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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Frenchman Eric Damidot has had no trouble adapting to his new home in New Orleans, easily connecting his classical French training with the gumbo, muffaletta and other famous foods from the Crescent City.
After spending nine years in Las Vegas, the 41-year-old is the head chef at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, which reopened last October after a $275 million renovation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Damidot, who has two decades of experience around the globe, spoke to Reuters about New Orleans' dining scene, different cooking techniques and preparations for Mardi Gras.
Q: How would you describe your cooking style?
A: "I like to say I'm farmer-to-table. I like people to recognize the food and ingredients on their plate. I don't like to make it too complicated so you won't see the carrots or the beets. I like to make the flavors harmonious based on the season."
Q: What adjustments did you make since you moved here?
A: "The food here is very local. We have even more flexibility here than in Las Vegas. We would be using products that we would not in Nevada. There are rabbits, whole hogs, whole lambs, alligators and crawfish. Those ingredients are much more used here than they are in Las Vegas. So as a chef coming from Europe, it's a blessing to use pork shanks and braise them. It's refreshing for me after nine years in Vegas to able to do that again."
Q: So it wasn't much of a stretch for you to combine your classical techniques with using local Louisiana ingredients?
A: "It's good and it's challenging. It brings back memories learning to cook back in France 20 years ago. There are a lot of popular dishes here that people really like to see. I bring some of those techniques like braising, cooking slowly, poaching and having those kinds of ingredients locally here based on the seasons. Being able to do that and use those techniques that I learned before. For example, the pork belly, we could braise and cook it more slowly for approximately 12 to 14 hours with some local spices that would make the meat very succulent and tasty."
Q: What common ground do French and New Orleans cooking share?
A: "A lot of the famous places like those run by famous chefs like John Besh, they use a lot of those (classical) techniques. The ingredients are important ... I can see we do a lot of confit, braising and stewing more than any other states. In Nevada and California, it's more about searing and broiling. Over here it's more about those three techniques. We do a lot of the leg confits. We even confit some rabbits, which are more local. In the summer, we go lighter on those techniques since it's hotter and more humid here."
Q: How do you ensure the local seafood you receive is safe after the BP oil spill?
A: "The Gulf Coast seafood has been the most tested and scrutinized. It's checked on a daily basis for quality. When I speak directly to the salesman of our fish company, we speak about that every day. The government more than ever checks on all the seafood from the Gulf Coast."
Q: How do you compare the dining scene in New Orleans with Las Vegas and France?
A: "One thing shocking for me coming from Las Vegas is that New Orleans is very similar to New York. The restaurants in New Orleans, if they are not closed, are packed every night, whether it's a Monday night or a Wednesday night. You go to any place, it is busy. I say the difference between Las Vegas and New Orleans is the volume of local business we can get. People in New Orleans like to go out. They like to eat and drink. Even with Katrina six years ago, there are more than 1,200 restaurants in New Orleans which are still a lot."
Q: You are in Mardi Gras season. What special dishes are you preparing for the occasion?
A: "We expect families to come here for Mardi Gras and the parades. One of the things is the muffaletta. That is the international name that everyone knows comes from New Orleans. People don't know that it really came from Italy. I want to promote that for Mardi Gras. It could be eaten cold or it could be warmed up if you want to. You can bring that and watch the parade all day. There are also the King cakes. We love to do barbecue here. We could make it portable and bring it to the parade. There are also broiled oysters."
Classic Muffaletta (Serves one)
Brioche Bun, split in half
3 tbsp. olive Salad (recipe below)
2 oz. capicola, shaved
2 oz. salami, sliced 1/16-inch
2 oz. pepperoni, sliced 1/16-inch
2 oz. ham, sliced 1/80-inch
1 oz. emmenthal Swiss, sliced 1/8-inch
1 oz. provolone, sliced 1/8-inch
1. Warm the bun in the oven, do not toast.
2. Spread olive salad on both top and bottom of bread, 1/8-inch thick.
3. Layer the meats and cheeses.
1 tbsp. green Olives, not stuffed
1 tbsp. kalamata Olive, pitted
1 tbsp. picchonline Olive
1/4 cup olive Oil
1 tbsp. red Bell Pepper, roasted and diced
1/4 tsp. garlic, minced
1/4 tsp parsley, minced
3 thyme leaves
1/4 tsp Rosemary, minced
1/4 tsp. fresh oregano, minced
1. Wash all olives.
2. Place ½ of olives and ½ of garlic in the food processor and pulse scraping down the sides as needed.
3. Continue to pulse until olives are broken down, but not a paste.
4. In a steady stream add olive oil.
5. Remove tapenade to mixing bowl and fold in peppers and herbs.
6. Rough chop the remaining olives and fold into tapenade.
Reporting by Richard Leong; editing by Patricia Reaney