On rare occasions, the home cook’s heritage, heroes, and hard work coalesce in one beautiful, greasy, delicious dish. And nothing, besides cholesterol-induced arterial clogging, is ever the same.
People who know me might’ve pegged Ossabawesomness or Cochon 555 or French Pig as my moments of food zen, but that was before the crusading ladies of Charcutepalooza challenged me to make Cajun-style smoked pork.
Cue David McCullough voiceover: This story starts in the fishing villages of eastern Canada. My maternal great grandparents, Patrick and Mary Ellen (Doucette) LeBlanc, were descended from the Acadians, French settlers who arrived in Nova Scotia in 1635. Three-quarters of a century later, during the British conquest of the area, the settlers were forcibly expelled and many LeBlancs and Doucettes relocated to Louisiana, where they established permanent communities including Acadia Parish, the home of Cajun culture. Our strain of the family took a shorter detour to Boston before returning to Nova Scotia, but somewhere deep in all of us, the Cajun connection was made.
I didn’t know any of this until I got a package in the mail last year from my mother with a note attached that said, “Surprise, you have Acadian roots!” Inside the package was a cookbook called Real Cajun by Chef Donald Link. If my memory serves me right, I flipped open the book to a picture of fried oysters with chili glaze and had a happy heart attack. From that point forward, I would’ve carried the book around like a pocket Constitution if I had pants big enough.
Chef Link has become my chef hero. Not because we share Acadian and German heritage. Not because Real Cajun won the 2010 James Beard Award for Best Book on American Cooking. Not because he received the Beard award for Best Chef: South in 2007. Not because I would live in his Cochon Butcher shop in New Orleans if the health code allowed it. Not even because his Taste of Place video cooking show on MSN features a series on Woodlands Pork. No, Chef Link inspires me most because he makes rustic, country food that is perfectly fit – I mean tailor made – for cooking and eating in the warm company of family. Rich smells. Simple flavors. Lots of meat and seafood, pork and oysters in particular. It seems impossible to build wrong on that foundation. It’s exactly the kind of fare that brings my own family together, hence the vision in my mind of my dad at Felix Oyster Bar in New Orleans with an other-worldy twinkle in his eye.
I slaved for two days making Chef Link’s gumbo and served it for my mom’s birthday, which fell during both her inaugural visit to the first home I bought and my parents’ first meeting with my soon-to-be mother-in-law. It was the best thing I’ve ever made with my own hands. My fiancé and I had a memorable night cooking his fried oysters in my chaotic old group house, and I think we ate them all at the stove before we could even get them into poboys. His boudin was the star attraction of the “Pork Smuggler” incident I wrote about a month ago. And for Charcutepalooza’s April challenge, I used his recipe to make tasso-spiced smoked pork for my Pig Foot Jambalaya, which I explain later.
You can imagine that I was a bit anxious when I found out I was going to have a chance to interview Chef Link for this piece. After a lot of back and forth with the courageous women who wrangle his media requests and scheduling, he called me and announced himself in a characteristically low-key way. I asked him first about Cajun food.
“It is very focused,” he said. “It’s simple, but not always easy; and highly-seasoned, but not always spicy. It’s more country-style, rustic, and meat-centric.” He then told me about his family heritage in Acadia Parish, using food for effect. “My dad’s people were German settlers that did rice and sausage; and my mom’s side is from Alabama, so that’s where the dumplings, ham hocks, and old Southern food came from.”
Link came back to that heritage, particularly the impact his grandfather had on him (something we also share), a lot during our conversation. I couldn’t help but wonder whether any Doucettes or LeBlancs ever crossed paths with Links and Zaunbrechers in Acadia Parish. Link writes beautifully of his roots in Real Cajun:
“[My two favorite things in the world are food and family]. I love the way the house smells when it’s buried in the rich aromas of roasted meats and freshly baked pies, and the way it feels to yearn for those tastes the entire day as the meal is being prepared. My grandparents, my mom, and my mother-in-law all prepared fantastic holiday dinners. Cooking these special meals is now my responsibility, and it’s the biggest honor I will ever have as a chef…”
The deep links to family tradition chased Link as he moved with his new wife, Amanda Hammack, to Northern California in the 1990s. In San Francisco, Link received a culinary degree and found work in some of the city’s top restaurants, where he strengthened his classical French and his appreciation for locally-sourced food. “I was the purchaser for Traci des Jardins at Jardiniere before the restaurant opened,” he said. “I spent months meeting farmers and producers. California is a dreamland in that respect and I got a good look at how food develops and where it comes from. Richard Reddington at Jardiniere was an inspiration, a great chef and a great friend who did soulful, rustic French cooking.”
