Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What It Means To Miss New Orleans With Chef David Guas

This is the one place I didn’t want to tell you about.  The one place I wanted kept secret.  The one place I wanted all to myself.  My fellow Gen X’ers who cut their sonic teeth on the “alternative” music of our day (re:  Black Flag, Bauhaus, Joy Division) will surely recognize the impulse:  you alone have discovered the worlds’ greatest and most obscure band, and you alone love this band so much that the very idea of anyone else listening to or even loving this same band sends you into fits of near-suicidal apoplexy.  So it is with me and Arlington’s almost impossibly wonderful Bayou Bakery.  The fifteen-year-old boy in me wants to tell you that I alone am cool enough to have ever heard of Bayou Baker, let alone actually understand the cultural and culinary greatness afoot here.  Stay away, I want to say.  Poseurs need not apply.  But asking you to stay away from Bayou Bakery is akin to me, as a teenager, first discovering Boy and asking you not to listen to U2 even though Joshua Tree is soon on it’s way.  It ain’t gonna happen.  You’re going to become a U2 fan.  You and everyone else you’ve ever known.  So it is with Bayou Bakery.  One bite of Chef/Ower David Guas’ food and you’ll be begging for backstage passes.

I well remember my first visit to Bayou Bakery.  The basket of Zapp’s potato chips atop the bakery case.  The Dr. John on the house speakers.  The smell of chicory on the laughing air.  I remember, too, each of these totems of pure Crescent City gris-gris taking me on a Wildean-sized synesthetic magic carpet ride back to my beloved Decatur Street in the French Quarter.  Just the act of standing before Bayou Bakery’s chalkboard menu, surrounded by a perfect facsimile of my favorite American city, was magical in itself.  But then came the discovery of Bayou Bakery’s food.  The thrill of finding pickled eggs (made pink by beet juice in brine) this far north.  The exquisite agony of accidently snorting an entire gram of confectionary sugar off my beignet.  Not to mention the instant and abiding man-crush I felt for David Guas upon discovering the greatest muffuletta I’ve ever tasted outside of New Orleans.  It was love.  For Guas.  For Bayou Bakey.  The kind of love leaves you wanting more.  One visit to Bayou Bakery and I was hooked.  Heavy as lead.

Call me an idiot to all things culinary.  Fine.  Brand me a food professional hack.  Cool.  Tell me I don’t shit from gastronomic Shinola.  Surely a case might be made for that.  But slander my devotion to the food of New Orleans (and all the knowledge that attends such reverence) and I’ll break your jaw (lovingly, of course).  Because I’ve been traveling to New Orleans as a culinary pilgrim my entire adult life the way an acolyte worships at the feet of an oracle.  Because I honeymooned there.  Because my brother lives in the middle 9th.   Because there is no city in North America with a richer, more storied, or more vibrant culinary tradition than New Orleans.  Nowhere else in the United States is the daily business of eating more central to workaday Americans than it is in New Orleans.  Does Chicago have anything approaching the greatness of the Po’ Boy?  Does New York have anything close of the Crescent City’s collective agreement that red beans and rice be eaten, city-wide, each and every Monday?  Does Los Angeles have anything as important to ritual or municipal pride like the King Cake?  New Orleans stands, now and forever, as the primogeniture of American culinary fusion.  African.  Spanish.  French.  Native American.  Italian.  Cajun and Creole.  It’s all still there.  Alive and kicking.  Everything that started two full centuries before gastronomic miscegenation was too cool for school and too hip to see its own feet.

So enter the 2011 advent of David Guas’ Bayou Bakery.  More than just a supremely delicious culinary destination for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Bayou Bakery is a veritable museum of New Orleans food history with a curator of living history (in the person of Guas) who has already forgotten more about the food and culture of his native Louisiana than I’ll ever be lucky enough to learn.  Conversation with Guas about the food of New Orleans is a white-knuckled joy ride at break-neck speed through such highly nuanced subjects as roux and mirepoix, tasso and file.  The dude knows his food history.  He more than knows it, actually.  He lives it.  Day in.  Day out.  That we should all be so lucky to have his job.  But lucky we are.  Because Guas cooks.  For you and me.  For all of us.  He cooks and bakes beyond what passes as merely good.  He cooks with all the proselytizing fervor of a Bible-tent revivalist intent on saving the world one lost culinary soul at a time.

