During my first year as a Chef Instructor at the CIA I was assigned to teach American Regional Cuisine. A fascinating class delving into the history and traditions of American cuisine. It was an hour lecture along with a hands-on 6-hour lab cooking regional specialties. A fun class and one of the students’ favorites. Before flying solo with my own class, I shadowed another Chef Instructor to learn the ropes.
That was Chef Brunet, Terrell Brunet. He was from Louisiana, Mandeville to be exact. Situated on Lake Pontchartrain, due north of NOLA. Of all the chefs at the CIA, there was not one better at American Regional than Terrell. That boy was Cajun proud, period. Everything I know about Cajun Creole Cuisine and the traditions and history thereof is because of Terrell.
I will never forget the first week in the class with him. Watching his every move, how he interacted with the students, he was all knowing, and all business but kept things light. It was important to maintain a sense of levity and approachability. Part of the student’s mise en place is to have their daily assigned recipe printed on an index card. It’s a handy reference and if things go south during the preparation the chef will ask for the card and review the recipe with the student. One day a short portly young gal was making a mushroom barley soup and she needed Chef Brunet’s attention. He went to the stove, I followed. The student began to discuss the recipe. Chef Brunet interjected and instructed her on how to proceed.
She pulled out the index card, “Chef Brunet but the recipe says…”
What happened next is burned into my memory like a red-hot branding iron on a longhorn haunch. He grabbed the index card. Ripping it in half, quarters, then eighths. Setting the shredded card neatly on the edge of the stove. My mind was attempting to comprehend what my eyes witnessed. The CIA, where tuition is a king’s ransom, a Chef Instructor tearing a student’s recipe card, a student watching in horror.
“Darlin.” said Brunet, dropping the g in his Louisiana drawl.
“You don’t need that recipe card, in here we cook from the heart.” Drawing out aaart in his Cajun twang.
I was stunned, silent. The advice, and action he demonstrated gave me a snapshot of who he was. Passionate, direct, serious, knowledgeable, a touch of madness. I loved it.
When the lesson in the syllabus covered Cajun Creole Brunet went next level. That was his turf, his people, his food, indubitably, his heritage. His bayou blood bounced back generations, both sides of his family fought for the Confederacy. He stored photos of ancestors in his phone. An honored descendant, he told fascinating stories of his deceased kin. Showing the photos bringing the pixels to life.
Our friendship thrived. I nicknamed him T Bone. It fit perfectly. It was his initials, and his favorite cut of steak. It is the only stored number in my phone named after a food. He would frequently say, “When you come to Louisiana…” Somehow knowing I would get to the Pelican State and he would show me the bayou and beyond. I told him I had been there before. “Cool.” He said, “But you haven’t been to my Louisiana.”
He received a job offer as Corporate Chef for Cajun Injector. Based in LA he left the CIA to go back home to the Crescent City. Not without a going away party which I oversaw. T Bone was loved by all at the CIA. The date was set, I began to organize the guest list.
I asked him, “What chefs do you want me to invite?”
“All of them.” He replied, as if why are you even asking me that?
Between chefs, pastry chefs, and bakers, that was over 100 people. Throw in spouses, and other individuals we could easily top 200 or more guests.
“T Bone, this is a huge guest list.”
Like a true Cajun he replied. “Laissez les bons temps rouler”
We discussed food and booze. He suggested we deep fry some turkeys; everyone bring a side and we’ll get a keg.
“Great, I never deep fried a turkey before.” I said.
“What?! Damn Yankee.” T Bone cracked.
Date set, game plan in hand I went about organizing the mother of all going away parties. As the date drew near all those chefs and guests were anticipating one helluva party. Then something happened beyond our control. Old Man Winter arrived with a vengeance, a blizzard in tow. Dropping several feet of snow in the Hudson Valley. I remember it well. It was January 19, 2002. The same day as Snow Bowl II or the Tuck Rule game between the Patriots and the Raiders. Growing up on the lake effect snow shores of Lake Erie, the Abominable Snowman couldn’t keep me away. This was my bud, his going away party, and like the NFL, it was game on.
