mad at me for this—but I do something that’s rather unorthodox when I make gumbo, and that is most people will put the gumbo pot on the stove and make their roux. And from there they’ll add their onions, celery, and other vegetables and stock and build up the gumbo like that, starting with the roux. And that’s the old maxim in Louisiana cuisine: first you make a roux. Well when I make gumbo, the roux is the last thing that goes in the pot. We—we make the rue separately, and I do that for a couple of reasons. Number one, I like to brown my vegetables—the onions and the celery and bell pepper, if I’m using bell pepper, and you can't brown those vegetables in a roux. They’ll steam and sauté, but they won't caramelize and get any color on them. So that’s one reason. The other advantage is what I learned by cooking the roux in the oven: if you—if you make the roux separately and let it sit even overnight, most of the oil in the roux will float to the top. It will separate from the flour, and you can discard that oil before you add it to the gumbo. Therefore, you don’t have all this unnecessary oil in your gumbo, and that’s important because that oil in my opinion actually coats the palate and masks flavor, so that without that oil you’re getting much more vivid, clear flavors. And so that’s the way we do gumbo at Brigtsen’s today. We make the roux the night before, and we do it in the oven and it takes about three or four hours, but you don’t have to baby-sit it. So right before we open for dinner service at 5:30 we’ll start the roux on top of the stove: heat the oil to a very high temperature, like almost a frying temperature, add the flour, whisk it a little bit, and then throw the whole thing in the oven. And you only have to stir it maybe once an hour, and then by the end of dinner service—9:30-10 o’clock—the roux is done. So it’s totally painless in a way, and you get the benefit of a smoother, mellower flavor; it never burns or scorches or gets bitter. So you see, you live and learn, and this was something I discovered by accident. But it has transformed the way we cook.
What temperature do you keep your oven at for the roux?
Three-fifty—three hundred fifty degrees, and it takes about three or four hours. We make about probably three-quarts of roux at a time, and it takes about three and a half to four hours.
And what kind of oil do you use?
We use just vegetable oil, which is usually corn and soy. Peanut oil is also very good. And we use all-purpose flour, although we experimented with high gluten flours like bread flour and cake flour, and those are also very good. But we just use all-purpose.
How did you decide on rabbit as the meat in your signature restaurant gumbo [at Brigtsen’s]?
Well that’s a good question, and—and again it goes back to necessity is the mother of invention. We have been—we have been serving rabbit since the day we opened, and we get in fresh whole rabbits from an organic farmer in Mississippi, and we--we butcher the rabbits: we break them down into pieces, and each piece has to get used. So the hind legs, we bone out and pound out like veal, and—and that part of the rabbit is pannéed: breaded and pan-fried and served as an entrée. The loin of the rabbit—or tenderloin as we call it, but it’s really the loin—is boned out and served as an appetizer. So what you’re left with is the front legs of the rabbit and the belly. Now the front legs are small, and to debone a fresh front rabbit leg is extremely labor-intensive and the yield is very small. And in the early days of our restaurant, we did do that and we boned out the front legs and we made rabbit sausage with it. But it’s so labor intensive that I wanted to find a better way.
So I asked myself, How can we get all the meat off the bone in a simpler way? And the answer is to cook it first. So we tried a few different things: we—we made rabbit confit by cooking the front legs slowly and in olive oil with herbs and garlic, and it was—it is absolutely delicious, but it didn’t sell very well. So then I decided to make gumbo with it, and so by braising these front legs of the rabbit we get a terrific gumbo, and—and it’s extremely easy to take the meat off the bone once it’s cooked, and so it all made sense to me. And when—when something hits like that, when something makes sense on so many levels and tastes good, then you’ve got a winner. And so that’s our way of utilizing the front legs of the rabbit. And—and quite honestly, filé gumbo or Gumbo Ya Ya is really more of a cool-weather dish. You know a lot of people won't make filé gumbo in the summer. They’ll make seafood okra gumbo. But because we have to use these parts of the rabbit we serve this filé gumbo all year round.
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