Chefs of Cenla

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Cenla has long been known as the “Crossroads” of Louisiana. Nowhere is that moniker more appropriate than in the confluence of culinary styles that merge in our area. With an abundance of fresh Gulf seafood and Cajun inspiration from the south to the traditions of the Creole heritage from the Cane River area to the abundance of farm fresh ingredients in between, Cenla is a great place to create food. As a result, our area is home to several accomplished kitchen masters. From enthusiastic young talents just starting out to seasoned professionals at the top of their craft, the Chefs of Cenla create a wide variety of culinary offerings to delight even the most discerning palate.

 

Brad Haigler, 32

Executive Chef, Maglieaux’s Restaurants
Specialty Dish/Cuisine: Garlic and Cheddar Shrimp & Grits with a Creole Au Gratin Sauce

Chef Brad Haigler describes his cooking style as culturally authentic and traditional, offered in a modern and progressive manner. Chef Brad attributes his passion for cooking to his ability to express himself through his food, and share that passion with others. “The kitchen has taught me multitasking, patience, discipline, as well as staff coaching and business management skills,” explains Haigler. He shares that sense of expression with his peers in the kitchen. “I am influenced by all those I work with who share the same passion and pride in creating quality product on a daily basis.”

Chef Brad is dedicated to helping his staff achieve their own success in the kitchen through word and example. “Having a team that is interested in progressing and growing their culinary knowledge and skills keeps me inspired,” he explains. He empowers his cooks through delegation. He’s sought to “develop a duplicatable system that can be taught to anyone.” He is always open to provide guidance and advice when needed. “Stay humble and dedicated. Don’t be discouraged. Encourage your cooks and don’t ever limit them.”

 

Jessica Wilkinson, 31

The Bentley Room Restaurant
Specialty Dish/Cuisine: Creole Italian, French

Chef Jennifer Wilkinson can trace her love for cooking back to her childhood and watching her grandmother’s mastery in the kitchen. She credits her grandparents as her greatest culinary influences. “I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my grandmother growing up,” she explains. “My Grandfather also loved to go out to eat. I have a lot of memories of getting dressed up to go out to nice restaurants as a child.” Chef Jennifer describes her style as “made-from-scratch with a lot of South Louisiana and Italian influences.” Blending those flavors and styles together has allowed her to develop a unique style, often reimagining staple ingredients in new ways. She takes great joy in seeing the way that can lead to new experiences for her diners. “Watching someone try something that they normally would not like or even try and end up loving it is very rewarding,” says Chef Wilkinson. She also knows the importance of keeping an open mind in the ever-evolving world of cuisine. She encourages those around her to “master every situation, keep your ego in check and always remain teachable.”

 

James Shields, 53

Executive Chef, Paragon Casino Resort
Specialty Dish/Cuisine: Gumbo, Cajun Wild Game

Chef James Shields has come to Cajun cuisine via an unusual route. A Michigan native and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park New York, Chef Shields came to love the cuisine of Louisiana through the inspiration of Chef John Folse. Chef Shields brings his formal training to bear, combining it with traditional Cajun flavors and techniques “using cast iron pans to create hot and flavorful dishes.” He traces his start in the kitchen to his childhood. “When I was 14 years old, I worked as a cook in Michigan,” he recalls. Since that time, he’s striven to continually hone and improve his skill in the kitchen, and to share opportunities with his team. “Seeing dishwashers develop a passion to cook, and working their way through the years, eventually being promoted to chef is particularly rewarding,” says Chef Shields. He encourages those working their way up to “be a great listener and follow the basics of fundamental cooking at all times.”

As a part of the brand refresh at Paragon, Chef Shields has been charged with taking a fresh look at the menu offerings and creating new experiences for guests throughout the property.

 

Aaron Atchison, 37

Janohn’s
Specialty Dish/Cuisine: French Fusion

Chef Aaron Atchison’s culinary career has come full circle. “Cooking was always a part of my life. My father, John, and my mother, Jan, are both very good in the kitchen. I started at 8 years old making croutons at Janohn’s on Jackson Street,” says Chef Aaron. From those beginnings, he would go on to train at the Cordon Bleu in Austin, Texas under Chefs Fumiharu Hurose and Harvey Harris. Chef Aaron builds upon those early foundations as he delights diners with much more than just croutons at Janohn’s, now located in Boyce. “I move fast. My style is a reflection of my experiences in life,” he says. Beyond the satisfaction he gets from happy customers, the kitchen serves as a kind of personal refuge for the chef. “Cooking takes my mind off of things, keeps me humble, and brings me closer to God,” Chef Aaron explains. For the next generation of crouton bakers, his advice is simple. “School is costly. If you want to be a chef, find a chef to teach you. You’ll have no debt and you’ll have a job! Always have gratitude for any opportunity that God gives you. And cook food!”

 

Joan Robbins, 54

Pastry Chef, The Diamond Grill
Specialty Dish/Cuisine: Classic American with French influence

Chef Joan Robbins was inspired by some advice she received from renowned Louisiana Chef Paul Prudhomme in New Orleans when she was 21 years old. “Show up early, always ask for extra work, keep your space cleaner than everyone else and always remember quality is all.” Chef Robbins knew from that moment that cooking was her calling, and has taken that advice to heart throughout her career. “My training and experience came from employment in several restaurants working on both coasts of the country,” she explains. “I have had the privilege to learn from several great chefs, including Chef Joy Altman, Chef Jeremiah Tower and Chef Wolfgang Puck.” She brought that wealth of knowledge and experience back home when she returned to Cenla to be closer to her mother. “Central Louisiana has been my greatest inspiration,” she says. “Diamond Grill Chef William Leroux challenges me to be creative and do better at each task.” Echoing Prudhomme’s advice, Chef Leroux insists that “mediocrity is not to be tolerated in a kitchen.” For Chef Robbins, “It’s not just a job, it is an expression of art.”