I got to his house early, the snow hadn’t stopped from the night before. It was a task to navigate my non 4WD Ford Ranger through the blizzard. A dogsled team would have fared better for the 5-mile drive. Upon entering his house I shed my layers and went to the kitchen. There on the counter were two hefty turkeys. “First rule when deep frying a turkey, room temp and patted dry.” T Bone instructed me.
“Now check this out.” As he opened a drawer and pulled out an enormous syringe. This thing belonged in Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory. It was monster. The chamber was the length, and about half the circumference of a toilet paper roll. The needle, the size of 16 common nail.
“This is the Cajun Injector.” He spoke. “This is the company I’m going to go work for.”
“Damn, well, they got the right guy for the job. Mr. Cajun himself.” I replied.
T Bone told me to help myself and whip up a batch of something tasty to inject into the birds. Like a kid with a new toy, I couldn’t wait to play with it. While looking through the kitchen I noticed an assortment of cast iron skillets in various sizes, some clearly weathered.
“You have every size cast iron skillet known to man”
T Bone picked up a couple of those skillets and began to tell stories. Treasured possessions, they were his grandmas, or her grandmothers, going back generations. In that moment those days when I shadowed him at the CIA, his lectures, his love, his life, it effloresced. I smelled the chocolate brown roux, the trinity, the heady sweetness of garlic. Mr. Cajun Injector pierced my Northern soul not only with a highly specialized regional cuisine, but a lifestyle. Centuries ago, when the English booted the French out of Acadia during the Seven Years’ War in the far northeastern stretches of North America. They went south and settled with frontiersman and Indians on the bayou. The Indians could not say Acadian. But they could say Cajun, and we have been saying it ever since.
I injected one bird with a bourbon chili marinade. The other with a maple syrup brine.
I set up the two deep frying rigs outside and filled the pots just shy of half full of peanut oil. Attached clip on thermometers fired up the propane waited until the oil registered 325° and slowly lowered the birds into the oil. It was on autopilot now, just tweaking the valve to maintain a constant 325°. Pull the birds at an internal temp of 155° and the carryover cooking will raise it to 165°
Guests began to arrive, slowly. The blizzard affected the turnout, but as T Bone said, “Those meant to be here, will be here.” About a dozen guests braved the elements to attend. But those 12 more than made up for the 150 plus that didn’t attend.
Singing, dancing, drinking. The turkey was succulent. I was thrilled at the finished product. “T Bone the turkey is great, people are loving it, thank you for turning me on to it.”
“Turning you onto what?”
“The deep-fried turkey.”
“Oh, oh, oh, ok, I’ve turned so many people onto so many different things I wasn’t sure what you were speaking of.”
We laughed as he jostled the logs in the fireplace bringing warmth to the handful of loving souls there to send him off. The party rolled into the wee hours of the morning with a few guests spending the night. A wise decision to sleep away their inebriated state as the blizzard continued to rage.
About a year and a half had passed since T Bone relocated to Louisiana. He called asking if I wanted to join him in NOLA assisting with some catering during Jazz Fest. I jumped at the chance. Hopped on a jet from NYC to Naw’Leans.
T Bone picked me up at the airport. First stop, drive through daiquiri. Only in Louisiana, as T Bone would say, “My people.” That was a first for me. The state of Louisiana, all but promoting drinking and driving. Remember, never drink and drive. You might spill something. We ordered a couple of electric lemonade’s made with 190 proof. They were hefty, 64 ounces worth of frozen libation to geaux. We merged onto the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. It is the single largest bridge over open water in the world. Spanning just shy of 24 miles. We hit Mandeville, pulling into a gas station. “Let’s get a couple of po’boys.” T Bone suggested. Less than an hour after touching down at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport I’m catching a brain freeze from high-octane frozen lemonade, devouring a shrimp po’boy orchestrated by a local boy tour guide. An unwonted experience began to unfurl. When we arrived at T Bones house there were several cars in the driveway.
