Following the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina, Blue Orleans owner and chef Michael Adams and his family made their way to Chattanooga. Before the hurricane, he was in corporate sales for the largest minority-owned industrial supplier in New Orleans. At the same time, he pursued his passion for cooking, having started a catering company, Mo Gumbo. His menu featured many of the foods for which New Orleans is famous — rich gumbos; spicy etouffees and Creoles; mouthwatering po' boys. But all that came to an end in 2005 when Katrina hit.
In spite of the tragedy, an opportunity was presented, as he, like many, settled into new cities. Adams started working at Papa's Country Style Restaurant on Amnicola Highway and introduced a number of his Cajun specialties to the meat-and-three menu, he says.
Twelve years ago, he opened Blue Orleans at the corner of Market and Main streets and looks back on his childhood as the impetus for pursuing a career as a chef.
"Growing up in New Orleans was an amazing culinary experience. And over the years, I've come to appreciate it even more because of being a chef and looking back at the time that I spent with my heroes, such as Leah Chase of Dooky Chase's Restaurant and Kevin Graham of The Grill Room at the Windsor Court Hotel,' he says. "They taught me a variety of ways to prepare good New Orleans Creole food."
In December, Food Network reality show "Restaurant: Impossible" visited Blue Orleans and gave the Cajun eatery a fresh, new look. Due to a contractual agreement with the show, Adams can't comment on what took place, but we can tune in Thursday, Feb. 27, at 9 p.m. when the Blue Orleans episode is scheduled to run.
Here he talks about how his grandmother honed his interest in cooking, his go-to kitchen tool and the most popular dishes on the menu at Blue Orleans.
Q: What's one of your earliest food memories?
A: Time spent with my grandmother in the kitchen watching her prepare everything from gumbo to pot roast and helping her do some of the prep work."
Q: Even as late as 2005, Chattanooga was still clinging to its meat-and-potatoes roots. What do you think attracted people to the cuisine you offered?
A: Both Cajun and Creole food are appealing because of the types of seafood that are used, the ingredients including the spices and also the deep cultural roots of the cuisine, stemming from the French the Spanish and Africa.
Q: Now 15 years after you opened your first restaurant in town, does your menu stick strictly to Cajun favorites?
A: The current menu still has its roots in New Orleans types of dishes; however we do offer tacos with some of the New Orleans proteins.
Q: Do you make the trip back to New Orleans very often?
A: Every chance I get when I have a few days off.
Q: Is it hard to find some of the ingredients you like to use in your dishes here in Chattanooga?
A: When I go back home, I'm able to get certain things that are hard to get up here or are too expensive, like certain seasonings and spices. And oftentimes I'll go to the fresh seafood market and get some red fish or extra-large shrimp to offer specials at Blue Orleans.
Q: What's the No. 1 seller on the menu at Blue Orleans?
A: All of the items move fairly well, but the top appetizer is the alligator bites, and our favorite entree is the seafood gumbo.
Q: Is it hard to find a good balance between bland and too spicy when it comes to the food you prepare for Chattanoogans?
A: For starters, when people hear New Orleans cuisine, whether Cajun or Creole, there is an instant assumption that the food is all spicy. But I think I've been able to find a good balance between what should be spicy and what shouldn't. When asked the question in the restaurant regarding what isn't spicy, I tell customers the shorter list of what is a little more spicy, like our etouffee and the shrimp Creole."
Q: What's your favorite cooking tool?
A: A very sharp santoku knife because of all the prep work I do.
Q: What's something people may not know about you?
A: I love to binge-watch the series "Stranger Things" and other Netflix shows with my kids.
Q: Do you come from a family of good cooks?
A: Yes, we had many good Creole cooks in the family, beginning with my grandmother, who gave me a good foundation, and my Aunt Betty, who taught me various way to make the best roux. My father was a good cook, too."
That early foundation Adams experienced comes together in his Creole Red Beans and Rice, the perfect recipe to dish out as we celebrate Mardi Gras, coming up Feb. 25.
Creole Red Beans and Rice
1 pound dry light red kidney beans
1 diced onion
1 medium bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 smoked ham hock
1 pound smoked sausage
1 teaspoon dry thyme
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper, to taste
6 dashes Louisiana hot sauce
Cooked white rice
Sort and wash dry beans, then put them in a large pot filled with water 2 inches above beans; add onions, bell pepper, celery, meats, seasonings and hot sauce. Simmer mixture for 2 hours, adding more water as needed because of evaporation. Beans are ready when they have a creamy consistency. Serve beans over cooked rice.
Email Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.