Everybody knows what makes Louisiana such a popular destination—good music, good times and good food. Central Louisiana has its own blend of culinary styles. From time honored old family recipes to uniquely inspired cutting edge fine dining, Cenla is second to none. We have assembled a cross section of dishes by notables across the community for which, doubtless, many of you have longed to acquire the recipe. The wait is over! Savor the flavors of Cuisine Cenla Style.
Jimbo and Sandy Thiels beckon folks to dine with their homespun hospitality. “When we decided to open Tunk’s Cypress restaurant 35 years ago, we did first hire a chef. But we decided it was best if we just cook our family recipes,” Sandy says with a big grin. A signature dish to this day, Sandy says Tunk’s started featuring her Grandmother Mayme’s homemade seafood gumbo. “The basis of any good gumbo is the roux, and we have a rich brown roux we stir by hand. Our gumbo is a Cajun gumbo with fresh fish, fresh shrimp and fresh crab, and it’s a little thicker than most. I remember growing up and watching my grandma and then my mom make the gumbo. Then my mom passed on the rooster (the utensil we stir the gumbo with) to me,” Sandy recalls. To date, she calculates that Tunk’s has served more than 40,000 gallons of gumbo through the last three decades, and the recipe is here for you to try as well.
Growing up in New Orleans, William Leroux, the executive chef at the Diamond Grill in downtown Alexandria, says he seemed to soak up the distinctive flavors of the Creole and Cajun cultures from the time he was a boy. “Cooking came natural to me and I really loved it,” Leroux says. “It takes a special kind of person to be in this field because it is a challenging profession. It is rewarding but it is a lot of hard work, and making people happy through my food brings me a lot of joy,” Leroux notes. One of his signature dishes is Pan Sautéed Drum Fish With Lemon Caper Buerre Blanc, featured here. He characterizes his food as Creole cooking implementing French techniques.
Eric Christon, the executive chef at Bistro on the Bayou in Alexandria, says he grew up in California and was immersed in the cooking business as his mother was a caterer. “I always wanted to open my own restaurant growing up, but I literally got started in the business from the bottom up. I started out washing dishes at the Hotel Bentley in Alexandria,” Christon says. Today, he creates his own signature dishes and the menu at the Bistro on the Bayou is often likened to the fine dining featured in New Orleans top restaurants. Christon offers the Bistro’s signature Crab Cakes here.
Sam Brocato, owner of Brocato’s Restaurant in Alexandria, says one of the best things about dining out in Cenla is the variety of unique family-owned restaurants. The love of cooking, passed down from generations before him, seemed a natural career choice. His own restaurant has become so popular that they recently expanded and relocated to Hwy. 28 West. “I guess you could call the food we serve Southern Soul or home-cooking comfort food. I have developed the recipes and train the chefs to follow my recipes as I would cook them,” Brocato says, adding that many of the featured dishes are family recipes. His “Suga & Meatballs” dish, which features all ingredient measurements “to taste” is the same recipe that his grandparents created when they had a restaurant in 1941. Find the recipe here.
Trent Bonnette, owner of Brown Bag Gourmet in Marksville, started cooking in the kitchen of his parents’ restaurant in Moreauville. Following his passion, Bonnette moved to New Orleans, where he boasts, “I had access to almost any ingredients that I wanted and fell in love with the business of creating great food.” He brought that love back to Avoyelles, where he worked in multiple restaurants before opening his own, which heavily features locally sourced ingredients. The the restaurant’s lunch business has been such a big success that, starting this Fall, they will be open for dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. One of the dishes on the new dinner menu will be Roasted Sweet Potato Chipotle Soup, which was inspired by his love for chilies, and is featured here. “The smokiness of the chipotle pepper pairs nicely with the sweet balance of the sweet potatoes,” explains Bonnette.
