Fine Food Adaptations
Since the 1980s, Acadiana has seen the development of "Cajun Fusion" restaurants-diverse menus join traditional Cajun ingredients with tastes and textures from outside the region.
Historically, Cajun cuisine was born out of shared ideas between South Louisiana cultures. When Acadians settled in Louisiana after the expulsion from Nova Scotia, they were forced to adapt to the new environment and foodstuffs available to them. They also incorporated spices and food preparation techniques from their Anglo-American, African American and American Indian neighbors.
Traditional Cajun home cooking largely consisted of stewed meats and gravies combined with rice. Corn was also incorporated into the Cajun diet as well as gumbo. Seafood was not largely consumed on the Cajun prairies until the 1930s when Governor Huey Long's highway improvement program allowed for better transportation of seafood from the Gulf to the prairies. City electricity and ice factories also contributed to the availability of Louisiana Gulf seafood. Subsequently, during the 1950s Louisiana prairie men working in the offshore oil industry were introduced to Gulf seafood and brought seafood recipes home with them.
While Cajun-themed restaurants were found in Louisiana during the antebellum period, Don's Seafood and Steakhouse was the first modern Cajun restaurant opened in Lafayette. Don's opened first as a seafood boiling house and beer garden but later infused Cajun cuisine with New Orleans-style recipes, all set in a fine dining atmosphere. Other restaurants soon dotted the landscape throughout the 1930s and into the 1960s. Popular dishes in these earlier Cajun restaurants consisted of deep fried seafood that was not traditionally served in Cajun homes.
In the 1980s, another kind of dining experience began in Acadiana. Restaurant owners began to combine the popularity of the Cajun dancehall with the Cajun dining experience. Appealing to travelers and locals alike, Cajun dancehall-restaurants offered patrons two of the most popular Louisiana Cajun commodities, food and music. The dancehall-restaurant also offered patrons a place to socialize and dine, much like the bals de maisons of the old days. Bob Guilbeau of Prejean's opened the first Cajun dancehall-restaurant in 1980 and restaurants like Randol's soon followed.
The 1984 New Orleans World Fair was also a turning point for Cajun music as well as Cajun cuisine. Cajun food and Cajun restaurants were featured at the fair to large audiences from outside the region. It was around this same time that Chef Paul Prudhomme from Opelousas, Louisiana, began working in New Orleans as a chef. There he began to fuse together the traditional Cajun restaurant foods of deep-fried seafood and gumbos with a more gourmet and upscale palate of Classical French cuisine. Paul Prudhomme's national popularity soared in the 1980s and Lafayette area chefs soon followed in his footsteps with experimentation.
The Louisiana Technical College Lafayette campus noticed the interesting developments and buzz of the Lafayette culinary market and in 1980 opened a culinary degree program. Chef Pat Mould was among the first graduating class and became Café Vermilionville's first sous chef. It was there that Mould merged his Cajun tastes with head chef Paul Langoria's Classical French recipes.
Today, Lafayette's dining market remains diverse and oftentimes experimental. It is not unlikely to see crawfish wontons and crawfish fettuccini, alongside etouffeés, bisques and gumbos on a restaurant menu. As odd as these innovations may seem at first, they are nevertheless squarely within one of the region's oldest culinary traditions: creative adaptation. By integrating new ingredients and styles with older customs, such innovations have a way of eventually becoming part of the fine dining experience in Lafayette.
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