BORN ON THE BAYOU
Louisiana chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois makes way for duck season.
Jean-Paul Bourgeois’ cooking is the best of both worlds. One minute, the classically trained chef is sharing a recipe for cacio e pepe or fettucine carbonara, perfected during his days with Danny Meyer’s revered Union Square Hospitality Group of restaurants in New York. And the next, he’s showing off his downhome Louisiana roots—from andouille sausage to crawfish etouffee to wild-game gumbo—with the 38-year-old born and raised just southwest of New Orleans.
Fusing flavors, ingredients, and techniques, Bourgeois is equally at home at the helm of a five-star restaurant as he is over a backyard propane burner. And it’s this dynamic pairing that has garnered him over 100,000 Instagram followers and a second season of his Duck Camp Dinners television series, now part of the wildly popular MeatEater family founded by hunter Steve Rinella. A love letter to his sense of place, the show speaks to the growing community of hunters and home cooks who, inspired by the local sourcing movement, are turning to the great outdoors for more sustainable protein, and it covers everything from Cajun cuisine to wildlife and habitat conservation.
Though he now resides near Houston, Texas, this time of year, you’re likely to find Bourgeois back in his home state. It’s waterfowl season on the bayou, which means he’ll be waiting for the birds to move in. We caught him beforehand for a chat about his culinary career, cooking wild game, and his kitchen go-tos.
Do you have a seminal first food memory?
My dad was a great cook, and when I was growing up, he often did community cookoffs. The one I remember was at the Catholic church, I was six or seven years old, and he came in second. He says it was a brisket. I say it was a rabbit sauce piquant. It could’ve been either one, but that wasn’t really the point. What I do remember is people’s reaction to his food. And I responded in a way that made me continue to chase that same thing all my life, to this day.
The other important moment was, when I was 11 years old, I ate my first scallop in Paris. I didn’t quite understand it or even like it at the time, but it exposed me to cooking in a place that was much different from where I was from. Since then, I’ve always looked for ways to expand my palate with new flavors and new ingredients, wherever I go, whether it’s at Whataburger or a three-Michelin star restaurant in Spain. I’m always searching for these new flavors and ingredients.
When did you start cooking on your own?
Very early on. Pre-teens, I was at the stove by myself sautéing mushrooms in butter and seasonings in a pan. I was always experimenting with my parents’ spice cabinet, and I would use mushrooms and butter as a medium to understand what the spices tasted like. That could be dried rosemary, or thyme, or sage, or fennel, or Cajun spices that exist in every Louisianan’s pantry. At a very young age, I was interested in flavor.
What kind of pan were you using?
Much like my current kitchen, my parents always have a piece or two of cast iron that just lived on the stove. They also cooked in enamel cast iron and had a lot of Magnalite—those heavy thick aluminum pots. And that’s because of the type of food that we cooked a lot in Louisiana. Certain dishes that historically got cooked in certain cookware. Tomato-based recipes would be cooked in enamel. If we were frying food, or making cornbread and biscuits and cinnamon rolls, they would go in cast iron. And certain dishes in Louisiana cooking, like gumbos, could be cooked in all three.
Wild game is a big part of your cooking. How did you get into hunting?
My dad was always a hunter. There’s 60 days out of the season, and he would duck hunt for 40 of them. We would trade meat with other hunters and fishermen and farmers—venison sausage, deer roast, red fish, speckled trout, shrimp, oysters, squirrels, rabbits. We had a very diversified freezer. Even satsuma mandarins, because it’s a big citrus-growing region. We used it as a bartering system. I didn’t know at the time how neat it was, but it’s something I still do. But from a very young age, I was eating a lot of food local to Louisiana. And as a kid, I didn’t always like it. My palate needed to evolve. But I was taught that, if we shot ducks, we’re going to eat it. We at least owed them that.
What’s your advice for beginners who are interested in getting into hunting?
Educate yourself. Whether its duck or deer or rabbit, do a little research. Do a lot of research! Take the necessary steps to be safe in the field, to understand what property lines and boundaries and public land and private land means. The most important part of being a good hunter is part of being a responsible and accountable one.
How about for home cooks who are interested in working with wild game?
