Cooking up the best authentic Cajun gumbo is not hard, but it does require a few pointers. Spuddy Faucheux at Cajun Cooking Experience near New Orleans shared his world of cooking with us in a personal Cajun cooking class. Now, we’re sharing the cooking experience and his authentic chicken and sausage gumbo recipe with you.
Our van slid to a stop in a cloud of dust in front of Spuddy’s Cajun Foods, housed in a non-descript brick building, next door to an insurance agent, and across the street from the St. James Parish courthouse in Louisiana. We were late for our Cajun cooking class, and Spuddy was waiting for us – but he still sported his huge smile. Our Cajun Cooking Experience with Spuddy was awaiting, too. Oh, and we were already nursing growling tummies to boot.
After two days of touring plantations along the Mississippi River in the Rivers Parishes, I was definitely ready to roll up my sleeves and hang out cooking real food with a real guy offering a down-home experience. Forget chi-chi, highfalutin, schmantzy pantsy French Quarter dining. We wanted the real deal since Cajun cuisine at its roots is a rustic cooking style that uses local, seasonal ingredients. Spuddy was ready to give us that – and a whole lot more as a part of his hands-on Cajun Cooking Experience class in Vacherie, just off the Great River Road anless than an hour outside of New Orleans.
Food as an event in the Cajun world
In the Cajun world, food is an event, whether making it, sharing it, or eating it. And Spuddy Faucheux wants to make sure this too is clear when it comes to his beloved gumbo.
“Gumbo comes from your soul, not a recipe,” Spuddy espouses. “Cooking gumbo is like making love. Play your favorite music, dance, have your favorite drink, use your imagination, use the best of ingredients, cook with passion, and slow your roll.”
Well, we slowed. Boy, did we slow – we were supposed to hand with Spuddy about 2½ hours but were there closer to four! You see, once you get Spuddy rolling, it’s hard to put a brake on his passion or on his zest to share his love for smoking, stewing, sautéing, and eating good Cajun food. He epitomizes Cajun “joie de vivre.”
Of course, I’ve now skipped right on past the actual Cajun Cooking Experience in Louisiana with Spuddy, so let’s take a few steps back: Once we arrived at the plain brick building called Spuddy’s Cajun Foods, we were ushered into the back kitchen. Not some gleaming fancy demo chef’s kitchen, but the real deal where Spuddy creates his magic. He of course had prepared a few types of sausages for us to try to learn about the differences. To be frank, I’ve never been a sausage lover, but that tray of his quality smoked sausage and Andouille slices was devoured by the two of us in a flash -- and I most certainly had my share.
Real gumbo comes from the soul
Then it was on to explaining the various cuts of meat, including the layers of fat and chunks of skin that are used in some of the specialties. “There’s a reason for sausage,” Spuddy jokes. “It’s to get rid of your trash!” Well, not quite trash. Really, as he later explains, the original intent of using all of these items was to simply stretch out the food available. Even today there is no tried-and-true, one-and-only recipe for gumbo since it’s a matter of style, taste and seasonality.
Still, over time, a number of things generally holds true:
- The so-called “trinity” is nearly sacred -- That means the combo of green bell pepper, onion and celery. Don’t pass go without it, unless something is out-of-season or you just don’t like it, then punt.
- Making the “roux” is an art – If you don’t carefully watch the browning of this mix of flour and some kind of fat or oil, it’ll burn in a blink, and you just have to start all over. But if you don’t cook it long enough, you end up with a raw grain flavor. The first time I saw a cooking demo of roux I think I fell off my chair when I saw the amount of lard the woman used. We’ll talk about the fat/oil ingredient later.
- Spice is mandatory for adding afterward – OK, for those of us who didn’t grow up on the burning heat of Cajun food, you can use a bit of simple cayenne pepper, which Spuddy dismisses with a wave as “sissy pepper.” He was probably poking fun at us Californians.
- The innards and parts many people may normally toss are gold – necks, gizzards, tails, and the like are “where the flavor is,” Spuddy proselytizes.
In between the snacking, yakking and show-and-tell, we made sausage and we prepared gumbo. Spuddy had already simmered the stock with smoked turkey necks since it needs time (chicken head and wings are also possible). We did finish up the roux (that goes in a separate pan) and stirred in veggies. Once the roux is done, you add one spoonful after another and give it a stir after each addition until you get the thickness and flavor desired. Oh, and we also mushed together the meats to stuff into sausages for him to smoke – I got to work with the stuffing machine. My husband, Michael, most certainly enjoyed photographing me holding these large sausages.... STOP now!