Soon, Link grabbed the Executive Chef job at a ‘New Orleans’ restaurant called the Elite Café, where he threw out the original menu and really started to refine a Louisiana-French style that has become his trademark. Gumbo, jambalaya with duck confit, old school turtle soup, baked fish with crab, and chicken and dumplings highlighted his menu. Fast forward through a move back to Louisiana in the late-1990s and Link found himself at the helm of two outstandingly successful restaurants, Herbsaint, which he opened with Susan Spicer, and Cochon.
I’ve eaten at both, as well as Cochon Butcher (pictures below), and I am not exaggerating when I say I hope my last meal comes from one of them. If I had my choice, it’d be boudin cakes topped with fried oysters and smothered with slow roasted pork gravy. Happy heart attack.
The conversation quickly veered into the kingdom of my pork geekery, as Peter Kaminsky might say, when Link started talking about pigs and the work he is doing to help create a thriving base of local farms in Louisiana.
“We’re trying to create economies of scale for us and the farmer,” he said. “They’ve made a lot of progress on humane raising, but we want to work with the farmers to create a better model with better tasting product. Mangalitsa pigs are beautiful, but they aren’t economical. Berkshire hogs are great, but they have small litters and loin eyes. We’ve been working with a group of farmers to actually create a better breed cross. We’ve gotten deep into this idea of breeding a pig that is good for chops, bacon, and sausage. We waited for nine months for the first pig, and although some of the pieces were great and there was a decent fat cap, the hams and loins were dry. We’re looking for a long-term solution, and in 1-2 years we’ll have genetics, feed, living conditions, and space just right. I can find a great pig once or twice, but I need 500 of the same high quality pigs a year. That’s what we’re going for.”
As Link himself said, we could have gone on and on about the subject, but the gist was clear: this man cares a lot about pork done right and responsibly. He is using every bit of his influence to stand up new producers and strengthen the long list of local farms highlighted on the Link Restaurant Group website. He mentioned Caw Caw Creek Farm, the pioneering South Carolina institution, as a model.
Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Chef Link about tasso, the Charcutepalooza April challenge. “Tasso is a seasoning for pork really. When you want something milder than bacon or sausage, which can take over a dish, tasso-spiced pork is a much more subtle flavoring. White bean soup with it is great. Duck gumbo is good with it. Cream sauces with it are great.” I was pleased that I’d honored the product during my own experiment.
With each Charcutepalooza challenge, I’ve tried to get more creative, and April was another step forward. When it was announced that tasso was our task, I immediately pulled out Real Cajun and dug in, eventually deciding to make Link’s rustic jambalaya with homemade tasso and my Ossabaw andouille sausage.
I brined, rubbed, and smoked the pork shoulder ahead of time, per Chef Link’s recipe. The smell of tasso spice is an immediate reminder of Louisiana, and with each step in the process, it gets deeper. When I opened the Tupperware that housed the final product after smoking, my house filled with a wonderful, rich aroma (just enough to cover up the peppery, porky smell of the guanciale hanging in my kitchen).
During the long moments in between the various tasso stages, I stared into the refrigerator looking for a twist on the recipe. Behind the various jars of pickles sat my take on Fergus Henderson’s trotter gear, in all its jiggly, fatty glory. When I made it, there were honest questions in my mind about how I would ever be able to use it. But after a month or so, the pig skin and meat had settled in a jarred, confit embrace.
What better way to use it than as a substitute for chicken stock in Chef Link’s jambalaya recipe, to which I also added a Big Green Egg-roasted and pulled chicken? The end product was simple and delicious, with loud accents of spice and smoke that were balanced by the sweet Madeira base of the trotter gear. And every so often, you’d get a bite with a little confit pork treasure in it. It’s the kind of thing I can eat meal after meal, no doubt. And I did, before forcing a separation and giving the leftovers to a good friend. Luckily, I have a load of trotter stock and tasso left in the fridge for the next run.
I shared the jambalaya meal with my fiancée and a dear old friend at our kitchen table. It was a wonderful, comfortable meal, and I was reminded of why Donald Link is my chef hero. Later, my fiancée said, “Cajun food is the best food you make.” That’s all the support I need to keep cooking my way through Real Cajun. And of course I’ll be visiting Cochon Butcher during my bachelor party in New Orleans in two weeks. Maybe my death bed meal will be on the menu.
Sam Hiersteiner grew up in Kansas City, and the answer to your next question is “Arthur Bryant’s.” He lives in Washington, DC, where he consults for non-profits and foundations by day and entertains pipe dreams of becoming a butcher after dark. Read his full Sam’s Good Meats archive on HyperVocal.
Also, make sure to follow Sam on Twitter @samsgoodmeats.