9th July 2015
Interview: Adam Park
Photographs: Martin Vargas
9th July 2015
Interview: Adam Park
Photographs: Martin Vargas
Melissa, who grew up on the Louisiana coast and has lived in New Orleans for 20 years, moved to the Lower Ninth a year ago with her husband Rush, a photographer, and their son Kai. They live in what’s known as a shotgun house, a long, narrow building with rooms arranged one behind the other. Rush invites us in and takes us through to the kitchen, where Melissa is doing a thousand things at once. It’s a busy time – her Curious Oyster Bar in the newly renovated St Roch Market has only just opened, and she’s prepping for tonight’s Mosquito supper club – but she still has time to show us around her back garden, where she has built an impressive chicken coup, and chat about her bayou upbringing.
She’s had time to cook for us as well. We were warned to expect something quick and easy, but on arriving we are surprised (and delighted) to see trays of shrimp boulettes and stuffed crab and chicken gumbo on the stove. She’s also braising a large slab of beef to make rice and gravy. “I’m always cooking something,” she says with a rueful smile. One motivation for this is her desire to keep alive the Cajun food culture she grew up with, without dressing it up and obscuring its simplicity. “If somebody doesn’t keep cooking it in this basic way,” she says, “then we’ll just completely lose it.”
No I was born in the bayou, about an hour and a half south-west of here in a town called Chauvin, but I’ve been in New Orleans for 20 years.
We were six kids in our family and kind of poor, so we ate a lot of shrimp. I mean hundreds of pounds of shrimp a year. We had it every way imaginable: fried, boiled, in gumbo, in spaghetti. In the shrimp season my parents would go shrimping and freeze thousands of pounds of shrimp so they could cook with them the whole year. It was just the same thing over and over. I didn’t know about any other foods. We didn’t eat junk food and we never had soda. It was completely crazy how shut off we actually were. I didn’t realise it until I left for college. I remember picking up a bagel and saying, “What’s wrong with this donut? Why is it so hard?”
Yeah. There’s two different kinds of Cajun food – swamp and prairie. I grew up on the water so I ate a lot of seafood, whereas my business partner Effie [Michot] is from the prairie so they cooked a lot of meat: pork, rice and gravy.
But within that there are a million different varieties. My gumbos are different from my mother’s, even though she taught me how to make them. My friend who lives five houses down, their gumbo is different – they put boiled eggs in it. Some people make gumbo with a roux and that’s like the bible to them. So everybody’s food is different. Everybody’s dialect too – the French from bayou to bayou is different. That’s why we named the supper club Mosquito, because the one thing we all have in common is mosquitos.
There are a million different varieties of Cajun food. My gumbos are different from my mother’s. My friend who lives five houses down, their gumbo is different – they put boiled eggs in it. Everybody’s food is different
It started a year ago and we do it twice, three, sometimes four times a month for 24 to 30 people. We serve my family recipes, what my mom or grandma would cook, what we ate on a Sunday. Straight Cajun food, cooked exactly the way I was shown how to cook it1. That’s pretty important. Most other restaurants serving similar food are making it fancy – deconstructing stuff and adding different elements. There’s a place for that but if somebody doesn’t keep cooking it in this basic way then we’ll just completely lose it.
Definitely. I said I want to do it like a Sunday supper where you come in and sit down at a big communal table, family style. We really wanted to cultivate an atmosphere of slow, easy eating. You know when you go into a restaurant and they need to turn your table? I hate that feeling. So if you want to stay for four or five hours, go for it.
We went to Italy recently and loved that sometimes it was just one person serving a whole restaurant full of people. And that’s fine, you know? I appreciate that more than in American restaurants where there’s so many servers and everyone is so dependent on tips. You can’t take a breath without someone trying to take the plate from you. That’s one of my biggest pet peeves. I get, like, enraged – it makes me want to throw my plate.
I knew I needed to do something with my hands. I always loved watching my mom make something out of nothing. You know, like, go into the refrigerator and come out with some stuff and just make it – I always think that’s fun.
Before the storm I taught adult literacy and was an operations manager at a local farmers’ market, but when Katrina came I lost my job so I went out to Napa and made wine for a harvest. Going there and seeing how people lived and ate seasonally, it reminded me of how I grew up. I learned how to work in each of the California seasons and we got to forage for ingredients. And I learned production there – how to stage something, how to write a prep list, how to work logistically and keep a very, very clean kitchen.
