Maria's Kitchen - April 2021
- by Maria Vieages
As I was walking on the Bay St. Louis beach last week, I felt a wave of excitement and thought, “I have to call Mom and tell her that I’m home.”
Then I caught myself and smiled. First of all, I would have never left my mother alone, and second, it’s been 23 years since her death. But a strong and undeniable feeling of comfort and belonging had set in, and I longed to share it with her.
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Gastronomy is a religion in the South, and I am a believer.
My business is a month old, and I’ve met so many wonderful people who have shared culinary stories of their past. These stories are shaping my future menus for the Bay community. I plan to bring back old-school crawfish bisque, fondue, oyster patties and my mother’s beloved Sicilian recipes.
My culinary journey began around the age of 5, when I would sit at the table in the Gentilly Terrace neighborhood of New Orleans with my mother, Mimi (a nickname for Domenica), and my Aunt Bee – not after the one on the Andy Griffith Show, but a nickname for Bridget. I grew up an only child, and my mother didn’t work, so we had a lot of special time in the kitchen.
The first thing I ever made was pancakes. I stood on the hard captain’s chair and made all different sizes. I can still see the bubbles form and watch the pancake start to pull away from the skillet. I liked them slightly undercooked, and learned in my childhood to use my senses while cooking. It was something that put me completely in the moment and was meditative.
Fast forward to my adulthood, a wasted academic (but fun) time at UNO, and later a radiology degree. Bored and restless to use my right brain, I started collecting money from co-workers at Tulane Medical Center and would shop on a Friday and cater lunch for them the following week.
I would also go home after working and cook elaborate and diverse dishes. My neighbors would smell the creations and would arrive not long after with wine or the adult beverage du jour. We would share the meal, and I would do it again the next day.
When I decided to change my career to what made me happiest and entered culinary school, I never looked back. My first apprenticeship was at The Hotel Intercontinental, where I started in Garde Manger with a supervisor who was from France.
The next year, I moved to The Fairmont Hotel, where I was promoted to a line position at The Sazerac Restaurant. My final and most rewarding apprenticeship was with Emeril Lagasse at his first restaurant. I also did some part-time apprenticing with the New Orleans legend, Frank Brigtsen.
In 1997, I rented a small former seafood market on Harrison Avenue in Lakeview New Orleans, just ten minutes after the sign was posted. It became my take-out café and was very much like the show, Cheers. People would line up around 5 pm after grabbing a beer or wine from the convenience store attached to my space. My staff would hand them openers, corkscrews and glasses, and a lively social and networking scene blossomed while people waited for their dinners. Jazz or fun music was always playing, and the customers were as diverse as the cuisine. I also taught cooking classes. The catering orders/jobs flowed as the café’s reputation spread.
All of that ended on August 29, 2005.
Fourteen feet of water drowned my business during Hurricane Katrina. Afterward, I spent months fighting with insurance companies and FEMA. But I had zero financial recovery.
As the universe works, I received a phone call from a client who used to fly to New Orleans to take my cooking classes. She had been worried about the city and thinking of me. After a heart-to-heart conversation, she sent me a plane ticket to visit Sonoma, CA, where she lived.
I visited for a week and several months later started my 14-year-long change of scenery. I primarily cooked at vacation homes for clients who were visiting Napa, Sonoma and San Francisco, and who wanted either food delivery, an on-site dinner at the property, or multiple day food/service.
I count myself extremely fortunate. Some of my clients were (and still are) Carlos Santana, Amazon, Rue McClanahan, Macy’s, Dan Rather, Facebook, Cards Against Humanity, Steph Curry, P!NK, Google, Stanford University, The Manhattan Transfer, Sammy Hagar, and Marion Ross.
I filmed with HGTV as the private chef on their “House Hunters on Vacation” wine country episode, cooked on The Hallmark Channel, and was scheduled to cook on The Racheal Ray show when the pandemic hit. I’ve also been a regular guest chef on Celebrity Cruises, where I stay in touch with much of the staff and those who paid for my culinary cruise package.
My radio show, “Maria’s Non-Pompous Food Talk,” started in 2009 and lasted until I came home this past February.
My California experience reinforced a belief that many chefs share: The soul-moving part of my business is the bond I create with my clients through feeding them. It’s one of the deepest connections we have, and it’s universal.
For me, those connections began as a child, growing up in an adopted family that was Sicilian on my mother’s side and Portuguese on my father’s side. Two years ago, I discovered through a DNA test that my roots are embedded in the Iberian Peninsula and the Canary Islands, confirming my hunches. My passion for creating and sharing food with others is literally in my DNA.
So, now I’ve introduced myself, I’d like to leave you with a little useful food knowledge.
Artichokes are in season and loved by most people in yhe Bay, the Gulf Coast, and New Orleans. Every St. Joseph’s Day, I would help Mimi and Aunt Bee stuff what seemed like 100 artichokes. I would help pull the leaves back and throw in the stuffing.
Artichokes have been a part of my life for so many years, and I’ve come to learn how sensual they are. Choosing the right ones are essential, so use these tips:
- Make sure the leaves are tight and close to the core.
- Some artichokes will have longer, more angular leaves and some are shorter and fatter. Either is good, depending on whether you want to stuff or grill them. Choose the longer leaves for stuffing so you can get more into them. The shorter leaves are better for grilling.
- Color is important, so make sure they are a healthy green.
- Look at the stem (which you can peel and eat also). It should not be brownish or dry-looking.
Take some artichokes home and cook them with love. The heart of the artichoke is the most delicious part and tastes very buttery. My Sicilian cousins and I used to fight over the heart and who would dip it in red wine vinegar and olive oil.
As I cook artichokes in my new coast kitchen this spring, I know Mimi and Aunt Bee are so happy I’m back home. Small yellow and/or white butterflies cross my path since they died and have been surrounding me since March. I feel the loving presence of my family as I consider what I want to offer folks here.
While starting a business in a new place is exciting and not without challenges, somehow the hurdles here in the Bay have been much lower than in other places. I had forgotten the warmth that resonates from people here wanting to help others in numerous ways without agendas or expectations.
One of my first and best customers from my takeout cafe in New Orleans showed up on my first night here in the Bay. It was as if not one moment had passed. We still laughed and talked about so many things with the typical “so long” of a dinner/drinks invitation.
One of the main goals in my business here is to resurrect many classic dishes which have disappeared from the iconic restaurants that ran their course or “ain’t dere no more” as a result of Hurricane Katrina. I also welcome your favorite and family meal requests, and I will rotate them on the menus.
I want you to be as smitten with my food as I am with this community. I want to create a culinary excitement, a buzz around great foods.
And I look forward to sharing recipes and food/wine thoughts with you in my new column in the Shoofly Magazine. What a beautiful way to get to know you more.