Chop Talk: Cory Bahr urges small-town food stops

Cory Bahr

Chef Cory Bahr/ photo courtesy of Chef Cory Bahr

It makes Cory Bahr angry when people blow through the small cities of the South on a tear to reach New Orleans or Nashville or the region’s other culinary giants.

But Bahr’s having the last laugh. The 37-year-old chef-owner of Restaurant Cotton in Monroe, La., was just named “Food and Wine” magazine’s people’s choice chef for the Gulf Coast — even though he’s further from the coast than any of the other contestants. Monroe, population 49,000, is closer to Little Rock, Ark., and Jackson, Miss., than it is to the Big Easy. And so is its food.

Bahr serves what he calls “North delta fare,” an homage to game and grits and to the food cooked by the grandparents who raised him. At Nonna, his Italian-inspired restaurant that opened in March, he combines southern ingredients with Italian technique. Bahr talked with American Food Roots editor Michele Kayal about collard greens, camp food and the A&E television show “Duck Dynasty.”

American Food Roots: Congratulations on being named a Food and Wine people’s choice chef. What does your food capture that speaks to people?

Cory Bahr: When we look at the food at Cotton or Nonna, it’s all about being true to who we are. Nonna is an Italian restaurant at its heart, but it projects this regional fare. It’s a southern restaurant using Italian technique. It’s real food. It’s our food.

AFR: What does that mean, to be Italian but also southern?

CB: Our sausage soup — we use collard greens. We don’t use it to be kitschy, we use it because it is damn good and that’s what we enjoy using. The flavor profile is Italian but we use southern style condiments like pepper vinegar, pickled green tomatoes and things like that.

AFR: Nonna means grandmother in Italian. Is the restaurant named for your grandmother?

CB: Truly, my grandmother has played a large role in who I am as a chef. I wanted to honor that. After a little research and talking to Italian-American friends, their grandmothers were “nonnas.”

AFR: You like to say that you cook “north delta fare.” What does that mean? What are its essential elements?

CB: The way north delta or north Louisiana food differs from southern Louisiana food is in the ingredients we use. We use a lot of things that are not as prevalent in southern Louisiana. It’s more agrarian. It was farm-to-table before farm-to-table was cool. We ate from the garden, we ate from the field. When I was raised by my grandparents, that’s how we did things. There was always cornbread on the table and you didn’t eat strawberries in January. What we had was what we had. My grandfather, hunting and fishing with him, we ate what we caught.

AFR: Monroe is closer to Little Rock and Jackson, Miss., than to New Orleans. How does that play into north delta fare?

CB: It plays into the food in a lot of ways. Cornbread is a big thing with us. We ate collard greens, fried catfish, fried chicken. It was truly southern food. Grits were an item served for breakfast as well as dinner. Also, my grandparents, they were from Oxford, Miss. We grew up canning and preserving everything. As things came into season, it was always a race to preserve those things as fast as we could. We do that at Cotton all the time . … People think of gumbo, well that’s not really what we grew up with. It was turnips and cabbage and pork chops and cornbread. That was our food.

AFR: How is that different from other southern food?

CB: We we have a hunting culture. We eat a very wide variety of game meats here. On our menu at Cotton you can find rabbit and venison because that’s what we ate. You find quail, local alligator meat and a snapping turtle Bolognese. A river runs right through our city. But the way it really differs is with our game. That’s who we are. We grew up hunting rabbits and quail and deer and doves and turkeys. Other people didn’t grow up with that.

AFR: You’ve got “north delta bouillabaisse” on the menu. What makes it “north delta?”

cotton

Cory Bahr’s restaurant, Cotton, is in Monroe, La. / Photo courtesy of Cotton restaurant

CB: What makes it north delta for me is using all local produce. We have fennel, that’s in there. It really rotates around what we have locally and seasonally. … We’re not using local seafood, not river seafood, because it’s not commercially fished . … Being this far from the gulf — 400 miles — we have a fishing culture, but it’s recreational. Even the harvesting of catfish, we don’t have what they have. Because it hasn’t been part of our culture. Our culture is pigs and chickens, not oysters and shrimp.

AFR: You’ve also got Muscovy duck wraps on the menu that are described as “duck camp food.” What does that mean?

CB: It’s the tenderloin of the duck, the small strip close to the breastbone. It takes two-and-a-half ducks to make an order of duck wraps. We serve five to an order. We serve 12,000 orders a year. That’s a lot of duck.

We take this beautiful smoked bacon, Creole cream cheese and house jalapeno cream cheese, roll it in with duck. You get chargrilled smoky bacon with this creamy, spicy beautiful center, glazed with honey. It’s a perfect bite. It’s salty, it’s sweet, it’s creamy. That’s duck camp food. That’s what we grew up eating at duck camp. A bunch of guys get together, we’ve had a couple of whiskeys, we’re trying to figure out what to make. You’re going to wrap something in bacon and you’re going to bake it.

