A beignet turned into a ham and cheese sandwich, gumbo crossed with lasagna, red velvet funnel cake and boudin egg rolls. Dishes like this might sound outlandish in some quarters.
But, they’re right at home at Louisiana food festivals, where vendors are forever mixing up the mojo of familiar flavors for local crowds who always turn up hungry for something different.
This week, such creations will be unleashed upon the wider food-loving world by Kevin Belton, a TV cooking show host who is cut from a different cloth himself.
His latest series, “Kevin Belton’s New Orleans Celebrations” from local PBS affiliate WYES-TV, premieres Saturday, April 13.
The 26-episode series draws its inspiration from Louisiana food festivals, and also from the everyday celebrations in New Orleans where food holds a central role.
For Belton, the message is in the gusto of making good food for good times, and the excitement that New Orleans cooks bring to the task.
“It’s taking the good Louisiana ingredients we know and love and turning things up,” said Belton. “That’s what gets people excited. That’s what makes it more than just having a meal.”
The series uses the food festival framework to tell a story about New Orleans, though the dishes featured throughout are aimed are home cooks looking to up their game.
“If you always have a dish you make a certain way when you have friends over, this is inspiration to do it a little differently, change up the way you present it,” Belton said. “You start with the same ingredients or dish, but you make it more fun. That’s how I like to cook.”
The recipes in “Kevin Belton’s New Orleans Celebrations” and the companion cookbook of the same name are not necessarily technically demanding, and they don’t call for exotic ingredients. But they still produce dishes that can be the center of attention. The source material is Louisiana tradition, filtered through a creative, modern sensibility.
Oyster tamales, bacon and egg calas and chicken and waffle melts are some examples that could fuel their own theme parties. Other recipes are more about mastering dishes that fit on any table when people get together. These are the social dishes worked into local rituals, like the tailgating staple pasta jambalaya or crawfish-stuffed mushrooms for backyard boil leftovers.
“It’s about finding ways to be innovative, to be creative and to celebrate this food, and the trick, of course, is being able to pull it off,” said Belton.
Big on food
Towering at 6-foot-9 and jovial, with his beaming grin practically his trademark, Belton distills a lifetime of New Orleans cooking into his shows and companion cookbooks.
“Kevin Belton’s New Orleans Celebrations” is the third cooking series the chef has created with WYES since 2015. Like its predecessors, it follows a familiar format of the instructional cooking show.
That stands in contrast to many food media trends, with their focus on game show-style competitions or travel show narratives. In Belton’s shows, viewers are in the kitchen with the chef, looking into the pot, watching recipes progress from raw materials to finished dish.
“I think there’s drama in every dish, just seeing how it comes together and what you’ve created,” said Belton.
New Orleans has been magnetic for culinary themed shows. While talent typically drops in for a shoot, showcases a few of their finds and departs for the next hotspot, Belton’s cooking shows give a far deeper dive into the how and why of New Orleans food culture.
As he cooked his sweet heat pan-fried chicken recently, Belton’s banter started with recollections of a vanished New Orleans — accompanying his grandmother to a Freret Street food store back in the day to select a live chicken — and ended with an enduring idea: how fried chicken is always on the table for visitors during Mardi Gras.
Belton has built a career showing people around the twists and turns of the New Orleans food obsession. For years he was a chef instructor at a French Quarter cooking school, where he delighted visitors with his easy way around the teaching kitchen and his gregarious banter about his community’s relationship with its food.
This has translated well as he started working in television. Belton is now the resident, on-air chef for WWL-TV and a features reporter for the news station, deployed to cover fun events and personalities around town.
With WYES, his shows continue a long tradition of New Orleans public broadcasting bringing America into the Louisiana kitchen. That goes back to the 1970s with Cajun chef Justin Wilson and his famous “I gar-on-tee” catchphrase and goes on through chef Paul Prudhomme, who made five cooking series with WYES-TV.
Belton is the first black chef to host a WYES cooking series, and producers say his background, his personality and his approach have made him a hit with a wide-ranging audience.
“Viewers are in love with New Orleans, but now they love Kevin, too,” said Terri Landry, producer and director of the new series and many others dating back to the early 1980s.
“His perspective on this food is unique because this is also food he grew up with. Viewers want authenticity and that’s what Kevin brings, because he’s the real deal.”
He’s developed a particular niche with young viewers. After a Midwestern snowstorm canceled school, Belton heard from families in those faraway communities who used the downtime to practice dishes he taught them through his show. At events around New Orleans, kids run up to greet the chef they know from TV.
“I’m turning into the Big Bird of cooking,” he said, laughing.
With his latest series, and its focus on how New Orleans eats when this community parties together, he’s hoping to share more about his hometown.
“What I get from the feedback is there’s a lot of people out there who would like to live in New Orleans, they want to live next door and come running over to see what’s cooking,” he said. “We’re able to bring them some of that.”
Airs Saturdays at 9:30 a.m., repeat Sundays at 1 p.m., on WYES-Channel 12
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