St. Louis' Cajun & Creole Antidote to Old Man Winter
Live Music and Cajun - Creole Goodness at the Cajun Cook-Off
Nothing fights off the chill of Old Man Winter like a steaming bowl of red beans and rice, or crawfish etouffee. Fortunately one of the most prized heart of winter events during St. Louis’ Mardi Gras season is the Cajun Cook Off.
This event pits ten of St. Louis’ top professional chefs against one another, just as ten amateur chefs compete in their own division for the title of best Cajun/Creole dish. Each chef sets their own menu and is responsible for their own ingredients (except for the hot sauce). The ensuing “Iron Chef-like” culinary smackdown is a Cajun/Creole party worthy of Fat Tuesday itself.
In addition to the participation of twenty local contestants, two panels judge the Cajun Cook-Off, with three judges on each panel. The first panel is composed of amateur judges with some connection to the event, and at least a rudimentary understanding of Cajun/Creole cooking. The other panel is composed of local food professionals, such as food writers, growers, chefs, or local merchants.
In addition to preparing their culinary creations, the chefs and their assistants are also responsible for decorating their competition cook pit. Most of the cooking crews dive into the Cook-Off’s festive Mardi Gras spirit and kit out their booths with beads, masks, and Mardi Gras props. A few even don their own Mardi Gras finery for the event. It’s not uncommon to see a prominent local chef in his kitchen smock with a purple, gold, and green fool’s hat on his head.
Like the folks doing the cooking, those attending the Cajun Cook-Off are encouraged to dress for the event in Mardi Gras masks, hats, beads, and outfits, or at least in Mardi Gras Colors. And for anyone whose jewelry box is a bit light on beads strings, they can also be purchased at the Cook-Off.
Falling roughly in the middle of St. Louis dozen plus Mardi Gras events (near the end of January), the Cook-Off is open to the public, and well worth the ticket price. Attendees are entitled to samples of Cajun eats such as rice and beans, banana foster, and hurricanes (a world-renown New Orleans Mardi Gras drink) provided by local restaurants, and access to the contest chefs themselves as they prepare their masterpieces for the judges.
In the way of all good chefs, these contestants like to feed people. Although they aren’t allowed to share what they are cooking onsite, the competition teams often bring along a few boudin balls or crawfish to share with the admiring throng. It’s also a great way to learn about Cajun and Creole cooking. Many of the chefs will divulge their secrets, while others may need to be playfully coaxed into revealing the secret to their roux. At the end of the day, attendees also walk away with a booklet featuring the recipes of the competing chefs.
As winter rages outside, it’s quite relaxing to throw on some bright Mardi Gras beads and stroll between the cook pits, hurricane in hand, watch the fevered chopping, stirring, measuring and tasting, and imbibe the heady incense of spicy sautéed goodness.
A lively band, and contest giveaways, keep the mood festive and stoke the fires for the remainder of the Mardi Gras season.
Follow this link for information about this year's Cajun Cook-Off.
To view a gallery of photos from the 2010 Crystal Cajun Cook-Off, Click Here.
More St. Louis Feature Stories
Mardi Gras in Soulard - A Brief History of the Soulard Neighborhood in St. Louis
Taste of Soulard - Soulard Shows Off Its Best Cajun & Creole Eats
Soulard Pet Parade & Wiener Dog Derby- St. Louis' Four-Legged Mardi Gras Fun