Chef Hayley Vanvleet worked past Boudin, Bourbon & Beer events by bustling alongside colleagues as a cook, a sous chef or an assistant. But at this year’s bash, the rising star of the local dining scene will represent her new French Quarter restaurant.
“It feels awesome to have my name up there,” said Vanvleet, the executive chef of Curio, which opened in September. “I'm ridiculously humbled and excited to participate in this event. It's still surreal for me.”
The seventh annual Boudin, Bourbon & Beer takes place in Champions Square on Friday, Nov. 3, and features more than 65 local and national chefs preparing creative takes on Cajun flavors, nearly side by side in massive tasting tents.
The culinary extravaganza also includes open bars pouring Abita beer, Buffalo Trace cocktails and fine wines, along with a station for Nat Sherman cigars.
While the theme is boudin, the Cajun rice and pork sausage, the directions chefs take from there are as diverse as their restaurants and individual styles. Vanvleet, for instance, will serve braised pork ribs that are deep-fried and tossed in an andouille caramel sauce.
“I like that sweet and savory, and sweet and spicy dynamic in a flavor profile,” she said, explaining how deep-frying the ribs “gives them a nice crispiness on the outside, but they're still meaty and juicy on the inside.”
There are no awards or trophies for the food at Boudin, Bourbon & Beer, but chefs unmistakably put a special effort into the dishes they create for the night. That has made the annual event a standout on the New Orleans calendar with its mix of unique Cajun-inspired food, local and touring musical acts and plenty of its namesake beverages.
Boudin, Bourbon & Beer happens the night before Carnivale du Vin, a black-tie wine auction and gala dinner. Both events benefit the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, the celebrity chef's New Orleans-based charitable organization that funds programs to inspire and mentor at-risk youth.
Friday’s outdoor boudin bash is led by Lagasse, along with co-chairmen Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski, co-chefs of Cochon and other popular restaurants, and John Currence, a native New Orleanian who runs several eateries in Oxford, Mississippi.
Tariq Hanna, the pastry chef behind Sucre and Salon by Sucre, has participated in the fundraising weekend since the beginning.
“The Emeril Lagasse Foundation is a great organization; it's a great cause,” said Hanna. “At the end of the day, that's the first and foremost reason why, without hesitation, I choose to do this every year.”
Hanna’s kitchen crew will offer a savory bacon bread pudding, topped with a beer cheddar sauce, along with a “bourbon macaroon” — a shot of bourbon in the form of a French macaroon.
“I'm in a different boat, because people see me as a pastry chef more than anything, despite the fact that I have Salon (by Sucre) and I'm doing savory food,” said Hanna. “We want people to eat something that’s a little different from what they would expect from us and, hopefully, see a more creative side of what my company is … and enjoy it and come back for seconds and thirds.”
A party for chefs, too
But Boudin, Bourbon & Beer is not only about food and philanthropy. It’s about the camaraderie between high-profile chefs, often expressed with some swagger.
“There's a little competitiveness,” said chef Aaron Burgau, of Patois and Central City BBQ. “Everybody's trying everybody else's stuff and talking shop. There's a lot of ribbing going on, but it's a good time.”
Rather than serve small, individual dishes, Burgau will team up with Nathanial Zimet, chef and co-owner of Boucherie, for a “pig pickin’ party.” It’s a feast that comprises specialty sausage, cracklin’, backbone stew, a boudin-stuffed pig and “whatever else” they come up with. Guests can visit their tasting stations and serve themselves.
“It allows us to have fun while we cook,” Burgau said, adding that other participating chefs stop by to help and hang out in a laidback setting.
“We don't always get to see each other, but when we do, it’s really nice,” said Zimet. “It's probably one of the main reasons why we love doing (this event) so much.”
The not-so-secret after-party is likely another reason.
“We work hard early so that we can play hard later,” Zimet said. “There's a great amount of food, alcohol and good, cool people, so it's kind of ideal — it’s a trifecta of awesomeness.”
Cooks with common ground
Although Boudin, Bourbon & Beer feels like a celebration, the chefs still face the challenge of preparing food for an enormous, hungry crowd. Last year’s event attracted nearly 5,000 people.
It’s reassuring to know that colleagues — even the ones from different restaurants — are there to help, says Vanvleet.
“It means a lot in those high-pressure situations to know that other people are going through it, and they have your back,” she said. “Everyone's there to give a hand.”
Since Hanna describes himself as one of the “odd” chefs who’s usually in “work mode,” he actually prefers when his kitchen crew steps away to explore the event.
“You always want them to enjoy the experience,” he said.
But when Hanna does finally take a break, he likes to wander, try different treats and meet new people, especially chefs he’s recently read about or seen on television.
“The best part about our industry is no matter how much of celebrity you are, at the end of the day we're all cooks. We’re twisted-minded people who are so masochistic to put ourselves through this,” Hanna said, half-joking. “We're all cut from the same cloth.”
What: Boudin, Bourbon & Beer
When: Friday, Nov. 3, 6-10:30 p.m.
Where: Champions Square (at the Superdome)
Tickets: $99 at boudinbourbonandbeer.com; 21+ only
What: Carnivale du Vin
When: Saturday, Nov. 4, from 5:30 p.m.
Where: Hyatt Regency
Tickets: $1,000 at carnivaleduvin.com
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