A major gap in Dubai’s culinary map has been filled with Cravin’ Cajun, an authentic Cajun/Creole restaurant at Novotel Dubai Al Barsha. Already popular, Cajun Chef Jeffrey Whitfield is determined to deliver the food he grew up eating and which he loves. Don’t mess with the formula!
Think gumbo, think crab cake, think jambalaya and you’re instantly transported to Louisiana. Throw in Bourbon Street pecan pie and beignets and you could only be in N’Orleans, eating against a backdrop of jazz amongst city dwellers who survived thye devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
However, according to chef Jeffrey Whitfield, “You don’t need to fly all the way to New Orleans – New Orleans will come straight to you!” The Novotel Dubai Al Barsha seems an unlikely place for the region’s first authentic Cajun restaurant – including Creole dishes – but the owner saw real potential and, after a shaky start when the previous chef merely added spices to standard dishes, New Orleans native Whitfield is delivering on real flavour, even if he’s had to be a little light handed with the chilies until Dubai catches up with the true taste of the French quarter.
His career to date has been built on one simple belief: “Put in the time and pay your dues.”
You’re a New Orleans native, right?
Right. I was born there and lived there as a child until my parents started to move around. My father was an insurance salesman so he could really work anywhere – we went to Chicago, all over. It mean schooling got a bit disrupted but I enjoyed new experiences and new people, but I really understood the mentality of New Orleans and Mardi Gras so that’s where I feel I belong.
How was food as a kid?
Both my mother and grandmother were awesome in the kitchen which made me just want to learn to do what they did. My grandmother, who was born in Biloxi, used to be up at six every morning to make breakfast and I used to help her out. Her food has influences from across the South and my mother cooked everything. I have a brother who’s a financial advisor and a sister in day care, but neither of them can boil an egg!
What was your first cooking job?
Age 15, I got a job with TJ Cinnamon’s, where we make the bakery items from scratch. One day we ran out of pecan paste but I knew my ingredients and could recreate it exactly from the taste. From that, the owner asked to go and work at the central kitchen and I was earning $12 an hour when I wasn’t in high school. Everything was made from scratch, nothing came from a box or a can. I loved the challenge of learning and was there for about two years, also cooking all the meals at home every weekend. In fact, I’d been doing that since I was old enough to cook. Looking back, I guess I was bound to become a chef.
I also hear that you’re a pretty mean drummer…
Absolutely! I think it’s related because both jobs are about timing. I remember my mother reminding me how, as a child, I’d pull all the pans out of the cupboard and play them like drums. I’d listen to music and imagine drum parts.
Were you ever a professional drummer?
No, but I played with Lauryn Hill some four years back! A friend gave me a call and asked me to fill in for her normal drummer, so I turned up and just played through the rehearsal – I knew her songs so it wasn’t hard. Then she came up and told me to play exactly like the records, no changes, no fills, just straight up. She also had a problem with part of my kit – it was too loud for her, but it was all I had. Anyway, I did the gig but it wasn’t any real pleasure. My drums are back in the US and I’m missing them.
Back to your story…
Right. I shifted to short order cook at a bar and grill. Real old school style, fast paced but that’s where I really learned up to being the window person calling tickets. Then, when I was about 18, I moved away. There was just too much atmosphere and I needed to learn more than grilling burgers and steaks. It seemed as if I was always in the back and I was told to leave my country to make something happen. But nothing happened. So I shifted to New York – I needed to get into fine dining but had no training so I joined a an old school, classical French restaurant and started at the bottom – mother sauces and the fundamentals. I was hungry to learn. I’d done with school and now I had my own apartment within walking distance of the restaurant.
Did you find the shift to fine dining hard?
I’ve always thought that the best thing to do is to learn first, then you can play with what you’ve learned. Kids at culinary school? They know nothing! Anyway, I was now eating diffferent kinds of food – you know, hollandaise, wow that’s good. The place has about 50 covers but it was always packed out. I lasted two years then went back to New Orleans for a job with Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
Why was that? After fine dining, it seems like a step down…
Well, I was missing my roots. Look, food is food and cooking it is only a challenge if you make it so. Food had captured me from an early age and now I was back home with music, food and the right vibe. Life was a big party – 1992 and I had an apartment in rthe slave quarter. anyway, Ruth’s Chris was opening in Indianapolis and I was asked to join the team on good money but aftwer a while I just felt I’d been cooking steaks for too long so I shifted to California Cafe out of a mall, again in Indianapolis. It was kind of fine dining – seafood, different meats, sauces, you know. I was the lead cook on specials.
Where you learning there?
Absolutely. To me, learning and development are very important. Then, ironically, a Ruth’s Chris opened just underneath us. One of their chefs quit and – well, what to do? – I took the job but it was a mistake. Although I was Sous Chef by now, the head chef was an alcoholic and I had to leave. I found a place at a nearby country club and I was banquet chef. No problem – I like big parties! You just have to be organised – for example, over Christmas, we were doing six to eight parties of 200 at the same time, all with different menus. I was there about 18 months, then I thought I could make more money if I had some paper qualifications.
Which school did you enroll in?
CCA. I even sent my resume to Chez Panisse to be told there was a long waiting list! California was great – I’ve always been intrigued by different things so I took a job at Lark Creek Inn in Lockspur, just as a cook. It was different – we had our own ggarden where you could pick anything, you’d deal with local fishermen. It was great but California was just too expensive to live there, so back to Indianapolis! I got a Sous Chef position at the Marriott.
Some stability at last?
Not really. That’s when Katrina hit and I just quit straight away. I knew I had to go home to help. I didn’t know what I could do but I had to go back down there. As we flew in over the city, it was dreadful, there was water everywhere. You have no idea. I took a bus to the Superdome to try and find some place to sleep, but that was a dreadful situation. You know, the 6th-9th wards were hit very hard – you could hear people screaming for help from their houses. As we rowed small boats up those flooded streets, you could feel the paddles hit bodies under the water. You just had to ride it out.
You’d hear screaming, go into people’s houses and help them out, get them to the Superdome and then go out again. I knew I had to use my talent and help to feed all these people. There’s a great chef, Scott Bosley, who owned Stella’s – he’d set up ten grills outside his place and just said he was going to feed people. He found food – I don’t know how, sometimes driving down to Baton Rouge – and we were grilling 20 cases of hamburger a day, 10am to midnight. This is for people with no food, no water. I slept at a friend’s place – the Superdome was a nightmare by now. It was the most traumatic thing I’d ever faced. I worked there for a year and then it was time to move on. You know the way these things happen, so I ended up working for Chip Ganassi and his racing team. Team chef for the 400 people, three meals a day – I did it for three years.
As you were travelling from country to country, how did you source produce for such numbers?
I made sure we were always close to a CostCo! I’d go in and spend $5,000 for a weekend’s supplies. Places like Japan were more challenging but different foods didn’t bother me. I really enjoyed the travelling at first but I kept having accidents – falling as I stepped out of the trailer, that sort of thing – and when my contract was up, I went back to New Orleans and the family property. I felt it was where I belong, where I wanted to be for the rest of my life.
So what brought you here to Dubai?
New Orleans wasn’t the place it used to be. It was very dangerous qwith lots of crazy stuff going on. It’s amazing what people have done – I reckon about 80% of the rebuilding is finished, though some of the wrecked buildings will be left as they are as a memorial. What made me want to leave was an incident when I was walking to work early one morning and saw this guy stagger out of a bar. There were three kids on the other side of the street but I didn’t really think about them till I saw a news item later. They’d not just robbed him but beaten him so badly that he was unrecognisable. That could have been me.
Time to leave…
Sure, so I was looking on-line and saw there was a job for a Cajun chef in Dubai. I had no idea where that was but I applied anyway. The concept for the restaurant came from the owner but the space had been designed as a brasserie. So I talked to the chef and he was explaining that the food they were putting out was just coating things with Cajun mustard. I tell you, I laughed so hard. Anyway, I met the GM in Philadelphia and he just said, ‘When can you start?’ I moved over last May. I really had no idea what to expect. To be honest, I didn’t expect the people here to be like they are, which is so different to how they’re portrayed in the States. I really like them and I’ve already learned a lot about the culture.
What challenges have you faced?
As I said, I had no idea what to expect. I just didn’t realise that everything’s available in Dubai although it’s been tough not having a pork kitchen, but the regulations just don’t make it worth it. The problem is that andouille sausages are at the heart of Cajun – how do you do that without pork? Well, I trierd recipe after recipe and finally I put together a chicken version that I think gets it. Other ingredients that are hard to source? Grits. Crawfish are impossible to ship. Catfish, though I’ve found a local fish I can use. I’d given up on finding speckled trout and then one day in Carrefour I found the very similar spotted trout – I bought all they had! A number of things do get shipped over by via Europe.
Can you explain a bit about Cajun cuisine and how authentic you are here?
Okay, to be honest I’ve had to tone down the food a little bit but not all Cajun food is spicy. We use both Cajun and Creole cooking on the menu, the difference being that the Cajuns came down from Canada. The two communities are seperated by cooking although the styles are very similar – a Creole jambalaya, for example, will have no tomatoes but a Creole jambalaya will have both tomatoes and a darker colour because of the pan scrapings. What’s goodf being the first authentic Cajun restaurant here is that everybody’s heard about the food and they all want to try it. My key job is to make sure the food is consistent.
What are the most popular dishes?
Well, it really surprised me but the number one dish is chicken and waffles! We sell 80 or 90 portions a night and I’d say half of our diners order it. Everything here is big portions. It’s New Orleans style – tradition, family, friends. I spend a fair bit of time talking to diners as I see a good part of my job as being about education.
So Dubai was a smart move?
I’m loving it here. I’m really content. There are no problems and it’s very peaceful. I thought there might have been problems for an American because of the whole Middle East situation, but people are great. I know have Iraqi friends and I love being able to talk to anyone here. And cuisine-wise, Dubai’s a food orgy! I can’t get enough of those Arabic sweets…
What is Cajun?
Cajun cuisine is named for the French-speaking Acadian or Cajun immigrants deported by the British from Acadia in Canada to the Acadiana region of Louisiana.
A rustic cuisine, it’s based on locally available ingredients and preparation is simple, with a Cajun meal usually a three-pot affair – one for the main dish, one for rice and either sausages or seafood and the third for vegetables.
Defining flavours are ground cayenne and fresh black pepper. At the base of most dishes is the so-called holy trinity of Cajun cooking: capsicum, onion and celery, finely diced like mire poix and then flavoured with parsley, bay leaf, green onions and dried cayenne pepper.
Louisiana Creole cuisine, on the other hand, blends French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Native American, and African influences, as well as general Southern cuisine.