In the July 2008 issue of Country Roads
I rolled into Thibodaux with mouth watering and curiosity piqued. Chef Randy Cheramie of the John Folse Culinary Institute there had informed me just a few days earlier that the twelve Taiwanese chefs they had been hosting for two weeks as a part of the Southern U. S. Trade Association’s cultural exchange were preparing their take on Southern cuisine. “You are in for a treat, my friend.”
“What SUSTA does,” explains Chef Cheramie,“ is represent all the Southern States and Puerto Rico. They go into other countries and arrange for some of their top chefs—and believe me, some of them here today are celebrities back in Taipei, TV chefs, many of them published extensively—to come here and discover our food.”
“What we do is teach them about Southern foodways—not only Cajun and Creole, which we’re very good at because we live here—but also Tex-Mex; Carolina low country cuisine; Florida cuisine; the “Barbeque Nations” and how they differ; southern soul cooking—all the different southern cuisine. And in so doing, we introduce them to a lot of southern agricultural goods like pecans, Opelousas yams, Vidalia onions, and so on, with the hopes that when they go back to their respective countries, they’ll import these products.”
“So after two weeks with them using these ingredients in very traditional ways, from all these areas, and showing them all these agricultural goods and proteins and different seafood and pork products, we get to see them use a pantry list of these foods in their own way.“
After hearing all this, I wandered into the kitchen as a lot of prep work was happening. One group of chefs were carefully arranging layered triangles of feta cheese sandwiched between slices of watermelon, while another group was covering chunks of crawfish with slivers of mango and avocado. These combinations of flavors seemed odd, leaning more toward experimentation than to a true understanding of our cuisine, but like these chefs willing to cross an often difficult language barrier to learn about tasso and alligator, I was resolved to keep an open mind. As I walked out of the kitchen, I caught up with Heng-an Su, Chairman of the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Food Culture at the Laohsiung Hospitality College, and coordinator of the visiting chefs.
“In Taiwan, this program is sponsored by the American Office, allowing only a limited number of chefs to come as delegates from industry and education. The goal is to learn about Cajun and Creole culture and promote it in Taiwan. When we go back, we are responsible for making a demonstration of what we’ve found.