METARIE, La. — Call it Cajun, call it Creole, call it what you like--restaurants all over town are suddenly touting the best of Louisiana's foods cooked by the best of New Orleans' chefs. Meanwhile, back in the bayou country, things are moving in a different direction.
Consider Gerhard Brill. He is a portly German who is trying to change the way people in New Orleans eat.
A chef at Commander's Palace for six years, Brill transformed many of the heavy regional dishes, using light sauces to complement the fresh native seafood. Today, in his own new restaurant, Gambrill's, the chef continues to pride himself on his light versions of the traditionally heavy regional cuisine.
Brill began to restyle the traditional Cajun foods with the help of Ella Brennan, owner of Commander's Palace. "Gerhard was part of a team of Betty Hoffman, myself, my brother Dick and Paul Prudhomme," said Brennan. "We called ourselves 'Foodies' and we would meet each week and talk food. We decided people were eating a lot lighter and Cajun food was much too heavy, so we lightened the sauces; then we took it a bit further and we reduced the stock.
"I went to a light Creole with the fresh New Orleans seafood," says Brill, who claims to be the first to cook blackened redfish. "But Paul tooked it over," says Brill, who was the working chef under Prudhomme.
"The truth of the matter is," says Brennan, "we were having a food meeting and I asked Gerhard if he would cook it (redfish) exactly as a fisherman would." So Brill is the one who invented the famous blackened redfish? "I don't think anyone invented it," says Brennan, "but Gerhard cooked it for us first."
"We were experimenting," says Prudhomme, "and if he wants to say he invented the dish, it's OK with me." (Prudhomme gets definite credit for the name.)
Quibbles aside, Brill made other changes as well. "I think the Cajun food is too heavy," he says. "It is too overpowered, too overseasoned. The new Creole food, what I started at Commander's, is light and it is not cooked as much. Freshness . . . fresh vegetables, fresh meat and fresh fishes are the key. They used to cook Creole sauce for 5 or 6 hours. Right now it is a 10 or 15 minute affair with me."
Eight months ago Brill and one of his assistants at Commanders Palace, Steven Gambill, opened Gambrill's. "Now," says the chef, "I can do what I want." And what the chef wants to do is change and create, adding Louisiana grown pecans to trout, or serving fresh stuffed Gulf Stream shrimp with seasonal Louisiana mirliton (a local squash). He also creates his own desserts, drawing on the New Orleans heritage. His latest creations are apple beignets, light, fruit-filled versions of the famous fried puffs of dough served at the Cafe du Monde.
Brill is careful to keep his menu small so that he can change with the seasons. "You can't have a menu with 20 or 30 items," he says. "What are you going to do when crawfish come in season, or when soft-shells come in season? If I had them on the menu, I would have to use them frozen." Chef Brill continues the changes he began at Commander's Palace--but with a difference. "We like to give people something new every time they come. I sell more daily specials than anything else. The menu is just a guideline; we don't want everything to be on the menu."
Many of his customers credit Brill with a change in their eating habits. "His sauces aren't as heavy and creamy as traditional New Orleans cuisine," said one local resident. And locals make up the bulk of Gambrill's business. "The more you expose people to new dishes and to their local heritage, the better you are."
But New Orleans' local heritage continues to spread farther and farther from Louisiana. In fact, just a couple of months ago, Brill went to London and Paris to teach the chefs at the first Creole/Cajun restaurant there: New Orleans Jazz Cafe/Creole Cafe. So much for local heritage.
Gambrill's, 94 Friedrichs Avenue, Metairie, La. (504) 831-6917.