“My definition of great Cajun cooking is: By the time you finish with it, throw the meat away because everything is in the gravy.” – Dickie Breaux
Never in his first fifty years of life did Dickie Breaux, né John Richard Breaux, imagine that he would be tied to Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, by a bowl of duck gumbo—or anything else for that matter. Though he was born in that town, he spent his teenage years living in Jeanerette forty-some miles to the southeast. Or, as Dickie puts it, “a million miles away.” A preservationist and former politician, he returned to Breaux Bridge in 1991 for the historic building that now houses his restaurant, Café Des Amis, as well as his home upstairs. Dickie’s son, Brett Breaux, a professional chef, opened the restaurant with him and helped establish a menu that’s at once Louisiana-cosmopolitan (New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp and turtle soup are specialties) and traditionally Cajun (you’ll find boudin sausage and cornmeal-based coush-coush at breakfast). The house gumbos include a seafood gumbo made with shrimp and okra, a duck and andouille sausage gumbo, and a hen gumbo served in the wintertime. Dickie leaves it up to the diner whether to eat the potato salad in or alongside the gumbos. He’s an alongside man himself.
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: Dickie Breaux
Date: August 13, 2008
Location: Café Des Amis—Breaux Bridge, LA
Interviewer: Sara Roahen
This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s Wednesday, August 13, 2008. I’m in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana with Mr. Breaux at Café Des Amis. Could I get you please to say your name and your birth date?
Dickie Breaux: My name is Dickie Breaux and my full name is John Richard Breaux. I was—December 16, 1937—and I’m 70 years-old, and I’ve been living here in Breaux Bridge since ’91. The café opened in ’91.
And can you say your relationship to the café?
I’m the sole owner and I’m not that active in the restaurant. By the grace of God I have really interesting and dedicated people who really enjoy working here.
Can you, to start out—describe the restaurant?
Well, the history of the restaurant: I was married back in ’91 and we bought this building solely to live in. We had no—there was no concept about doing a restaurant. And I was in the restoration business. I was working for HRI [Properties] out of New Orleans, and the company did most of the Warehouse District, and so my primary interest was restoration. And my ex was working in Baton Rouge, and we moved in upstairs, and what started out as a coffee house evolved into this. And so here we are. [Laughs]
Can you tell me about your history, where you’re from?
I was born here in Breaux Bridge, and at the age of 14 my parents moved to Jeanerette which is south of here, but it could have been a million miles away. [Laughs] The customs and all are so completely different down there than they are up here. I didn’t never see myself coming to Breaux Bridge; my ex is the one that picked this building. And she was working in Baton Rouge and I was working in New Orleans and we wanted to stay in this area. But my history, after finishing high school I--I did some college at the university here in Lafayette, and I was elected to two terms in the Louisiana Legislature representing Iberia and St. Mary Parish. And I was in the development business, and also you know I was very—always extremely interested in restoration. And I worked with HRI, I think it was about 10 years, and we did a number of—my primary function was sort of trying to revitalize the community. We did the East High School in Hammond, which we converted to live/work space for artists. So that’s been sort of my interest, is in revitalization.
Can you describe for the record the kind of food that’s served here?
Well that--that was one of the things I did know something about, maybe quite the expert at it. My family has been dealing with food almost all of their lives. My family is from Breaux Bridge, so coming back here I knew one thing: That whatever we did we would have to do it in such a way that—well, I mean you can walk 20 or 100—three, four, five miles—everyone knows how to cook here. And then on—and it ain't just cooking. I mean this is, you know, drop-dead smashing the-best thing-you-ever-ate cooking. So we took a bold step in doing what they were doing at home, and not nearly as good as them by the way because when mom is cooking for the family she’s trying to show love. I mean hmm; I mean get out of here. You’re not going to compete with that. So what we did is we did Buffalo china, we did silverware, we did napkins, and served the same food that you could get for $4.95 at the grocery store and--and we did some other additions. We did—the dishes that I had become accustomed to from being entertained in the Legislature. You can probably imagine. You know we ate all over New Orleans. You know we’ve been recognized by The Times-Picayune [New Orleans newspaper]on three different occasions of having the best BBQ shrimp, which is out of the question because it’s a Manale’s [Pascal’s Manale Restaurant] dish; it’s--it’s Yugoslav. It comes from the mouth of the river and it—but we have a great BBQ shrimp. We have an excellent turtle soup, which has been ranked—which is not Cajun food. So we’ve introduced some of the other foods from around Louisiana. And my--my son [Brett Breaux] was the one that really started the restaurant.
