New Orleans Kitchen: Kevin Belton explores the rich flavors of his home state
Chef Kevin Belton has deep roots in Louisiana. He grew up in New Orleans and as a child he remembered overhearing relatives speaking Cajun French.
Through his cooking shows on PBS and cookbook, Belton has become a gregarious ambassador for this state known for good flavor. His latest series and companion cookbook, “Kevin Belton’s Cookin’ Louisiana,” takes a culinary journey to every corner of the state. The show, which debuted in summer, was picked up by 93% of the PBS stations in the country.
The American South: This cookbook is a journey to every corner of Louisiana. What are misconceptions people still have about Louisiana that you want to dispel?
Kevin Belton: They think our food is really spicy. They also think we're greedy people, and our main focus is food. Hopefully, they get the fact that it's not so much about what's at the table as who's at the table. We're sitting there doing more visiting than eating.
TAS: What is the essence of a Louisiana dish?
KB: Whenever we cook in Louisiana, we always start off with the onion, celery and green pepper. Also, something that makes Louisiana cooking so different, and it might be from the French influence, is we keep things simple. We allow the flavors of the food to speak for themselves. And then we just put a whole lot of love into it.
TAS: In “Cookin’ Louisiana,” you talk about how the sound of milk bottles clinking takes you back to your childhood in New Orleans. What are other lost sounds of the city you remember?
KB: Another great sound was the vegetable vendors that would drive through the neighborhoods. In the distance, you would hear, "I got collard greens. I got fresh apples. I got bananas." You could hear them coming from a couple blocks away, and you’d know to grab some money and go out there. I always wondered why mom was not buying vegetables at the grocery store and most produce in our grocery stores was just terrible. Then I realized everybody was buying produce from the guy who came through the neighborhood. Hopefully, eventually, we can bring some of that back.
TAS: In the book, you share your memories of the legendary Leah Chase, the civil rights leader and chef who turned the New Orleans restaurant Dooky Chase’s into an institution. How did you get to know Chase, who died in 2019?
KB: As a kid going to the restaurant with my mom and her sister. They introduced me to Ms. Leah when I was four or five years old, and I remember thinking it was so neat. In more recent years, I made an effort to stop every other week to see her. Sometimes I'd park by the back door, run in and give her a kiss while I was running from one spot to another. Other times, I got to sit there and visit with her. Something I've learned from her was how she treated people. It was just her presence around people.
TAS: What did Dooky Chase’s Restaurant mean to Black New Orleanians when you were growing up?
KB: When you go to church, you get to say hi to everybody and see everybody once a week. Well, when you went Dooky Chase, it was like a congregation. You got to see everybody. You’d bump into people who maybe you hadn't seen in a while.
TAS: Today there are a lot of television shows about food. You have always worked with PBS. What makes public television different?
KB: Public television deals with education. A lot of shows these days are competitions. It's fine to have a competition, but are you going to learn anything from it? You might be able to pick up a tip here or there from the other shows, but when you watch a PBS program, you know you're going to learn something.