Chef Isaac Toups, Toups’ Meatery, New Orleans
Chef Isaac Toups, twice named a James Beard “Best Chef of the South” Semi-finalist and a “Top Chef” contestant (along with other accolades), is as connected to Louisiana-style cooking as crawfish to a boil. He grew up deep in the heart of Cajun County, in Rayne, La, and learned the craft from his family, all of them skilled in the kitchen, though he particularly gives praise to his two grandmothers whose kitchens he was frequently an active participant in.
After working ten years at Emeril Lagasse’s famed New Orleans kitchens, he branched out on his own, opening Toups’ Meatery with his wife Amanda in 2012.
As he writes on the restaurant’s website: “All I have ever wanted to do is to offer my version of Cajun cuisine and to recreate the dining experience around my family’s table. It’s especially rewarding that our guests respond to what we’re doing.”
Indeed, replicating the “feel good” food memories of his youth — of everyone in the kitchen throwing together a meal, often from what they had hunted and gathered that day – forms the heart and soul of his cooking philosophy, albeit with some updated twists and variations.
“In Cajun cooking, the kitchen was a communal area,” he told Symrise. “It’s where I was always observing, asking questions, sticking my fingers into something … and getting my knuckles cracked for sticking my fingers in something.”
With his grandmothers now gone — though their portraits hang in tribute in his restaurant—he gets his inspiration not only from drawing on his past but from eating out as much as possible. “Reading doesn’t do it for me,” he said. “I’m one of those ‘in the field’ type of guys. I like going out to eat at other people’s houses or at a restaurant and thinking, ‘Man, this is delicious,’ and then thinking how I can create it and transform it into something else. Whether traveling in Europe or across town, it’s my favorite way of coming up with ideas.”
As for ingredients he likes to work with, it’s mainly whatever is seasonal and within a 50 mile radius of his North Carrollton Avenue restaurant. “I like working with seafood right out of the water, crawfish right out of the pond alive and kicking and pissed off, and pigs still warm from the butcher,” he said.
He’s also big on making things he likes to cook and prepare, a trait he learned from reading Chef Martin Picard. “I remember when his first book came out, he had this statement: ‘I only cook what I want to eat.’ And, I thought, that’s what I want to do too,” said Toups.
Which is why his restaurant is heavy on meat, including what he admits was a tough sell at first but has now proven popular: lamb neck. Venison, sweetbreads, and BBQ goat are also on his menu along with a daily sausage, hog head cheese and cracklins.
He said he’s always looking for something new, in particular different levels of heat — the hotter the better. Spices are something he’s often experimenting with; right now, it’s peppers from Syria.
One of his favorite things on his menu is his meatery board as the flavors are forever fresh and in flux, though always with a Cajun slant, meaning some aspect of smoking, salting and curing.
Still, when he’s home, and now that he has kids, he does a lot of scrambled eggs and tries to add some low carb/healthy element. So, while he’ll do a lot of braising — he loves braising beef short ribs or Cajun pork knuckle meat — he’ll add in something like a cauliflower puree.
Expect anything he makes to incorporate his favorite kitchen tool: a handmade wooden spoon he carved from a centerpiece of oak found from a New Orleans tree. “It took several weekends to do but it has this amazing curvature. It’s solid and thick and nearly indestructible,” he said.
No doubt, Grandma would be proud.