I ran a catering company for a little while and that was no fun. Then I opened up a little place with some friends called Satsuma Café and tried to implement that seasonal farm-to-table approach with affordable food – good salads, good sandwiches. I think the biggest thing for me is being part of the community of growers: the fishermen, the farmers, dairy, all of those people. I want to be able to make a sandwich and say “This baker made the bread, this butcher did the bacon, the pig came from this farm, we hand-whipped that mayo, this tomato is from this grower.” That’s the most exciting thing about cooking, when you have amazing ingredients and you’re really just nudging it onto the plate.
Bacchanal is amazing. The food is so laid back, with simple dishes like grilled sardines – it’s like eating in Spain. It’s got such a fantastic atmosphere and there’s a huge outside yard where everybody eats.
Melissa on her favourite New Orleans restaurants – see Address Book
Then I went to work for a not-for-profit restaurant called Café Hope and started a huge garden there, attempting to teach at-risk youth how to cook seasonal food and try to change the way they thought about food. These were kids from juvenile detention, kids who had dropped out of high school. Many did not know that chicken was from a chicken or hamburger was from a cow. One time I brought in a chicken – it laid an egg and they almost died.
I did that for three years but I was going a little bit nuts. When I left Café Hope, the truth is I sat on the couch and watched every season of Game of Thrones so I could reset my brain and not think about social work or anything for a bit.
It was amazing – I usually don’t sit still very well. After I finished Game of Thrones I was ready to work again. And so I sat down with my husband and we started scheming and that’s when the supper club came into being. Now that Mosquito has been around for a year, we want to start cooking more than just two or three times a week.
I’m always in the kitchen cooking, but most of it is for work. I’d love to sit down and eat with my family on a regular basis but right now it’s hard. Sitting at the table together almost never happens. So generally I eat pretty simply at home – I could live on scones, fruit and coffee.
When I left my last restaurant job the plan was to sort out my house and cook and have a garden again, but it never quite works out like that. But I’m working on our back yard. The big project is to get a chicken coop set up so we can have our own eggs.
My favourite thing to cook, because it cooks so fast, is fish. I am from a family of shrimpers and fishermen so we always had fresh fish. My mom never in her whole life purchased a fish.
It really depends on what’s running. Right now they’re catching a lot of trout, which is really delicious. Also sheepshead2, snapper if you are lucky.
The kids I was teaching did not know that chicken was from a chicken or hamburger was from a cow. One time I brought in a chicken – it laid an egg and they almost died
Sheepshead is okay – it works great in a taco. But I’m not really not cooking gourmet meals at home. I like just simple rice and a piece of fish and cucumbers and tomatoes – that’s a typical meal I had at my house growing up. I like really simple things and that’s what I cook for the family.
Rush is a really good cook. It’s just a question of who has time to do it, but he’ll often put together a great meal. He really likes making tacos. My kid is actually a pretty good cook but he grew up in the city, not in the bayou, so he’s not madly in love with Cajun food.
The only thing I try to avoid is mass-market. I have no desire to eat crazy factory chicken – I’d rather be a vegetarian. And a lot of things are too rich for me. I had a bánh mi [Vietnamese baguette] the other day that I just couldn’t eat. I like quiches, that’s my level of richness. Any more and I think, this doesn’t make me feel good, and normally I want to feel good after I eat something.
Have patience. I’ve been teaching my sous chef how to make Cajun food and he’s like, “I don’t know, these vegetables have lost all their colour”, and I’ll say, “Taste it, if they are still resistant or a little crunchy, leave it longer”. Everything we cook takes so long because, you know, people were busy, they were on the bayou, they were doing all their chores. Women cooked mostly because men were fishing or hunting. Monday might be red beans and rice because that was laundry day, you’d start your beans early in the morning and you’d stir the pot all day and do laundry, then eat at the very end of the day. So these were very long cooks and you have to be patient. If you are not patient you are not going to develop flavor.
Also: lard. Use a lot of lard.
Roger Phillips – The horticulturalist and food writer takes us around his secret London garden, discusses his deep-rooted love of mushrooms and explains why he sleeps in his kitchen
Erwin Gegenbauer – The master vinegar brewer takes us on a tour of his Vienna factory, explains why local produce is “boring” and makes us breakfast featuring his own honey, oil, coffee, beer and cider
Ryan Chetiyawardana – The cocktail pioneer devises an elaborate pairing menu, explains the deceptively simple idea behind his bars, confesses a major food aversion and recalls his favourite ever meal