Homemade alligator sausage po-boy at Grand Isle — Photo courtesy of Grand IsleNothing is black and white in New Orleans, whether you’re talking food, music, politics or history. The difference between Cajun and Creole cuisine is no exception. Both styles of cooking share French roots and many of the same ingredients. Beyond that, it’s a matter of country style vs. city style, rustic and hearty fare vs. rich, sophisticated preparation.
Cajuns and Creoles
To understand their food, first understand their roots. Cajuns were French Acadians expelled for their Catholic beliefs in the 1700s from what is now Nova Scotia. Many settled in Acadiana, 22 parishes (counties) in southwest Louisiana. Surrounded by swamps, bayous and prairies, the Cajuns were isolated and lived off the land. Their culture remains alive and intense, evident in their language, music and rustic, hearty cuisine.
Creoles, on the other hand, were city folk originally from Europe who settled in New Orleans. Primarily French and Spanish, Creoles hailed from wealthy families and brought their own chefs from Madrid, Paris, and other European capitals. These chefs adapted classic cooking techniques to incorporate unfamiliar ingredients like mirliton, crawfish, pompano and snapper. Add into the equation the culinary influence of the enslaved Africans who served in these households, the influence of Choctaw Indians and immigrants from Ireland and Germany and a diverse gumbo indeed emerges.
Grand Isle executive chef Mark Falgoust has roots in Bayou Pigeon and Pierre Part, Louisiana — Photo courtesy of Grand Isle“Cajun folks used one chicken to feed three families, Creoles used three chickens to feed one family,” said chef Mark Falgoust, executive chef at Grand Isle restaurant across from the Convention Center and Harrah’s Casino. Although a native New Orleanian, Falgoust’s family roots are in Bayou Pigeon and Pierre Part and he’s Cajun through and through. “Our people held onto our culture. We had big families, hunted and fished, and didn’t use fancy ingredients or dairy in our food. To me, Cajun isn’t a bloodline, it’s a state of mind.” A Cajun gumbo typically is made with a darker oil-based roux and homemade sausage and chicken as well as seafood. “People think Cajun food is all spicy, but that’s not true at all,” said Falgoust. “Creole cooking is more refined all around. Creole gumbo uses butter in the roux, tomatoes and usually just seafood, no meat.”
Refined Creole shrimp at Arnaud's — Photo courtesy of Arnaud's“Cajun cuisine is rustic French country cooking, while Creole food boasts an air of sophistication, ever evolving and heavily influenced by European cultures,” said Tommy DiGiovanni, executive chef at Arnaud’s Restaurant, a bastion of Creole cookery in New Orleans since 1918.
According to Emeril Lagasse
Emeril's barbecue shrimp is the best of all worlds — Photo courtesy of Emeril's RestaurantsChefs being chefs, they are never happier than when they innovate. Hence, the overlap. “There are definitely differences between Creole and Cajun cuisine, but I see more and more of an overlap between the two, especially in New Orleans,” said chef Emeril Lagasse, a culinary force of nature who has put the international spotlight on New Orleans-style cuisine, now with 13 restaurants in his portfolio.
“Creole is a grand style of cuisine with delicate blends, sauces, and distinct courses," he says. "Cajuns use ingredients from the land, including fish, shellfish, ducks, frogs and nutria. But of course there's crossover, mostly seen in dishes with rice such as gumbo and jambalaya. Emeril Lagasse sees an overlap between Cajun and Creole cuisines
Isaac Toups, chef/owner of Toups' Meatery in New Orleans, hails from Rayne, Louisiana — Photo courtesy of Toups' MeateryChef Isaac Toups, who worked for Emeril for a decade before opening his own place, categorizes the food he serves at his Mid-City restaurant Toups' Meatery as contemporary Cajun. "I cook what I want" is the disclaimer which comes with Toups' meals. “It’s what happens when a Cajun boy like me spends 10 years in fine dining,” he says of his time with Lagasse, before striking out on his own in April 2012.
Toups, who hails from Rayne, Louisiana – "the frog capital of the world" - also sees the overlap between the two cuisines. “We’ve been confiting for years,” said the chef. “We just called it smothered. Emeril is a master at combining both styles.”
Fried cracklins at Toups' Meatery — Photo courtesy of Toups' MeateryOn Toups' menu, a dish like braised lamb neck with fennel and pickled mirliton over black-eyed peas is the best of both Creole and Cajun worlds. “We have incredible ingredients here in Louisiana. Farm to table, gulf to table, swamp to table, we have it all.”
Cochon: crawfish pie, fried alligator and rabbit and dumplings, Tasso
Grand Isle: house made gator sausage, turtle soup
K-Paul’s Kitchen: chicken and andouille gumbo, Cajun jambalaya, crawfish etouffe, blackened Louisiana drum
Toup’s Meatery: boudin balls, cracklins, daily sausage, dirty rice, hogs head cheese
Antoine’s: oysters Rockefeller, Creole gumbo, trout amandine
Arnaud’s: frog legs Provencale, shrimp Creole, pompano Duarte
Broussard’s: rabbit rillettes, filet gumbo, pecan crusted gulf shrimp
Galatoire's: trout meuniere, turtle soup, shrimp Remoulade
Tableau: turtle soup, seafood gumbo, eggs Sardou, Creole seafood stew
Places to eat Both
Commander’s Palace: Shrimp and Tasso henican, cracklins crusted rabbit saltimbocca, andouille crusted shrimp and grits
Emeril’s New Orleans: Barbecue shrimp, homemade andouille and boudin sausages, andouille crusted drum
Restaurant August: Chappapeela Farms duckling "dirty rice", larded loin of Sandy Hook rabbit, Gulf grouper "court bouillon"