To many people across the globe, Mardi Gras is seen as a giant, weeklong party in New Orleans, most commonly recognized by beaded necklaces in gold, purple and green colors. But to those who were born and raised in the cultural hub of Louisiana, it is so much more.
In the 1700s, when New Orleans was first established, Mardi Gras was a celebration for the elegant, consisting of society balls and community gatherings. Today, it has since grown into a centuries-old tradition that characterizes the city through parades, music and, perhaps most importantly, food, ahead of Fat Tuesday.
Arlington-based chef and owner of 10-year-old Bayou Bakery David Guas knows a thing or two about the holiday, as well as traditional Louisiana cooking, as he’s a New Orleans native himself. Over the course of the past 25 years, he has perfected family recipes, cultivated his own and gained a national presence by making frequent television appearances on shows like Chopped, The Today Show and more. Plus, he’s written several cookbooks that reflect his heritage and deep connection to New Orleans.
On Saturday, Feb. 8, in honor of the upcoming Mardi Gras celebration, Guas will lead NoVA residents in a cooking class at Ballston’s Cookology, teaching the techniques and recipes of three traditional dishes: shrimp etouffee, crab maison, bananas foster and a specialty cocktail too. The lesson will serve as the first of Cookolgy’s recently launched events series, featuring chefs, makers, authors and creatives of the food scene.
Here, Guas shares what cooking class participants will learn, why it matters and how the culture of his hometown has impacted his life as both a chef and a man.
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We’re opening our Ballston Quarter kitchen to chefs, drink makers, cookbook authors and all creatives in the food scene with new, ongoing events! We’re kicking off this series of guest stars with award-winning talent from DC’s food and drink world. First up is New Orleans native David Guas, the owner of Arlington’s Bayou Bakery Coffee Bar & Eatery and author of “DamGoodSweet.” On Feb. 8, David will be teaching you how to make hometown favorites in this ode to Mardi Gras, featuring Shrimp Etouffee, Crab Maison, Bananas Foster Bread Pudding, and a cocktail, the NOLA Swinger! Registration link in our bio #cookology #cookologyevents #chefevent #cookingclass #getcooking #ballstonquarter #arlington #NOLA #neworleans #nawlins #bigeasy
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Why did you choose these specific dishes for the upcoming event?
To start, etouffee is versatile, so whether you are putting in shrimp or crawfish, there’s a lot of ways people can go. The foundation is such a crucial part of our cuisine in Louisiana and it is recognizable, as well as simple. People tend to complicate it, but I don’t like to make complicated recipes for the general public. I like to show simplicity but then empower the participants to understand where the wiggle room is, because I think that gives people more confidence in the kitchen. Starting simple allows them to have multiple recipes in their back pocket, instead of just one.
What are the key things the class participants will learn?
Honestly, I don’t have it scripted. I walk and talk it all day long at Bayou. I think the beauty of doing classes like these, after being in the industry for 25 years, is that I can get up in front of 10 or 10,000 people and talk about where I come from, who my people are and why we cook with these certain ingredients. Most dishes we honor now came to be based on what we had and didn’t have, and I can touch on that aspect of the cooking. New Orleans started to thrive so quickly because it was a port city. We were the first city to bring bananas to the U.S., which is where bananas Foster came from, and we were the first city to bring coffee to the U.S., which is why so many of our social gatherings center around coffee. Everything has meaning.
What would you say is the greatest challenge in Southern cooking?
I think, when following any recipe, you overthink things, and that’s particularly common with our style of cooking. You have to remember that these recipes are one-pot meals. You throw it in as you go and it’s simmered slow and low for a few hours—it’s not something you can change. I think when people start to manipulate something that’s stood the test of time, it’s going to become more complicated. These gumbos, stews, jambalaya, these are all dishes that you needed specific ingredients for but you can’t really dress it up. One wrong ingredient will change the whole thing.
On one hand though, I’m trying to teach people the foundation, but also have fun with it. I think interpreting dishes the way we do over time is part of stamping anything. I don’t make my gumbo the same way my aunt does; she hates my gumbo. So, once you’re comfortable in your own skin, then that’s your dish.
Why do you think it’s important for people to learn this style of cooking?
Often when I teach these classes, I discuss the power of breaking bread and coming together. In Louisiana, our cultural dishes are what makes us special and unique, we often times will share a table with dozens of ethnic groups. The food is what connects us, as with music. If you taste it, are moved by it and it makes you feel a certain way, then I’ve done my job. This type of cooking knocks down some of the barriers we as people have, and makes us focus on the connections within. Music and food have the power to do that.
What’s your favorite memory of Mardi Gras?
Being a native, a lot of New Orleanians leave the city because it’s too much and nobody wants to deal with the tourists. But growing up there, my biggest thing was participating in all the parades leading up to the big celebration from a young age through my teenage years. That weekend leading up to Mardi Gras day was the most fun weekend on the planet. People in the community would rent out houses on Saint Charles Avenue for all the locals to come into, and we’d hear about it through word of mouth. You’d go in and out of these houses to use the bathroom, say hey, eat some food. Every house had king cakes, mini muffulettas, a popular brunch item—something called grits and grillades, a cheaper cut of beef. That celebration is an excuse for everyone to show off their favorite dish. It’s a 13-, 14-hour day. It’s no joke. Having these little pit stops was the best part. It’s a marathon, you’ve got to pace yourself to not end up like the tourists with their head between their knees.
While the upcoming event on Saturday, Feb. 8 is sold out, Cookolgy will host Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan, owner of award-winning Columbia Room Derek Brown and more in the coming months. For tickets to special events, click here.
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