“Hey everybody.” T Bone said to a group of about 15 people. “This is Otto, we used to work together at the CIA.” Although it wasn’t an exclusive party for me, T Bone decided to have a get together and welcome me to the bayou. I made my way around the house making introductions. Jack, a stocky man, thick black round glasses, long salt & pepper hair in a ponytail said. “Terrell, what the hell kind of name is Otto?” “That ain’t no Cajun name.” “If he’s going be cooking during Jazz Fest he needs a Cajun name.” “How about Otteaux, with an e a u x?” “That’s perfect.” T Bone laughing in agreement along with his buddies nodding and some giving a thumbs up. I rolled with it, as Otteaux was officially welcomed by the T Bone Krewe.
To the unknowing, Jazz Fest is a two-weekend affair. For my money, it’s the best damn party in America. If you have never been, GEAUX, period. It’s always the last weekend in April, and the first weekend in May. I helped T Bone prepare meals for several of the artists who were performing, mostly at the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Preforming Arts. One of the more humorous moments was cooking for Floetry. An English female R & B duo who were vegetarians with strict dietary requests. I never heard of them; they still haven’t received their 15 minutes. They provided T Bone with a vegetarian meat loaf recipe which he delegated to me. Gloved up, I mixed the vat of veggies, legumes and rice as dictated by the recipe. I tasted it, was as flat as cardboard. Adding more seasoning, especially salt it remained tasteless. I blended in some roasted garlic, still not much success. Breaking out the microplane I glided a lemon over the razor teeth to impart a burst of brightness to the beige blandness.
Striking out, I called for assistance. “Hey Chef.” Calling out to T Bone. “Taste this.” Handing him a disposable spoon. Taking a bite, cocking his head, “What the hells that?” “That’s the vegetarian meatloaf.” Explaining the steps I took outside the recipe to create a flavorful product. He stared at me, pausing. I looked beyond his amber eyes, the cogs in his chef brain were engaged seeking a solution.
“Do you know what that needs?” He asked.
“About ten pounds of ground beef.”
I chuckled at the suggestion. Tossed in a healthy bunch of chopped parsley. Formed a loaf and brushed a heavy coat of egg wash and voilà, a veggie loaf, not a vegetarian meatloaf. That’s damn near blasphemy.
It was a thrill to assist T Bone. I cooked for Etta James, BB King, Carlos Santana, and Lenny Kravitz. It was a long, but rewarding, and thrilling week as Jazz Fest 2004 ended on May 2. I was flying back to NY the next day. T Bone had one more act of Cajun kindness in him. In the words of Old Blue Eyes, the best is yet to come.
“Otteaux, were going for a ride.”
“Great.” I didn’t realize it would involve a Colonel and a boat.
The witching hour was near. T Bone packed a small cooler and we headed to the boat launch nearby his house. Casting off the line we stepped into his dinghy. Yanking the pull cord on the outboard motor, streetlights behind us, we began to slip into the darkness. Guided by lunar light reflecting off the brackish water. Soaring cypress trees, the sentinels of the swamp created an eerie aura. The stillness of Spanish Moss. Dangling, reminiscent of cobwebs giving thought to what was beyond. We were immersed in the bayou. The cypress hugging each other forming a canopy. Pin lights of the moon pierced their feathery leaves. Indeed enthralling and soul stirring.
T Bone cut the motor. “Otteaux, welcome to my back yard” “This is where I grew up.” When I was a kid I would come out here and relax, it’s so quiet, so peaceful.” “I would contemplate life, why was I born here?” “What am I doing here?” “The older I got the more I realized how special this area is and while I have left this place, and may leave again, it will never leave me.”