Table Long.jpg

Cotton features a long, family-style table. / Photo courtesy of Cotton restaurant

AFR: Just a couple more menu items. You’ve got venison schnitzel with sweet potatoes and bourbon mustard. I’ve heard of pork and obviously veal, but never venison schnitzel.

CB: I’m of German heritage. So those things — turnips and cabbage and potato — those things are all really near and dear. In Germany, deer hunting used to be very, very big. That’s really crossing both heritages, being from the south and being of German descent. … I’m actually German-Scott. That’s a funny kind of migratory thing. On my mother’s side they came to United States in the late 1600s to Orange County, N.C., and migrated to the northern part of Mississippi. We’ve got huge roots there, they go so deep. On my father’s side of the family, my grandfather emigrated from Germany to New York. It’s so strange. They’re from the Bronx. I was raised by my mom’s family, by the Scots.

AFR: And Arkansas grits — is that a style of grits or are they actually from Arkansas?

CB: Arkansas grits, they’re from Rogers, Ark., all organic corn, from War Eagle Mill. Let me tell you something cool about these grits: in these days of instant gratification and instant grits, it’s a damn joke. People get a distillation of grits. It’s poor people food, but it’s so much more. These grits, you gotta put them in a slow cooker, you gotta love ‘em. You gotta soak ‘em over night. They’re not your supermarket grits. It’s someone who actually gives a damn about the corn they grow. It’s such a greater connection with the food.

AFR: OK, last thing in my Yankee education. Your menu features north delta shrimp and grits, which includes something called “trinity.” What’s “trinity?”

CB: “Trinity” is the building blocks of Louisiana food. Mirepoix to the French is celery, carrot, onion. In Louisiana, we don’t grow great carrots. We substitute in bell peppers — that beautiful African fruit — for the carrots. We got onions, celery and bell pepper. It’s the mortar that holds the cuisines. It’s true across Louisiana, doesn’t matter what corner of Louisiana you’re from, unless it’s Shreveport, which is more like occupied Texas.

AFR: I guess I’m supposed to ask you about Duck Dynasty, which is filmed in Monroe, and for which you did a bonus feature on the show’s DVD. What do you and the Duck Dynasty folks have in common?

CB: The commonality is in our area, you have to be an entrepreneur. There’s not this opportunity with major companies, other than Century Link, a Fortune 50 company in Monroe. … That’s where my drive comes from. We share that. Where we may differ is I want to change the way people think about food in Louisiana and the South. I get kind of riled up when I start thinking about where most journalists spend their time in the major cities. That’s not what southern food is about. It’s about where can you get the best fried chicken, the best buttermilk biscuits and they’re not all in the same town.

What would solve the problem of losing the vibrancy of our southern food and southern heritage would be for journalists to pay attention to these small towns. To me, trips home were about stopping here for the best pulled pork sandwich, stopping there for coconut cake. We’re losing that because these wonderful chefs produced in small cities in the South are only seeing this recognition being doled out in these big cities. We’re losing this homegrown food culture. You can take any small southern city with a population of 30,000 and below, and there’s more good cooks in that city than in may big cities.

That’s the beautiful thing about it. Once these small cities start realizing they can keep pace, they’ll have a renaissance.

That’s coming. I see it in my city. I’m hearing about it in other cities. It is being led by the culture of artists, whether it’s food or canvas or words. These young people who’ve been out there and spread their wings are seeing opportunity that wasn’t available 10 years ago and they’re moving back because they want to be home.

Chop Talk is an occasional series in which American Food Roots talks with food newsmakers about issues of current interest.

Makes 6 servings

Cory Bahr’s Buttermilk Fried Quail

Cory Bahr, chef-owner at Restaurant Cotton in Monroe, La., serves "north delta fare," a cuisine full of game and grits. This recipe combines both. Bahr recommends serving this upscale take on fried chicken with North Delta Collard Greens, Stone Ground Grits and Root Beer Red Eye Gravy.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons, plus 1/4 cup chicken seasoning, separated
  • 10 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cornstarch
  • 6 boneless quail
  • Canola oil, for frying

Instructions

Before starting this recipe, prepare Chicken Seasoning, Stone Ground Grits, Root Beer Red Eye Gravy and North Delta Collard Greens.

To make the quail, prepare the egg wash by whisking together the buttermilk, eggs and 2 tablespoons of chicken seasoning in a medium-sized bowl. Keep chilled.

Prepare the fry flour by whisking together 1/4 cup chicken seasoning, flour and cornstarch.

Season quail with salt and pepper. In a deep fryer or deep, heavy-bottomed pot, heat canola oil to 350 F. Dip quail in egg wash, then in fry flour until well coated. Fry in the oil 5 to 7 minutes, until golden brown. Let quail drain on paper towels.

