While the Southern Food and Beverage Museum won’t open the doors of its long-anticipated, newly constructed site on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard until later this year, fans of the museum haven’t had to wait for a chance to taste the Southern styles of chef Ryan Hughes, the brains and the brawn behind Purloo, SoFAB’s restaurant-in-waiting.
Hughes has been cooking in the Crescent City for 14 years, most notably at local favorites Johnny V’s and Cafe Degas.
He seems to be champing at the bit to introduce New Orleans diners to all the flavors of the South and its heritage, most recently at the delightful Creole Gardens Bed and Breakfast Hotel in the lower Garden District, where Purloo’s Wednesday menu has held court for several weeks.
The menu focuses on historical edibles from below the Mason-Dixon line.
“I’m a big history buff,” said Hughes. “And I thought that, with Purloo, I could do something where I could explore the cuisine of the South. And most people don’t really know what that is and what it means.”
The chef — who radiates his passion for cooking and culinary history like a food-crazy nuclear reactor — has created a one-man tour of Southern plates from North Carolina to West Texas, and from the 18th century to the modern age.
Hughes has no kitchen team — just himself, a pair of servers and a dishwasher. And the menu changes every week. He walks into the dining room at the start of the meal to give a short talk about the menu, its inspiration and history.
“Cooking all of these different regional, Southern cuisines is really interesting to me, and it’s a lot of fun, too,” he said. “It’s my food, the way I like to cook, and there’s nobody I know of that’s doing something like this: one chef, by himself, buying it, prepping it, cooking it, plating it. Most pop-ups do the same menu. It might change a little bit here and there, but this is completely different from one week to the next.”
So far, the gambit, which many cooks might consider unduly risky if not suicidal, has paid off.
Locals have been loving the weekly Southern meal-slash-history lesson, and Hughes notes that about three quarters of Purloo’s Wednesday guests are repeat customers.
“A lot of chefs wouldn’t do this,” Ryan said. “They want their sous chefs and a whole team. If something screws up, it’s my fault, the whole dinner.
“But, knock on wood, there hasn’t been a disaster yet. One time I was doing a take on the chicken a la grande at Mosca’s restaurant, and the oven was misbehaving, turning on and off, and when the chicken was supposed to be done, it wasn’t quite there.
“So I went into the dining room and told everyone that it’d be just another 10 minutes, and they were appreciative and just continued to drink until their dinner was ready. It was great.”
On a recent trip, the offering was a “German Acadian Coast” dinner, an homage to the immigrants from Germany and Alsace responsible for much of what we know today as Cajun cooking.
“The Germans and Alsatians came and settled on both sides of the Mississippi river, creating the ‘coast,’ ” the chef said. “They brought all of their butchering and charcuterie skills over, and they introduced things like andouille and ‘ponce’ — pig’s stomach stuffed with a boudin filling, hanged and smoked — to Louisiana.”
A recent meal began with an amuse bouche of cornmeal-fried Des Allemands catfish, served with a refreshing cucumber salad and curried yogurt, a lovely taste of Cajun country with a decidedly Germanic accent.
Next came a simple salad of red spinach and green oak lettuce with grilled Acadian andouille, pickled quail eggs and a radish vinaigrette.
Hughes was particularly excited about the sausage, noting that, “The real German/Alsatian andouille is about the size of your wrist. Somewhere along the way a smaller version appeared, and that’s what we’re used to seeing now, which is a shame, because the original version is really so much better.”
A classic crawfish étouffée followed, which the chef paired with oven-roasted kohlrabi and wild ramp rice (Hughes made a point to add that the ramps — wild, green spring onions — were the only ingredients not sourced from the South), and then a generous sliced hanger steak with roasted red yams and gratons, crispy fried pork cracklins incorporating both the pig’s meat and skin.
Hughes rounded out the meal with a classic Cajun syrup cake, or “Gateau de syrop.”
“I think there’s a lot of great, undiscovered Southern food out there,” Hughes said, once the meal concluded and he allowed himself to relax with a glass of wine, “and I love being able to introduce it to people, both the food and the history.”