Mardi Gras traditionally offers the last blowout before a period of fasting and denial. This year’s bash in food-obsessed New Orleans also will mark the beginning of the end for “Treme,” the HBO series dramatizing the city’s struggles after Katrina. The show will wrap filming Feb. 12 on its fourth and final season, bringing an eventual halt to fans’ vicarious indulgences.
Besides playing up the city’s well known jazz and blues, the series dives into one of its most sacred traditions: the heady melange of Cajun and Creole foods that make Louisiana famous, from dirty rice and redfish to beignets, po’ boys and andouille gumbo. They are the foods of the bayous and swamps as well as the cities and elegant homes of Louisiana. The culinary legacies of the French, Spanish and Italians who came to New Orleans as well as the slaves who were brought there are ever-present in the city’s food.
“It’s totally authentic – they’ve done a great job with the food,” says Judy Walker, food editor for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “People here say that ‘Treme’ has got it right, and it’s a really big deal, because everybody was used to being misrepresented in every movie and every TV show.”
Because food plays such a prominent role in New Orleans, it does in “Treme,” too. To ensure that the show captured the intensity and flavor of NOLA restaurant kitchens, co-creator David Simon brought chef-author-TV personality Anthony Bourdain onboard to write the storyline for the character of chef Janette Desautel.
Iconic New Orleans chefs such as Emeril Lagasse and Susan Spicer coached actress Kim Dickens, who plays Desautel. Other celebrity chefs including Tom Colicchio, David Chang and Eric Ripert also have taken star turns on the show.
Away from the cameras, several chefs also have served as consultants, advising set designers and guiding Dickens, 47.
“I’ve never been the greatest cook,” Dickens admits, laughing, in a phone interview. To compensate, the Alabama-born actress trained in Colicchio’s kitchens in Atlanta and in Los Angeles, where she lives. She also got personal instruction from Spicer at Bayona, her restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
“The first thing I taught her was how to chop shallots,” chef Spicer wrote in an email to AFR. “We also worked on filleting redfish and making omelets (at which she was a whiz).
“Another thing was learning to expedite (or act like she’s expediting) with a sense of urgency,” Spicer wrote.
Dickens had previous experience with that. As a young actor, she’d moved to New York, subsidizing her career by working at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. “The energy, the choreography of the whole thing – it was ingrained in me while being a waitress for six years,” she says.
Her “Treme” character is the draw at the fictional Desautel’s on the Avenue, a fledgling high-end restaurant featuring local fare such as crispy soft-shell crab, shrimp and grits, seared scallops in miso broth and rabbit roulade. (See the sample menu)
Although her character prepares everything from Kobe beef to sweetbreads, Dickens herself is a vegetarian. But she still reminisces about her mom’s barbecued chicken and the Fourth of July pork fests at her aunt’s and uncle’s pig farm.
Dickens seldom cooks for herself these days. “There’s so much preparation that goes into it,” she says, noting that’s at odds with a schedule in which she’s “on the plane all the time and traveling” among New Orleans, L.A. and prospective acting jobs. But she has learned to respect “what a noble profession it really is to prepare meals for people.”
Watching professionals in the kitchen, Dickens was impressed by their regard for using everything – fish trimmings to flavor stock or chives to infuse olive oil. “Nothing’s ever wasted,” she says, “or taken for granted.”
“Treme” introduced the Desautel character in its first episode, while paying homage to a slice of New Orleans’ culinary heritage.
“They did a great thing about Hubig’s pie,” food editor Walker says. The beloved bakery, maker of hand-held fried pies, opened in New Orleans’ Faubourg Marigny neighborhood in 1922 but was destroyed by a fire last July.
The chef character “serves a piece of pie and says, ‘Slap some cream on it,’ ” Walker recalls. “It was perfect new Orleans, a mix of the high and the low.”
HBO plans to air the final season of “Treme” late this year, a spokesman says. Its food fans can sustain themselves before and after with a beignet recipe from chef Susan Spicer of Bayona.
Chef Susan Spicer of Bayona in New Orleans says she "stole" this recipe from "my chef, friend, mentor (and tormentor), Daniel Bonnot, who taught me how to make these about 25 years ago. Beignet is essentially just a fancy word for fritter."
- 2 cups flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1½ cups soda water
- ½ pound smoked salmon, or crayfish tails, lightly chopped
- 1 red bell pepper, finely diced
- ½ green bell pepper, finely diced
- 1 bunch scallions, sliced or chopped
- ½ teaspoon garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
- Oil for frying (about 2 inches deep)
- Brandied Tomato Tarragon Sauce
- 1 cup mayonnaise, preferably homemade
- 2 tablespoons ketchup
- 3 tablespoons whipping cream, whipped until thickened slightly
- 1 tablespoon brandy
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
- salt, cayenne, a squeeze of lemon
For beignets, preheat oil to 350 F.
Sift flour and baking powder together and whisk in soda water to make a
smooth, thick paste. Stir in other ingredients and let rest 10 minutes.
Drop by spoonfuls into preheated oil, cook on all sides until golden
brown (about 3 minutes).
Remove from oil, drain on paper towels and serve with brandied tomato sauce.
For tomato sauce, mix mayonnaise and ketchup, then fold in whipped cream and all other
ingredients. Taste and adjust seasoning.