To serve, place 1/4 cup of grits on a plate. Top with about 1/4 cup of collard greens and a half of each quail (keep the rest warm for seconds). Ladle sauce over the bird. Serve to appreciative audience.

Makes 2 cups

Cory Bahr’s Chicken Seasoning

This spicy, salty, peppery mix gives Chef Cory Bahr's Buttermilk Fried Quail a punch. We're guessing it goes great on chicken, though as well.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup paprika
  • 2 tablespoons cayenne
  • 3 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 3 tablespoons onion powder

Instructions

Combine all ingredients. Store in an airtight container, refrigerated, up to 3 months.

Makes 6 servings

Cory Bahr’s Root Beer Red Eye Gravy

Cory Bahr, chef-owner of Restaurant Cotton in Monroe, La., serves this sweet-spicy take on red-eye gravy with his Buttermilk Fried Quail. Recipe courtesy of Cory Bahr.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound Andouille sausage, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 1 cup shallots, diced
  • 1 cup tomatoes, diced
  • 1 cup black coffee
  • 1 cup root beer
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 quart cane syrup
  • Salt to taste

Instructions

In a 1-gallon stainless steel pot over medium heat, gently cook Andouille sausage until fat is rendered and meat is crisp. Drain the fat.

Add shallots and tomatoes and cook until shallots are translucent.

Add coffee and root beer to the pot, and scrape the brown bits off the sides and bottom to get all the good stuff. Reduce the liquid by 2/3, until about 2 cups remain. Once reduced, add cane syrup and simmer for 20 minutes until slightly thickened. The gravy is done when it coats the back of a spoon. Add salt to taste.

Makes 6 servings

Cory Bahr’s Stone-Ground Grits

Cory Bahr, chef-owner at Restaurant Cotton in Monroe, La., uses these grits as a soft, creamy bed under his Buttermilk Fried Quail. He likes the grits from War Eagle Mill, in Rogers, Ark. Recipe courtesy of Cory Bahr.

Ingredients

  • 8 cups whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 cups stone ground grits
  • 2 jalapenos, seeded and diced
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, diced
  • 1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese
  • Salt, to taste
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Instructions

Bring milk to a simmer with salt, then slowly whisk in grits and jalapenos. Simmer until grits are tender, about 30-45 minutes, whisking occasionally, then turn down heat.

Stir in butter until melted. Using a rubber spatula, fold in cream cheese. Adjust salt and pepper as necessary.

Makes 6 servings

North Delta Collard Greens

Steen's Cane Syrup is a southern staple, and one that Chef Cory Bahr likes to use in his north delta cooking. He serves these greens alongside his Buttermilk Fried Quail. Recipe courtesy of Cory Bahr.

Ingredients

  • 1 large yellow onion, medium diced
  • 1/2 cup Steen’s Cane Syrup
  • 1 smoked ham hock, about 4 ounces
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/2 gallons water
  • 2 jalapenos, sliced into rounds
  • 2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 3 bunches collard greens, rough chopped, stems removed, about 8 cups
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

Instructions

In a large stock pot, sauté the onions for 3 to 4 minutes, until just translucent. Add cane syrup and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes, until syrup gets bubbly. Add ham hock, red pepper flakes, water, jalapenos and vinegar. Bring to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes.

Adjust with salt and pepper to taste. The stock should have a slight salty taste to it. Add collard greens and baking soda (to preserve color.) Simmer for 45 minutes, until greens are soft.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake in a Skillet

Chef Cory Bahr likes to say he went to the cooking school of grandmother's knee. The chef-owner of Restaurant Cotton in Monroe, La., never had a formal culinary education. But he was kind enough to share with us once of his grandmother's best-loved recipes. “We try all the time to replicate her pineapple cake," he says. "My grandmother would use a recipe as a guidepost, but then she’d put it down and roll with it.” This recipe comes courtesy of Bahr's grandmother, Earlie Carothers.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 2/3 cup light or dark brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1 (20-ounce) can pineapple slices, undrained
  • 2 large eggs, separated
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Instructions

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Melt butter in a 9-inch cast-iron skillet. Spread brown sugar evenly over the bottom of the skillet. Drain pineapple from can, reserving 1/4 cup of the juice and set the juice aside. Arrange pineapple slices in a single layer over brown sugar mixture and set skillet aside.

Beat egg yolks at medium speed with an electric mixer until thick and lemon-colored; then gradually add granulated sugar, beating well.

Take the reserved pineapple juice and heat it in a small saucepan over low heat. Gradually add the juice to the yolk mixture, and beat it until blended.

In a bowl, combine the flour, salt and baking powder; then add dry ingredients to the yolk mixture, beating at low speed with electric mixer until blended.

Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form; then fold egg whites into batter. Spoon batter evenly over pineapple slices.

Bake for 45 to 50 minutes.

Cool cake in the skillet for 30 minutes; invert cake onto a serving plate. Serve warm or cold with whipped cream or ice cream, if desired.

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