It Takes Toups
It's 10:30 a.m., and a Cajun man is drinking beer and singing Waylon Jennings in our Test Kitchen: "Amanda, light of my life / Fate should have made you a gentleman's wife."
"And then he goes into the harmony. I butcher that, so I'm just going to leave that alone. You're very welcome."
It's Top Chef contestant and Southern Louisiana pig whisperer Isaac Toups. He's in New York with his wife, Amanda, to eat at some of the city's best restaurants (Bâtard, Peter Luger, Ssäm Bar), party with friends and make some damn good food edutainment, like the video above in which he whips together rouxed peas with tasso ham (see the recipe).
Isaac and Amanda own Toups' Meatery, a meat-centric restaurant in New Orleans specializing in authentic Cajun cuisine. Not Cajun-Creole-Spanish-French-African fusion, as he'll tell you, but straight Cajun. Their meat board has inspired raving posts and Instagrams, and Amanda has entertained guests by pouring whiskey through a cow's leg bone into their mouths as a sort of morbid ice luge. They like to have fun.
"This is a cheater dish my grandma would make as a kitchen hack," Isaac says, chopping onions. "She'd make it when she didn't feel like cooking roux from scratch for a side dish." Instant rouxed peas is a Depression-era side families cooked when they needed to stretch their gravy, peas and ham. To make it, Isaac prefers Tony Chachere's instant roux, a shortcut that's totally acceptable if you're throwing together a quick side like this at home, he says, but sacrilegious if you're making something bigger like gumbo.
Isaac holds up two peppers, one red, one green. "Real quick!" he says. "Which one's green?" Amanda tells him. "He's color blind," she says.
Next comes the garlic, which Isaac smashes with glee. Imagine a cartoon in which a lumbering giant terrorizes helpless villagers in the Middle Ages. Isaac is the giant, and his ingredients are the villagers. "Everybody peels garlic cloves way too froufrou," he says. "A little violence is OK. You know, violence isn't the answer, but sometimes it's the only answer."
He tosses the cloves into the pan. By this point, the vegetables are caramelizing, and the kitchen is filled with that unmistakable Cajun-food smell. "Your vegetables are done when they stop burning your eyes," he says. "Stick your face in like this—ahhh, my eyes don't burn."
Then Isaac starts singing a Jerry Reed song, just 'cause: "Amos Moses was a Cajun / He lived by his self in the swamp / He hunted alligator for a livin' / He just knock 'em in the head with a stump."
As you can probably tell, watching Isaac cook is pure joy. His energy is contagious, and he's full of little quips: "I'm born and braised in South Louisiana." When adding the roux: "Then add your two tablespoons. I'm not measuring, 'cause I don't need to. You do. Or you probably do. You're not Justin Wilson. Neither am I, but, hey, I'm the closest thing to it." When we were setting up the cameras: "Look, I'm easy. My wife's cool. I'll beat the shit out of you. My wife will shit on your whole life."
Oh, and let's not forget this one: "My favorite tool is my handmade wooden spoon. I made it from an oak stump. Took me several weekends to make it. I carved it with a pocket knife, sanded it down with sandpaper and etched my name into it. It's near as hard as steel. My spoon can snap ceramic into pieces. I oil-cured it, too. You could fend off a bear with it. It's a marauding weapon."
Overall, Isaac is easygoing, but if there's one thing that gets him riled up, it's subpar food in New Orleans. What he would change about the city's restaurants: "I'd get rid of the shitty food," he says. "Every food scene everywhere on the planet—France, Italy, New York, Cali—there's always some restaurant serving shit food with a line wrapped around the door. Everybody knows one of those restaurants. You see a line, and you think, That place sucks. Why is there a line? Because there's a line."
He goes on: "If you're cooking out of the bag, and you're warming it up and serving it, that's not cooking. If that's your thing, be honest about it. Say, 'We cook out of the bag. We suck.'"
By this point, the peas and ham are simmering and ready to be tasted. "Once it's simmered for at least a couple minutes, it's done," Isaac says. "You can keep simmering it to intensify the pork flavor of your broth."
We taste the dish and nod happily in approval. The peas and ham are perfect: not too salty, not overcooked and just spicy enough.
Isaac wraps the shoot up with a bow in the form of a little sound bite: "That took about 10 minutes total. It's quick, it's easy, it's Cajun. And more important than any of that, it's f*cking delicious."
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