He proceeded to open the cooler. Reaching blindly removing a pouch. “My brotha.” I have been waiting for the right moment to crack this open, the time has come to have a drink with the Colonel.” He pulled out a bottle of Blanton’s Bourbon. That Colonel was Colonel Blanton, an honorary title and common moniker in Kentucky. I was about to get a lesson in the blackness of the bayou.
T Bone reached for two disposable cups, put a couple of cubes in each and cracked the lid on this unique single barrel spirit. He began to tell me the history of this prized corn mash liquor. It is aged 6-8 years. The distillery tops off each bottle with one of eight different stoppers. Each stopper has a letter stamped on it along with a figurine of a jockey on a horse in various stances. From inside the gate, racing, and at the finish line in a winning pose. Each bottle is sealed with a tamper proof black wax seal. When placed in order the stoppers spell B L A N T O N S. Nice touch, slick marketing and added cost to the final production. But that, along with what’s inside sets the Colonel apart from mass-produced pedestrian bourbon.
I’m not caramel color cocktail connoisseur. I prefer clear liquids, namely vodka which I refer to as potato water. But the Colonel and I got along just fine. Big oak up front, a hint of vanilla and tinge of warm spices. It was smooth down the gullet. The flavor was enhanced as T Bone told the tale. Indeed, it was liquid artisan. He handed me a flashlight as he opened the cooler. Inside, fresh from the Gulf, oysters. He pulled out a knife and started shucking. He began to extol the righteousness of oyster eating.
“Now I know up east they’ll put mignonette sauce on em, or lemon, or Heaven forbid cocktail sauce.” “I’ve read about these chefs in South Beach making mango salsa, mojito mignonette, or rum granita.” “What the fuck is that?” “It’s an oyster, such purity in its simplest form.” “Why you wanna put some sauce on it?” “Its like putting ketchup on steak.”
Never thought I’d be chasing oysters with bourbon, and I never have since. Two chefs, brothers from other mothers, swapping kitchen stories, where we have been, where we want to go. We killed the Colonel that night. Knowing Terrell all too well, it was no prisoners. That enchanted evening, minus the obligatory dunking in the blackwater I was baptized as an Cajun. From the daquiri and po’boy, the name change, the catering at Jazz Fest, right on up to the midnight swamp safari. There was a price to pay for that christening, the next day was hell. With an early morning flight, between the bourbon and the oysters I was green around the gills. So dehydrated I could have drunk half of Lake Pontchartrain.
Just as T Bone surreptitiously promised, “When you come to Louisiana.” He knew what he was doing all along. He loved people and introducing them to different things. He had an insatiable appetite for life. I saw T Bone over the years in NOLA. In Las Vegas in 05 when he evacuated after Katrina to San Francisco. He stopped by for a few days to visit on his way to that city by the bay. The last time I saw him was in San Francisco, September 2015 at the Pacific Heights Wine and Food Festival. We kept in touch via phone and social media, always looking forward to the next time.
That next time never came. I received a call from a mutual friend informing me Terrell passed away in his sleep. Sometime on the night of March 4 or the day of March 5. Just 58 years young. Although he claimed to be 60. He liked to round up to demonstrate to people how good he looked for his age. Terrell was a lot of things to a lot of people. Son, brother, uncle, husband, father, chef, mentor, teacher, friend, bon vivant, adventurer, gastronome. He was an animal who loved his Tigers and a sinner who prayed for his Saints.
Authentic, unpretentious, kind, and caring. A Southern gent who could rock a linen suit and chapeau or a punk who rolled in Levi’s and leather. Well read, a traveler, lover of arts and humanities. He was an unabashed Cajun. His roots extensive as the bayou. A soul as sweet and sturdy as sugar cane. My life was blessed to call T Bone a friend.
Heaven received a great cook. A character with a heart as big as a cauldron. RIP T Bone. As he would say, “I’m gawn pih’kwan.”