Take Guas’ muffuletta:  Capicola.  Salami.  Pepperoni.  Ham.  Emmentaler and provolone.  And don’t forget the essential “olive salad.”  And all of it on perfectly crusted bread.  Invented at the French Quarter’s Central Grocery in 1906 by Sicilian grocer Salvatore Lupo, the muffuletta is the signature sandwich of New Orleans.  Get this wrong and NOLA expats and food devotees will hang you by your toes from the highest branch.  And yet Guas makes a muffuletta that is beyond good.  It’s like finding faith in one’s fellow man.  And it’s also the first thing I put in my mouth after this autumn’s Hurricane Irene left me without power (and refrigeration).   The muffuletta wasn’t merely delicious.  It was soul-cleansing.  Life-affirming.  And it should give Central Grocery cause to smile that such apostolic mission work continues here in our nation’s capital, and this far north.    

Still not convinced?  Take Guas’ unbelievably delicious sausage biscuit.  The biscuit itself, in every way flaky, moist, and perfectly Southern, is reason enough to hug the stranger at the table next to you, but the sausage, made by Washington-area charcuterie maestro Jamie Stachowski, might very well lead you to finding religion, for surely by Grace alone could sausage like Stachowski’s ever be allowed to exist.  For all the yet-unmoved agnostic hard-cases, I offer Guas’ truly transcendental bacon biscuit.  It consists of just that:  three strips of smoked bacon laid inside two biscuit halves; the perfect (and I mean perfect) culinary understatement.  Because please, dear reader, consider this next sentence with the diligence and care it deserves:  the bacon is from Benton’s in Tennessee and it is the best bacon I’ve ever tasted.  Ever.  Spike my vein and you’ll find but two substances afloat in my blood:  bacon and booze.  So when I say this is the best bacon I’ve ever tasted, I mean it’s the best bacon I’ve ever tasted.  Brothers and sisters, let me hear an amen.

For the atheistic hold-outs, or those for whom the recent frontal lobotomy is now kicking in and who still don't get it, Guas offers the perfunctory Big Voodoo Daddies of Crescent City Cuisine.  Gumbo.  Jambalaya. Grits.  Collards.  Etouffee. Hot peanuts (boiled with Benton’s bacon, no less).  Chopped pork.  It’s all here.  Not some caricature of Big Easy cuisine. This isn’t food for tourists or skinny-jeaned wannabes.  No way.  This fare is the real fucking deal.  And all of it vital and popping with the flavors of someone who grew up eating the very stuff at his grandmother’s kitchen table.  Someone who grew up knowing the best roux came in non-blonde.  Someone who might jack you up for adding file to his gumbo.

I’m now of an age to know that I must eventually destroy everything I have ever loved.  Memories of ex-girlfriends.  Mix-tape cassettes of once-obscure bands.  Nightclubs frequented long ago and for whom I still pine.  I’m the General Sherman to their Atlanta.  It’s all going down in flames.  I know this.  I know, too, that, with any luck, I’ll now have to stand in a line twenty people deep every time I visit Bayou Bakery.  But that’s okay.  Because I’m now of an age to know that something as good as Bayou Bakery must not remain secret, even if that secret has been wildly popular for Washingtonians for almost a year now.  A man of my age, now graying at the temples, should be comfortable with sitting in the corner of his favorite local eatery, listening to the 80s alt-rock playlist on his iPhone, licking confectionary sugar off his fingers, and knowing, truly and deeply, just what it means to miss New Orleans.

You’ll know David Guas when you visit Bayou Bakery.  How so?  He’ll be the handsomest man in the room.  And for the love of Baby Jesus, friends, order the muffuletta.   

Your link to Bayou Bakery:   Bayou Bakery

1 comment: