Most people in Livingston Parish likely know Jeff Taylor, at least by name, as the parish assessor.
Not as many may know him as an accomplished outdoor cook, with a passion for grilling, smoking and, above all, frying on the griddle in the outdoor kitchen that is his favorite part of the house.
“When we built this house, I told (my wife) Delia she could build whatever she wanted but I wanted an outdoor kitchen with an outdoor griddle,” Taylor said. “On Saturday mornings, I walk out of the bedroom door and it’s right here - ready for me to fry up bacon and eggs.”
Those who do know Taylor well, which is no small group of extended family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues from the Assessor’s Office, are well versed in his love of cooking.
They frequently converge at the Taylors’ spacious Denham Springs home for impromptu lunches, holiday gatherings or game-day parties to feast on Taylor’s generous portions of smoked baby-back ribs, tender brisket or decadently juicy burgers, to name just a few of his specialties.
It’s the kind of home that is always bustling with people who show up so casually and unannounced that it’s clear they do it all the time and that they are always welcome. It’s also apparent that the kitchen - both Taylor kitchens, actually - are where they gather.
For his part, Taylor wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love cooking for a crowd so much I’d like to open a restaurant,” he said. “But I like being assessor even more.”
Taylor credits his mother and grandmothers with instilling in him a love of cooking and eating rich, hearty food. He grew up in the tiny town of Colyell in Livingston Parish, which Delia describes more as “just a road, really,” and was raised on what he calls “traditional Southern country cooking.”
“Fried chicken, roast beef, biscuits and gravy,” he said. “Not Cajun food. Just down-home, Southern dishes.”
As early as his days at Livingston High School, where he met Delia, Taylor enjoyed spending time in the kitchen. His interest increased as he grew older, and by the time the couple married in 1986 and had a family - which includes son, Zachary, 16, and daughter, Caroline, 12 - Jeff Taylor had established himself as the main cook in the family.
“He has always liked to dabble in the kitchen, thank goodness,” said Delia Taylor, a communications consultant who studied journalism at LSU. “I always tell people that journalists don’t have to know how to do everything; they just have to know where to find it. Well, I kind of applied that to Jeff and cooking.”
Not that he has time to prepare big meals every day. The job of tax assessor, which he has held for more than 11 years, can be pretty demanding on the schedule, especially at certain times of the year. But Taylor has found ways to combine cooking and his career by whipping up meals for his office staffers before and after hours.
“Sometimes, we do pancakes and bacon for breakfast before the office opens,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll barbecue after work. We even fried Oreos recently.”
Fried Oreos. OK. Jeff Taylor is not a high-brow chef. He doesn’t use secret spice blends in his dishes or expensive ingredients. In fact, he is very candid about what he considers to be the secret to his savory smoked ribs and brisket - a $1 bottle of marinade called Louisiana Supreme Marinade that he procures from his neighborhood supermarket.
He also favors a dry rub from McCormick and a bottled barbecue sauce from Kraft.
But then, successful smoking and grilling is as much about the technique as the marinades and spices, and it is in this department that Taylor really shines.
He said the key to successfully smoking meat is to cook it long and slow at a low temperature in a charcoal-heated smoker. He recommends using chunks of hickory wood, though he’ll occasionally experiment with cherry or apple, and he insists on the importance of rotating the meat - among different racks if your smoker has more than one, or into different positions if your smoker has just one rack.
“You always want to make sure that you’re cooking the meat evenly,” he said.
It’s also critical to have a quality smoker. Taylor’s is top of the line. It’s a Backwoods Smoker, a multirack charcoal smoker, which he prefers over electric because he can better control the temperature.
“I got up at 3 a.m. one Saturday so I could drive to Shreveport to buy it,” he said. “Then I turned around and was back in Baton Rouge by 2 p.m., in time to try it out for the game that night.”
He uses the smoker for his brisket as well, though his preferred method of cooking brisket is in the oven. He marinates it overnight, again using his favorite Louisiana Supreme Marinade and a spice rub, then slow roasts it for several hours at a low heat.
He finishes it up by removing it from the oven, basting it with barbecue sauce then throwing it on the grill for a quick char. It’s ready when it pulls apart easily with tongs or a fork.
Besides those practical tips, Taylor believes there are a couple of keys to good cooking. First, you can’t take shortcuts. Second, you have to really enjoy it.
“For me, it’s fun and relaxing,” he said.
Above all, you have to be open to criticism and advice.
“You have to be willing to listen to what people tell you,” he said. “I’ve learned some of my most useful information from following the advice of others.”
Next week, Taylor will weigh in on how he likes to cook the perfect burger.
TAYLOR’S TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL SMOKING:
•Marinate for several hours or overnight before smoking.
•Buy a quality smoker.
•Use charcoal heat, if possible.
•Smoke over very low, steady heat.
•Rotate or turn meat frequently.
•Use Louisiana Supreme Marinade.