Chef Norman Nichols is a world-traveled Certified Executive Chef, currently serving in that position at Paragon Casino Resort in Marksville. He credits his love of cooking to his mother. “I’ve wanted to be a chef since I was four years old,” notes Nichols. He followed his childhood dream all the way to the Pratt Institute, Cornell University, the Culinary Institute of America and Le Cordon Bleu Paris Cooking School in Canada, having successfully graduated from each. He further honed his craft in such notable restaurants as the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, the United Nations Plaza Hotel, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Beau Rivage Palace where he has cooked for kings, queens, presidents and a host of world-renowned celebrities. He is a Bronze Star Award winner for Excellence, as recognized by Chaine des Rotisseurs. “My job is to keep people fat and happy,” jokes Nichols. “My greatest passion is fine dining,” he explains. “Most people follow the trends. I don’t follow the trends, I set the trends,” he explains with a grin. One of his trend setting recipes, which he enthusiastically shares here, is Tournedo of Beef Stanley, featuring tender filet mignon steak wrapped in delicate puff pastry.
Sherri Knight discovered her passion for food while working at the restaurant she now owns. “I started working alongside the previous owner at the Cottage Restaurant in Alexandria, and discovered that it was fun,” she explains. “The reason I wanted to get into restaurant ownership to begin with, is the fact that I love people,” continues Knight. “When we first bought the restaurant, we didn’t really care if we got paid, it was just that much fun.” Featuring a menu of classic American eats, one of the most popular dishes at the Alexandria lunch hotspot is their famous Cottage Potatoes, which we highlight here.
Ginger Havard and Catherine Davidson recently renovated Davidson’s longtime family home, creating a brand new Alexandria eatery and hangout at 1921 Jackson Street: A Coffee Shop. Catherine notes, “My grandparents bought this house about 100 years ago, and mother and her nine siblings grew up here. She loved to drink coffee, but there wasn’t really a place to go.” After Davidson’s mother passed away, the two wanted to do something “a little different and a little fun” in Catherine’s hometown. Ginger, a Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park-trained chef, sought to create a menu that was Louisiana inspired and, “simple, but really good”. All of the meats for their sandwich-based lunch menu are prepared in house, including 8-hour roasted beef. As good as the sandwiches are (and they are good!), 1921 Jackson is gaining a reputation for exceptional hand crafted pastries, including the ooey, gooey Pecan Sticky Buns featured here.
Irma Rodriguez has been creating her signature Mexican cuisine as long as she can remember. Rodriquez is the owner of Mi Tierra Mexican Restaurant in Forest Hill. A self-taught chef, she explains, “I started making tamales for my family and friends, and I just kept on going and making them until the Lord blessed me with Mi Tierra in 2004.” From her original tamale recipe, Rodriguez has developed her own signature salsa as part of a full menu of Mexican dishes, also including “quesadillas and enchiladas, each made from fresh flour and corn tortillas.” Here, Rodriguez shares the original tamale recipe that started it all here.
Jonathan Knoll has long harbored a love of cooking. “I first started to learn how to cook standing on a stool in the kitchen next to my mother,” says Knoll. Having wanted to own a restaurant since he was a young boy, Knoll’s dream became a reality when he opened the Fresh Catch Bistreaux in Marskville. “We wanted to bring high quality food to people at an affordable price. We have some of the very best Cajun food in Avoyelles Parish,” he notes. “Everything is made right here in our kitchen; no pre-fab stuff here!” One such dish is his signature Bistreaux Bisque, shared here.
Danny Fontenot and Chris Fett enjoy a shared passion for creating great food. Fontenot, who has been the executive chef and general manager at the Alexandria Country Club for the last two years, jokes that the secret to the savory tastes of fine dining “is in the sauce.” “I love entertaining people and making them happy, and nothing makes people happier than when you feed them,” Fontenot says with a laugh. Fett agrees, noting that his love of cooking originated in his family. “Growing up, my grandmother could take a chicken and feed ten people. I fell in love with the idea of feeding people and seeing them happy,” says Fett. Together, Fontenot and Fett combined their talents to take first prize in the “Top Chef” competition at Diamond Jack’s Casino. Despite losing power for nearly half of their allotted one hour limit, the two came out victorious, “because we were very inventive; we didn’t do what everybody else did.” The two continue to work together, developing supper club menu offerings at the Country Club. One such offering is Beef Tenderloin with Balsamic Fig Glaze. The recipe is shared here.