Chef Kevin Belton easily recalls cooking with his mother in the kitchen when he was a child.
First, she’d sauté “the trinity” — onion, bell pepper, celery — in a large pot while he peeled shrimp or sliced sausage. Then, rather than rely on a cookbook for instructions, she’d open the pantry door and decide what to throw into the pot next.
“The best thing I learned from her, and also my grandmother, is that it doesn’t matter what you’re cooking, just make it work,” he said. “Keep it simple, use what you have, and make it work.”
Belton, 56, maintains this philosophy today.
He’s sharing his cooking advice and expertise on Creole cuisine during a 26-part series called “New Orleans Cooking With Kevin Belton,” which premieres on WYES-TV (channel 12) at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, April 16. The series will be distributed to public television stations nationwide by American Public Television (APT).
Subsequent episodes air on Saturday mornings at 9:30 a.m., with repeat broadcasts on Sundays at 1 p.m. The show was produced by public television station WYES-TV and filmed in their studio on Navarre Avenue, near City Park.
The companion cookbook, “Kevin Belton’s Big Flavors of New Orleans” (Gibbs Smith 2016), contains recipes from the show.
In each episode, the imposing Belton, who stands 6-foot-9, prepares three recipes that focus on an aspect of Creole cuisine.
In an episode about eggs, for example, Belton creates Eggs Benedict, Eggs Sardou and a dish dubbed Clean-Out-The-Fridge Frittata.
Since several episodes honor the international cultures that have contributed to New Orleans cuisine, Belton will show his viewers how to make German beef rouladen, Mexican fish tacos with remoulade sauce and Irish stew, among other ethnic food items.
The multicultural theme is especially fitting for Belton, who claims English, French, Native-American and African ancestry.
His mother’s family has roots in the French-Caribbean island of Martinique, and his French-speaking father’s family came from the Bayou Lafourche area of South Louisiana, near Thibodaux.
Belton grew up in Uptown New Orleans and honed his cooking skills at home. As a teenager, he worked in restaurants owned by the families of his friends, helping out however he could.
He also read books about culinary arts and took “a few” cooking classes.
“Basically, I learned the business by growing up in it,” he said.
For the past 20 years, the affable chef has been an instructor at the New Orleans School of Cooking in the French Quarter, where he has introduced more than 500,000 visitors to Creole and Cajun cuisine.
“It’s fun to teach people how to view Louisiana cuisine the proper way,” said Belton. “Most of them think that it has to be hot and spicy. I watch their faces go, ‘Oh, that’s why gumbo is so dark; it’s because of the roux.’ They see flour cooked to a chocolate color and say, ‘I didn’t know you could cook flour that dark.’”
Belton hopes to debunk myths about southeast Louisiana’s cuisine during his television series, the same way he does during his class. In fact, his teaching skills have already come in handy.
“I had a great staff helping me get the food prepped,” he said, explaining that he would go over the recipe steps while they watched and worked. “Even though we were filming, I was teaching them how to make it.”
If a recipe seemed too complicated, he would find a way to simplify it. The staff and the production crew also acted as a built-in “taste test audience” that delivered honest feedback. (It was pretty much always positive, he noted.)
“I think folks from around the country, when they watch this, they’ll be able to say: ‘You know what, I can go in the kitchen and make that,’” he said.
Belton talks to the camera in a conversational tone, coming across as friendly and easygoing … because he is. And although he can smoothly work his way through a recipe, seemingly unfazed by the cameras and lights that are fixed on him, he’s aware that this is a big moment for him.
Sometimes, the memories of being a 6-year-old standing in the kitchen with his mother don’t feel so far away.
“I still can’t believe that it’s happening,” the chef admits. “I’m very blessed that people enjoy what I do.”