Brett probably is the only chef that has a true Cajun background, Acadian background. And in his—other than prairie [an unofficial branch of Acadian cooking]; prairie would be Paul Prudhomme. Brett’s influence is from here; Prudhomme’s influence of course is Germany. Over here it’s black, and--and that’s why in New Orleans when you start talking about Creole, which is you know, I’m sure you’re aware—what’s the definition of Creole? It just all depends on who’s giving it. [Laughs] And but what he learned from here is the way--the way I tell the difference is when Prudhomme is cooking he’s cooking from smoked items. Growing up here, there’s no such thing as smoked meat in this area. It’s either salted or it’s put into cauldrons where they cover it with hog lard and seal it, and--and that’s why the cooking here I think is so exceptionally good, is because everything has salt influence—everything.
As Emeril came to understand—you know a Portuguese from New Jersey coming to New Orleans and cooking Cajun [Laughs], he picked up early on and used to always say pork rules, pork rules, pork rules, and—. He got that from Marcelle Bienvenu in St. Martinville, who taught him how to cook Cajun.
In France it’s butter; down here it’s pork and it’s in everything. You may not see it but it’s in—and I think what sets this area apart, or us apart, is everything is well-seasoned. You can go down to the grocery store on the corner, which I do a lot, and you eat the beans and the rice and gravy, and I mean everything has such a fantastic flavor. And all of them separate and distinct flavors; they’re not just, you know, one flavor. So I--I’d say Brett is probably the only true Central South Louisianan chef on the market today. Certainly what Paul Prudhomme does is outstanding, in [every] way shape or form, but that’s an influence which is way to the north of us—Eunice, Ville Platte and that area.
I’ve never had anybody explain to me that there isn't a smoked tradition in this area. What do you attribute that to, the lack of German influence or—?
Oh yeah; yeah, if you go to the--what we call the prairie Cajuns, you’ve got Mouton Cove which is just nothing but Germans. There was a strong influence here before the Cajuns arrived, and over here what you had was—the main dish in this area was, primarily because of poverty [interruption] was coush-coush. And the reason for that is they grew corn in this area. It was a labile crop, rather than sugarcane, so you could take it and you could plow that under and—. But also the corn was used to feed the mules that pulled the plows. So they learned to make coush-coush from that.
Can you describe for me what coush-coush is?
Uh-hm. It’s--it’s ground up corn, yellow corn—you know, the one that you feed the animals. And then they take and they put it on the mustard grinder at the mills. And then it’s fried; it’s fried, and back then it was fried in hog lard—and with salt and cornmeal, and it’s served with milk. It’s probably a takeoff on couscous which is made from wheat of course. But a couple of writers who have been here, international writers, [say] there’s only two places in the world where you can get coush-coush today. It’s here and Senegal, Africa, so—.
By here do you mean at the restaurant?
Yeah, we serve it, uh-hm.
What is your ancestry?
On my mother’s side it’s French, but you know the--the working class, Bordeaux area of France. On my father’s side it’s pure Cajun and it—I’m Breaux and Guidry, which is two prominent names here. And my mother is Thebent and Thibodeaux—T-h-e-b-e-n-t. And they were a very poor—well by today’s standards it would have been—they were a pretty influential family in the sense that they were blacksmiths, gunsmiths, which is very rare to have that concentration of France families up amongst Cajuns because there was just nothing in common. [Laughs] I mean that’s why Cajuns wound up down here and didn’t--didn’t hang around New Orleans, is that the French would have nothing to do with the Cajuns. It was—you know we came here; we were very illiterate, didn’t fit in anywhere.
But by the time your parents’ generation came around they had merged cultures?
No, oh no; no, it’s still that way today. You go to St. Martinville and those [Laughs]--those French people there think they’re really something. Do you know what the--do you know what the history of gumbo is?
I would love it if you’d tell me. [Laughs]
[Laughs] It’s the generic name for okra; you cannot ship across State lines anything called gumbo unless it has okra in it, okay. And it was brought here by the Africans. It’s--it’s native to Africa but it was brought here as a thickening agent. Well undoubted, we Cajuns didn’t get a hold of that any time too soon, so we used roux, which is--which I’m sure was used in the plantation days. But roux is--roux is identical to miso.
