Café NOMA has launched its third annual summer cooking demo series, featuring the chefs of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group.
Tucked inside the New Orleans Museum of Art, the eatery’s aptly titled “Artful Palate” events take place on Friday evenings and bear a theme that closely follows the museum’s current exhibit: Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898.
“We wanted to focus on the whole Latin American aspect of it,” said Chris Montero, executive chef of Café NOMA and café b. “We thought we could tie in the culinary characteristics of Mexico, along with Central America and the Caribbean, which has links to New Orleans.”
The seminars will materialize over the next three months with an assortment of motifs. Each seminar begins with a discussion on the theme’s significance, followed by a 20- to 30-minute cooking demonstration and a sampling of the finished product. The program concludes with what Montero described as a vigorous question and answer session.
Admission into the restaurant — where the lectures take place — is free. Because the seminars have grown in popularity, seating is limited, so Montero encourages guests to arrive early. The audience demographic varies in accordance to the theme, but there is one fan who has attended nearly every lecture, regardless of the topic — Montero’s mother-in-law, Elaine Hinojosa, who vouches for the experience.
“People who are watching the program feel comfortable asking questions,” Hinojosa said. “He presents the program in such a way that you feel like you can go home and do it yourself.”
Hinojosa appreciates the educational and entertainment aspect of the seminars, but she also enjoys the intimate setting of Café NOMA, which overlooks an oak-shaded section of City Park. Quite often, she will grab a bite to eat from the restaurant before the seminar starts.
Café NOMA’s Friday evening menu differs from the daily menu. It also includes discounts and often reflects the theme of the cooking demo. “If we’re doing a lecture that’s related to Mexico, then we’ll have a mole on special,” said Montero.
This year’s Spanish-American culinary concept is especially close to Montero’s heart, because he is of Spanish descent. The Montero family arrived in Donaldsonville nearly 225 years ago. While some ancestors married into an Isleños settlement, others migrated to New Orleans. Montero’s heritage plays a starring role in his cooking style.
“What I find interesting is the Spanish influence on what we call classic New Orleans Creole cuisine,” he said. “The nature of our food is heavily influenced by Spain.”
He cited jambalaya as an example. “There is a debate that it’s African and Caribbean,” Montero said. “But there is no dispute that jambalaya is a derivative of Spanish paella.”
Montero, whose favorite aspect of the seminar is interacting with the audience, expects a spirited discussion on this topic. But going beyond the lecture, he welcomes questions during the actual demonstration, where he reveals the overall concept of creating a certain dish.
Although Montero dictates each step of the preparation and cooking process, he encourages attendees to be less reliant on the recipe.
“If you understand the fundamentals, you can make the dish whatever you want it to be,” Montero said. He ultimately hopes to inspire his guests. “That’s what I get the most joy out of — getting people impassioned about the food and cooking.”