Whenever I get my hands on a new game, I’ll just take a cast-iron pan, salt and pepper that piece of meat, and cook it, usually to a mid-rare or medium. I like to eat it in its most pure state, just to understand what it tastes like, feels like, how lean it is, how rubbery it is, in order to understand where to take it as a future recipe. And if you have any questions about it, go to a Cajun recipe. I often call them the great equalizer of wild-game cooking. Most of them are long, slow, developed stews and sauces, and it helps any game fall off the bone and fold into a dish nicely.
You hear Steve Rinella [of Meater] talk about this a lot, but the biggest problem for most people who cook wild game is that they either overcook it or don’t cook it enough. He likes most of his cooked rare or medium rare. Once you get past medium, you’ve might as well just make it a Cajun dish. Too rare and it’s tough, irony, and will turn anybody off of wild game doing that. A huge part of wild game cooking is just confidence. The more reps you have cooking it, the more confident you become.
What are some of your favorite ways to cook game in cast iron?
If you have a venison backstrap or a nice cornfed fat mallard duck, there’s something really simple and beautiful about just going skin-side down in a pan, rendering that fat, getting the skin crispy, finishing it with some butter, thyme, garlic, basting it with that foamy butter, and just slicing it medium-rare. I also like making wild game cornbread, so if I have different grinds of meat, I’ll spice it up with maybe sage and brown sugar, then pour cornbread batter over that, which makes a great snack in the deer stand or duck blind.
Besides cast iron, what tools are essential to your cooking?
Woks! Man, I love cooking in a wok. It’s hot, fast cooking. And wild game is a healthy protein, so a lot of times I’ll just throw that in a wok with a few vegetables, some aromatics, and make a stir-fry.
What if you were running out of the house and could only grab one thing?
A good 4-inch pocketknife can do a lot of wonders, from breasting a duck to cleaning a deer to chopping onions. Beyond that, I’d have to say this straight wooden tool with a flat edge—what we used to call a roux paddle—which is great for everything from stir-fries to making omelets.
What ingredients do you always keep in your kitchen?
Some type of acid. Acid is a very underutilized ingredient, and yet it’s the second most important next to salt. It’s what I call the treble of a dish. Or the fireworks. It just adds that pop. I always have multiple different vinegars in my pantry—apple cider, white wine, mirin, red wine, distilled vinegar. Red wine vinegar is the best for wild game, in my opinion.
There’s also always a handful of hard cheeses in my fridge. They add a different element of salt. They’re great emulsifiers. And they have a nice amount of sharp fat that’s needed for a lot of wild game because it’s so lean. I like parmesan, a good sheep’s milk pecorino, aged goudas. [Jasper Hill] Cabot clothbound makes a great cheddar that is unbelievable in things like salads, and it’s not a hard cheese, but Reading Raclette is one of my favorites when it comes to melty things. And cheese is somewhat shelf stable. You can leave parm out, put it in your cooler, keep it on your counter, and it’s ready to go.
And I guess my last one would be salt. Good salt is worth investing in. Whether it’s something for everyday use or for finishing. It’s the most important ingredient in any dish, no matter what you’re making, from sweets to savory to sours to bitters—it’s the reason why we can taste.
What kind do you use?
There’s this [Redmond] red sea salt from Utah that I buy by the 15-pound bucket and it lasts me like a year and a half. It’s my salt for everyday seasoning. My favorite salt for finishing, I bought in Japan, it’s harvested off of sea kelp and has this incredible deep rich ocean flavor. J.Q. Dickinson [from West Virginia] is a great one. Or Cellar Salt Co. out of the Gulf of Mexico for finishing salts. Spiceology has a nice collection, whether it’s black salt or garlic salt. A good selection is an easy way to take your cooking to the next level.
I typically carry some kind of cast iron or steel pan around with me. If I know I’m going with a big group, because I’m typically the cook, I might make sure to pack my eight- or 12-quart Dutch oven for a gumbo or jambalaya, depending on where I’m going or who I’m feeding. No stainless steel, but maybe a nice thick Magnalite pot, too.
Chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois is a chef and outdoorsman, born in Louisiana and based in the South. His hit show, Duck Camp Dinners, is now in its second season on MeatEater. Photos courtesy of Denny Culbert.
Read Jean-Paul’s Louisiana Pastalaya in Family Receipts.