Yeah, miso is soy mash and oil. Roux is flour and oil. And it was used for the same identical reasons—extensions of flavor. And I don't know how that—but that would probably corroborate that, you know, big bad Duchamps [a wealthy plantation owner in Acadiana] went to China; he came back and then he told the black grandma, This is what they’re doing over there, and she—. And I think that is where the creativity came in, which is Cajun ingenuity too—is they understand what it is and they started putting pieces together in their head and then you wind up with a dish.
The real secret of great, great gumbo, in my opinion, is pick the--pick the particular meat that you want and find the toughest meat you can find, you know. Guinea is great; that’s one of the top gumbos cooked by [Cajuns]. We don't do it here because it’s quite extensive. Or hen. And the reason for that, whether they knew it or not, is you continue cooking until you get all that marrow out of the bone, and--and once you’ve done that, that’s where your flavor is. Great chicken cacciatore is the same thing; you bake it in the oven and you bake it in the oven. I think the--I know when I was working on the turtle soup I had gotten into I guess you’d call it a pissing contest with The Morning Advocate [newspaper]. And they said everything in here was good except my turtle soup. Well so I want on a mission with my son and we just couldn’t quite get what I was looking for. I was trying to copy what I remembered from the Pontchartrain Hotel. They had the best turtle soup in the world. And so what we came up with is, finally I stumbled on one of Ella Brennan’s cookbooks from Commander’s Palace and she graciously shows you everything that goes on, but it said and you add your broth. Well it didn’t say what the broth was, so finally I went back to [our] broth—and this is where the real--which sort of reinforces my thoughts about the influence [of Cajun cooking]. To make beef broth she’d take it and bake it in bags, in mesh bags. Bake it and bake it and then crush the bone, all of that bone, and then she’d put that in the bag into the turtle soup.
Do you suspect that people were making roux gumbos before okra even arrived and just not calling it gumbo?
I really don't know the answer to that. I certainly know this—giving a guess—they would have started back with, you know, Okay I’m bringing over chicken bones and we’re going to put that in the pot and we’re going to cook that down. Now how do you thicken it? And you know it’s--it’s the thought that somewhere down the line, that somebody came back and said that miso is nothing but a thickening agent and passed that on, and then you know flour was available, so—. And--and for the most part everything here was done with hog lard. I mean there was no vegetable oil; there was no canola oil, no peanut oil. So as you know what roux is—it’s just constantly cooking and cooking it and keeping it from burning, ‘cause what you’re doing is burning it, but you’re stirring it so it doesn’t [completely burn]. And I don't know. Maybe--maybe that was the advent, but okra certainly is a prominent dish in this area, you know. But now when it comes to seafood gumbo, shrimp and okra gumbo is just what is what everyone uses. That’s what everyone here likes when it comes to seafood gumbo.
Can you tell me what kind of gumbo you serve here at the restaurant?
Both. We do duck and andouille, which is done with a roux base, and then we do a shrimp and okra, which also has basically a roux base. But okra is--okra is not an easy dish to deal with. I mean that slime, it just—you really have to know how to do it in order to make it work.
Can you tell me what kind of gumbo you grew up eating at home, and if that influenced the kind of gumbo that you serve here?
It would have been chicken and sausage but fresh sausage and not smoked. Now here we use smoked. Now during the winter months I insist that they serve the chicken and sausage, so they use the hen and the fresh pork sausage and you know make the gumbo from that, and it’s served as a special. Gumbo traditionally was never cooked during the summer months; it was just a winter dish. And how it got the name gumbo, to me is very interesting because it certainly constitutes the influence of okra and--and there would have been no other place to get the name from but gombo [an African name for okra].
But yeah, I would say that the influence or the flavor that I was looking for that I remembered as a child would have been the marrow from the bone—what you--what you’re getting from there. And just the same thing is true with our turtle soup. We cook the turtle soup—oh Lord, we cook the meat for maybe two and a half hours until it naturally falls off the bone, and--and that’s how we do with the—we had to go with that. You cook the chicken until it literally falls off the bone for fear that somebody will swallow the piece of bone or whatever. But I’m fascinated with when I go into a restaurant and there’s nothing but chunks of white meat in--in the gumbo. It’s tough to derive a flavor from that. [Laughs]
So you use a roux for both. You use the same color roux for both gumbos?
Basically yes. We--the chefs have improved substantially about—oh I don't know if improved—. They do a lot of what’s called blonde roux, butter and flour that, you know it’s cooked down but it’s still yellowish; and then they’ll add that as a thickening agent, but they’ll start off with the dark roux. Whether it’s in your fricassee or your chicken stew or whatever else that you’re making. And so there is a combination of, you know, French and Cajun because we use a lot of blonde roux.