 

Trent Bonnette, 36

Chef/Owner, Brown Bag Gourmet
Specialty Dish/Cuisine: Global Cuisine with Louisiana Flare

Chef Trent Bonnette’s fire for cooking was stoked in the Big Easy when he moved to the Crescent City directly out of high school. “Having access to a huge variety of ingredients and culture certainly jump started my interest in cooking,” he explains. His NOLA roots inform much of his style in the kitchen, as he enjoys utilizing fresh Gulf seafood in many of his dishes. Chef Trent has a particular fondness for cooking on the grill, a passion that is heavily influenced by one of his culinary inspirations, Chef Tyler Florence. “His passion for food and ingredients reminds me a lot of myself,” he says. Chef Trent credits a great deal of his inspiration and motivation from his family and friends. “They are who I began cooking for and still cook for today, especially when I want to try something new,” he laughs. “They are always up for a culinary adventure.” Putting a smile on the faces of his guests remains the highlight of his job. “The absolute most rewarding part is seeing people come together over food and wine and enjoying everything around them for a moment in time.” For those just starting their own culinary adventure, the chef has some simple advice, “Never give up. You will wash lots of dishes and mop many floors, but one day it will come together and make it all worthwhile.”

 

Joshua Sasser, 30

Legends Steakhouse
Specialty Dish/Cuisine: Seafood and Wild Game

Chef Joshua Sasser is a graduate of the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University. He brings a passion for experimentation to his kitchen at Legends Steakhouse, located at Paragon Casino Resort. “I would describe my cooking style as a flavorful, clean, and less-is-more approach. I believe in finding the best ingredients and letting them speak for themselves,” says Chef Sasser. He believes that cooks at all levels should strive for understanding the food they prepare. “Learn how food is grown, who’s growing it, how food gets to your plate. Better understanding each ingredient will help you understand dishes better as a whole.” Cooking has been a part of the chef’s life for as long as he can remember. “I cannot remember a time when food was not a huge part of my life,” he explains. “My greatest influence has been my mom, as she has believed in me my entire life,” says Chef Sasser. “She is definitely a huge supporter and we spent a lot of time together in the kitchen in my younger days.” He is driven by a desire to be a part of the Southern culinary tradition. “Especially in the south, food and fellowship go hand in hand,” he explains. “There is nothing better than enjoying a great meal with family and friends.”

 

Paige Lucas, 26

Chef/Owner, Pork Belly’s Bar & Grill
Specialty Dish/Cuisine: Cracklin Crusted Bone-In Pork Chop

The youngest chef on our list is also one of the most ambitious. Chef Paige Lucas is a graduate of the Louisiana Culinary Institute in Baton Rouge and the owner of a brand new restaurant venture in Marksville. She can trace her love of cooking to her heritage. “As a traditional Cajun girl, we all start young, but I began cooking professionally about six years ago.” The result of that life-long passion for cooking and subsequent education has been a desire to provide a top notch experience for her diners. “My cooking style is a blend of my strict formal training and all the on-the-job training from many different restaurants,” explains Chef Paige. “The most rewarding part of being a chef is giving my customers a dining experience with a lasting memory,” she continues. She strives to live out her own advice to get better each and every day. “Food is intimate and must be treated that way.”

 

Pui Chung Wan, 53

Jena Chocktaw Pines Casino
Specialty Dish/Cuisine: Classic Cantonese and Barbeque Duck

Chef Pui Chung Wan, better known to those close to him as “Chef Gary”, is a self-taught specialist in International Cuisine. He prides himself on utilizing his varied experience to approach a variety of different styles. “I am very versatile and cook dishes from almost any culture, though my favorite style of cooking is Chinese,” explains Chef Gary. He can trace his interest in the culinary arts back to his early childhood. “My interest in cooking started when I was 7 or 8 years old. I would sit in the kitchen for hours and watch my parents and grandparents cook and prepare meals for my family,” he recalls. A member of a large family of eight, Chef Gary says there was always ample opportunity to see his mother hard at work in her kitchen. “She would make feasts for the holidays and almost every occasion,” he explains. With such strong roots in the kitchen, Chef Gary finds it a place of comfort and learning. “Cooking is like therapy to me,” he says. “You can never know everything about cooking. Experiment, and use constructive criticism to improve your work. The more you learn the more you can strive to become better.”

 

Jimbo Thiels, 68

Chef/Owner, Tunk’s Cypress Inn
Specialty Dish/Cuisine: Snapper Sandy

Chef Jimbo Thiels is a self-proclaimed graduate of the culinary “School of Hard Knocks”. For Chef Thiels, cooking is family tradition. “As the oldest of 11 kids, I started cooking for my younger brothers and sisters at a young age,” he explains. He credits the women in his family as his principal influences. “My mother and grandmother, wife, aunts and mother-in-law all inspire me,” he says. From his beginnings in the family kitchen, he maintains a youthful exuberance about cooking. “I cook like a maniac or mad scientist,” he laughs. “I like to experiment until I have a product that the diner will enjoy.” That experimentation has paid off, as Tunk’s Cypress Inn has become a Cenla dining institution. Those rewards come from an equal amount of hard work and sacrifice. For aspiring chefs, he offers this advice: “Just remember that on every holiday and special occasion, when all of your friends and family are having fun celebrating, you will be working.” Having enjoyed a considerable amount of success over the years, Chef Jimbo is still unsure what part he likes best about being a chef. “I’m still trying to figure it out,” he chuckles. “So far, it is the compliments from the people eating and enjoying the food.”

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