Stirring the Pot With Frank Brigtsen

The award-winning New Orleans chef on his mother's cooking, giving back, and red beans and rice
By Melanie Young
Melanie Young
Melanie Young
July 10, 2021 Updated: July 10, 2021

One of New Orleans’ most beloved chefs, Frank Brigtsen is recognized for revitalizing Creole Acadian cooking at his namesake restaurant Brigtsen’s, now celebrating 35 years. Located in a Victorian cottage on a quiet street in the city’s uptown Riverbend neighborhood, Brigtsen’s Restaurant pays tribute to traditional Louisiana cooking and local ingredients, with dishes such as shrimp and okra gumbo with andouille sausage, pan-fried gulf fish with roasted pecans and meunière sauce, and roast duck with dirty rice and tart dried cherry sauce.

Epoch Times Photo
Frank Brigtsen. (Rebecca Todd)

Many customers are devoted regulars who say dining at Brigtsen’s is like eating in someone’s private home. This admiration extends beyond locals: Brigtsen has been honored with numerous awards, including being named James Beard Foundation Best Chef Southeast, and Restaurateur of the Year by the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

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Shrimp and grits at Brigtsen’s Restaurant. (Melanie Young)
Epoch Times Photo
Pecan-crusted red drum at Brigtsen’s Restaurant. (Melanie Young)

Despite his national recognition, what brings Brigtsen the most joy is teaching Creole Acadian cooking classes at The John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University. He also serves as chef-in-residence at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts.

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Brigtsen’s Restaurant in New Orleans. (Rebecca Todd)

Culinary Inspirations

Before opening his namesake restaurant in 1986, Brigtsen worked for seven years with legendary chef Paul Prudhomme, owner of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in the French Quarter. Prudhomme, who died in 2015, popularized Creole and Cajun cuisines to a broader audience with dishes such as blackened redfish and Cajun popcorn (batter-fried crawfish).

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Legendary New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme with Frank Brigtsen. (Courtesy of Frank Brigtsen)

It was Prudhomme who encouraged Brigtsen to open his own place, even lending him money and arranging for a lawyer and CPA to help him get started.

“Paul [gave] me a chance and then taught me all these life lessons, not just cooking. That’s why I decided to give back and teach,” Brigtsen said. “It was especially important after Hurricane Katrina when I was worried about preserving traditions. I called Nicholls State University in Thibodaux and said, ‘I want to teach Creole Cajun cuisine.’ They created a class for me.”

As for many chefs, Brigtsen’s earliest food memories and inspiration came from his mother. I asked him to share some of those memories and a favorite recipe.

The Epoch Times: What do you remember about your mother’s cooking?

Frank Brigtsen: My mother, Ernie Yelverton, came from Uniontown, Alabama, and moved to New Orleans to attend nursing school. While caring for an elderly lady with cancer, she met the woman’s son and they hit it off. That man, Frank Brigtsen Sr., became my father. His grandfather had settled in New Orleans from Bergen, Norway, and my dad grew up eating traditional Creole cooking, which reflects the multicultural diversity of the city itself. Mom had to learn how to cook New Orleans dishes, and she had a great repertoire of recipes from gumbo to fried catfish in cornmeal and amazing grits. We still serve a version of her fried catfish with stone-ground grits and Creole sauce on the menu at Brigtsen’s as an appetizer or entrée. But one of my favorites is her red beans and rice.

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Frank Brigtsen with his mother, Ernie Brigtsen. (Courtesy of Frank Brigtsen)

The Epoch Times: What comes to mind first with this dish?

Mr. Brigtsen: It starts with the aroma. As a child, I’d come home from grade school in the afternoons, flop on the sofa, and watch television. Around 4 o’clock, the aroma coming from the kitchen would get me up from the sofa and into the kitchen. I learned the greatest appetizer in the world is aroma. You may not even be hungry when you walk into a kitchen or restaurant, but when the aromas like garlic and spices get to you, all the senses come into play. The aromas are central to family home cooking; they are a unifier. When we finally sat down to eat, I never left the table without two or three servings. My dad insisted on having his red beans and rice with French bread with lots of butter.

The Epoch Times: How did your mother prepare her red beans?

Mr. Brigtsen: My mother would cook her beans in a magnum Dutch oven, which I still have in my office. Red beans in New Orleans almost always require some kind of pork, typically smoked pork, to add flavor and sustenance to the dish to make it a complete meal. You can use ham hocks and smoked sausage, but my mom used salt pork, which is pork belly cured in salt. First, she would render the salt pork and add bell peppers. Often, she would use pickled pork, which is pork shoulder or pork butt cured in a sodium nitrate solution. She’d simmer the pickled pork to make a richer stock. Then she’d add the beans and spices. All the richness of the pork and the little bit of acid build overall savory goodness and complexity in the dish.

Epoch Times Photo
Brigtsen’s mother’s Dutch oven. (Courtesy of Frank Brigtsen)

The Epoch Times: Were there any other ingredients that stood out?

Mr. Brigtsen: Well, it so happens toward the end of her life, I was visiting my mom at home one afternoon and she was making red beans. It was early in the process, and I noticed she was adding canned tomatoes to the red beans. I said, “Mom, you put tomatoes in the red beans?” And she just nodded. I had no idea she added canned tomatoes. Here I was at 50 years old, and I am just finding this out! So, I started adding canned tomatoes to my version of red beans and rice, a brand called Ro*Tel.”

The Epoch Times: Do you still make red beans and rice?

Mr. Brigtsen: From 2009 to 2013, we owned a restaurant near River Ridge called Charlie’s Seafood. This was a real neighborhood institution. One of my first childhood memories was peeling boiled crabs at Charlie’s Seafood. The restaurant was along our drive home from Brigtsen’s. One night my wife, Marna, saw a “For Rent” sign posted and took down the number. We ended up buying the restaurant. We’d make red beans and rice on Mondays at that restaurant. While we don’t serve red beans and rice at Brigtsen’s, I hold the memory of my mom cooking them close.

Red Beans and Rice: A Monday Tradition In New Orleans

Serving red beans and rice on Mondays in New Orleans is a longstanding tradition dating back to the 19th century. Families would serve large Sunday suppers with pork as a main course, and the leftovers would be repurposed to cook with local red kidney beans in a large pot the next day. Monday was laundry day, and before modern-day washing machines, women did everything by hand. The pot of beans would simmer for hours while women went about their cleaning and laundry, becoming a convenient way for housewives to feed a family at the start of the week.

Every family has its own special recipe. According to New Orleans native Liz Williams, founder of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, originally “red beans were made with a ham bone and whatever still clung to it or, pig’s feet (trotters). The gelatin … gave a rich mouthfeel to the beans. Ham bones are harder to come by these days, and people often make their red beans with sausage or sometimes pickled pork.”

“Of course,” she added, “people do argue about sides now. In the past, whatever meat was left on the ham bone was the meat that you had. Now you can get various types of sausage, fried chicken, a pork chop, or even fried fish with your red beans as a side. That is a restaurant thing, and probably not a home practice. Red beans and rice is the main event.”

To evoke the rich, smoky flavor of cured pork without using meat, you can substitute vegan sausage, and add 1/2 tablespoon smoked paprika and a small amount of red vinegar.

Melanie Young writes about wine, food, travel, and health. She is the food editor for Santé Magazine, co-host of the weekly national radio show “The Connected Table LIVE!” and host of “Fearless Fabulous You!” both on iHeart.com (and other podcast platforms). Instagram@theconnectedtable Twitter@connectedtable

 

RECIPE: Frank Brigtsen’s New Orleans Red Beans and Rice

Melanie Young
Melanie Young