Oh so they’ll add a blonde roux at the end of like the gumbo?
While they’re cooking.
The State was filming a commercial in here years ago and there’s a young African American reporter for the--for the station, TV station, and they hired her and all of her family and they were sitting at the table and I guess the message was, you know we do accept blacks and whites—you know, da-da-da. And Debra—Debra--what the hell is her name? She’s written up in—. [Interruption] And she asked me if—she said, Do you mind if I give you a tip? No, not at all. She says, You have a sheen on your shrimp and okra gumbo. Do you know how to get rid of it? No, I said, I wish I did. She said, Well when you’re in the pot—the big pot— all you need is either a teaspoon of Lea & Perrins or vinegar because Lea & Perrins is all vinegar. And sure enough you just put one teaspoon in and, oh, the sheen goes away. [Laughs]
Why wouldn’t you want the sheen?
Oh it looks like--looks like an oil slick. [Laughs] It’s not very appetizing.
But anyhow that--I think that just typified that the blacks are just—I mean not only are they great cooks. I mean they’re technicians of the food. They’re so—well, and that’s a perfect example. I mean they’re so unselfish about what they know and--and how they use it. Because that’s how they were brought up. They came from the plantation house and then it filtered down into the quarters and in the quarters, you know—so things were tough on them but they ate good— [Laughs] better than the plantation people.
They’ve just brought some—one each of the gumbos and a cup of turtle soup, I’m guessing. And--and it’s interesting to me you serve potato salad. How do you deal with the potato salad? Do you put it in the gumbo or just eat it on the side?
Oh no, I eat mine on the side but just about everybody else puts it in there--puts it in the gumbo.
We were just talking off the recording about the challenges of making your own roux in an operation of this size. Can you talk about that, and also what you told me about the steam kettle?
Yeah. What--as I told you, they use a lot of blonde roux, which is very easy to do because you’re just mixing--until you get a consistency that you’re looking for. To get a darker roux, I mean you really have to cook for an extended period of time and watching it very closely, keeping it from burning. I don't know if you’ve ever had roux pop up on you when you’re making it--cooking it. It will burn you to the bone instantly; it’s like a welding torch. But with the advent of the steam kettle, which you can set, people are able to make acceptable roux. And basically you’re looking for color.
Can you just explain, to go back, what a steam kettle is?
Yeah. Instead of having a direct flame underneath your cooking, what it does is that usually if it’s—there’s a radiance and it’s like a hot water heater. It boils the water and then the water heats the kettle either—whether it’s gas or electric. So what you have is, you don't have a flame perpetuating the heat; it’s just--it’s just water, so not only is it much easier to make your roux but the chances of your burning it are almost remote—and you know you set your temperature. So then all you have to do is watch and keep stirring so that you get a consistent cooking throughout, and then they’ve got it down pat. They have an electric paddle in there while it’s—and that’s really all you need.
They used to do that with pralines years and years ago, and that’s how they made pralines in New Orleans. You had a cooking kettle but they—the flame then was directly under the kettle, this big bakery type operation, rotating, and so it—. Roux has evolved today as basically coloring, primarily. Because blonde roux, for thickening, has taken basically the place of what okra could do, and you don't have to have as much. The other thing is that, you know, while you’re cooking down your stock, your bone or whatever in there, as that’s cooking down you’re boiling the water off. So you have to constantly be adding water. And then you get to the point [where] okay, I have the flavor that I need. I’m taking the chicken out but it’s still not thick enough, you know. What do you do then? And that’s when they add the blonde roux. But you know you have to start with a good color.
You see that oil sheen [pointing at a bowl of gumbo]? That you see in there, people would think that that’s grease. That’s actually the marrow from the bone; that too [gesturing].
That doesn’t look like a bad thing to me actually.
Well yeah. I mean I look for it. When there’s a great, great rice and gravy, which is—you see that it looks like that same sheen or color you see around the edge of an oyster. You know that brown, and it—so whenever that circle comes out, man, you know you’ve got something special. Most people will look at it [and say], Man I ain't eating that greasy crap. [Laughs] And what you’re passing up. And you know you really have to know what you’re looking for when you’re looking at it. I think of Dunbar’s in New Orleans. And they do a great job there, whew.
Yeah, they do. I love their gumbo.
Oh yeah, they’re good. They know what they’re doing.
Well thank you for giving me your time.
I’ll get you something to eat; let me see what’s the special.
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