We also quickly helped Spuddy at his Cajun Cooking Experience toss together a potato salad. Sure, we’d had potato salad served to us in New Orleans, but never realized the true tradition is a mandatory dollop (“soul in the bowl”) IN a bowl of gumbo. OK, served on the side if you must. Why? I asked, rather baffled. I was relieved to hear his answer: “I don’t know why. It’s the way mama did it.” Unfortunately, with our late arrival, we only got a glance at his smoker out the back door already hard at work for the next day. But, darn, the smell of the smoke made me want to pull up a chair and stay awhile.
The joie de vivre of cooking with Spuddy
Spuddy was not always a cook, although he knew from a very young age, he wanted to be an entrepreneur. Meanwhile, he became a computer programmer but in 1993 he decided to take a big step toward fulfilling his dream of working for himself. He bought the small brick building and the former mom-and-pop meat shop and grocery store and slowly transformed it into a family-style, locals-friendly restaurant. There had been no such restaurant in the Vacherie area for a couple of decades. A few years later, he acquired the building next door where the former owners had lived (in case you ask why there is a bathtub in the restroom).
And, if you were wondering about his name, “Spuddy” has nothing to do with potatoes; it is short for his nickname as a kid of “Sputnik” since he was born the year the Soviet satellite was launched. Sssh, his real name is Maitland, which he likes well enough, but nobody can pronounce it so “the first day of school each year was torture for me.” Now, he adds, “If somebody calls me Maitland, it means one of two things: It’s a telemarketer or they were in (elementary) school with me.”
Not as if he knew much about the meat business. Or cooking. He learned the ins and outs from the folks who sold him the business, then he brought in a team to teach him all the rest. “It was crazy what I did, really,” he says. No, not so crazy. He also wanted to bring back an outpost where the locals could pop in and eat affordably to Vacherie, where he was born, raised and still lives.
From running his meat shop and restaurant, Spuddy moved into the Cajun Cooking Experience cooking classes in summer 2019. We met him that fall. And of course, we all know what happened in early 2020 – COVID-19 struck, and the ensuing pandemic shut down most restaurants and that most certainly included activities like hands-on, face-to-face cooking classes. “I just told myself ‘wherever God takes me, I'm ok with it,’” he wrote in a recent email. “No panic, no worry. Just one day at a time.”
And then Spuddy pivoted. What else would Spuddy do? Once he could, he started selling take-out, expanded his online business to mail-order meats and merchandise from his Cajun Cooking Experience website’s online store, and he has started doing homespun cooking shows live on his Facebook page with his trademark Spuddy joie de vivre. As of early 2021, he told us there were nearly 100 shows archived on his Facebook page to teach “the tricks and tweaks of cooking these Cajun dishes. The uniqueness of the cooking shows is that I do the history of the foods we’re cooking.”
Then, in late 2020, the River Parishes kicked off the “Andouille Trail” marketing campaign, which Spuddy said has helped attract day-trippers and others in the area to his front door.
What is the future for Spuddy and his Cajun cooking class?
“What's the plan for 2021? One day at a time,” he wrote us. “Continue live cooking shows for sure. We've started serving plate lunches one day a week. And we'll build from there. We’ll continue our smoked meat business and shipping it.
“My Cajun Cooking Experience? I feel it will explode once the ‘normal’ returns, whatever that means,” he added. “Until then, I'll just enjoy and have fun in whatever I'm doing.”
And whatever Spuddy does mostly definitely promises the Cajun “lagniappe,” or that little something extra.
Spuddy’s Cajun Cooking Experience gumbo recipe
Gumbo has a mixed heritage. Okra-based soups stem from West Africa, although Spuddy doesn’t use okra. The concept of roux is from French cooking and lends a slightly nutty flavor. The “filé” additive you can sprinkle into your bowl afterward comes from ground sassafras leaves and flavors and thickens soups. Sausage and andouille have a German tradition. Spuddy’s mantra is always natural and high-quality ingredients and no MSG, so read your labels, he admonishes over and over.
This recipe, Spuddy stresses, is just a guide. “Do not be afraid of tweaking to your taste.”
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