Ralph's on the Park executive chef Chip Flanagan recently returned from Germany, where he was part of a U.S. State Department culinary diplomacy mission, a program start- ed by former Secretary of State Hil- lary Clinton. Flanagan spoke with Gambit about Germans' perceptions of American food, similarities between New Orleans and German cuisine and what he brought back to New Orleans for Oktoberfest.
What is a food ambassador?
Flanagan: They wanted me to introduce indigenous American cuisine to Germans. I (went) to the consulates in Frankfurt and Munich and to the (U.S.) embassy in Berlin. I was doing cooking demos and (teaching) them about, not just American food, but about the food of south Louisiana and that it's food made from scratch with real ingredients. Everyone's impression is that it's just hamburgers and french fries.
Even though we have all these different cultures, food is the one thing we have in common. We all have to eat. We all sit down together. We all break bread together.
How did you deal with the conception that the American diet consists solely of processed items and junk food?
F: When I did my smaller demos ... my first question for the students was to ask them what they thought of American cuisine. Everybody — just everybody — said hamburgers and french fries.
This processed stuff — it's hard because we're good at it; we're really good at it. It's a hard myth to debunk when you go to downtown Berlin and there's a McDonald's right there, or in Munich, where there's one right off the main square. It's an uphill climb, but I tried to explain that our cuisine is based on their cuisine, on French cuisine, on Italian cuisine. I talked a lot about (New Orleans) food and that what we cook here is indigenous to our climate. It's real food.
We're getting back to how it used to be, and I think we've come a long way. The (food) I can get now in this town from areas around here is a thousand percent better than what it was 10 or 15 years ago.
What similarities exist between New Orleans and German cuisine?
F: I cooked jambalaya, because it's an adaptable dish. We have andouille and tasso ... but they have pork sausage ... [T]here wasn't tasso, but there is ham everywhere in Germany. It's a completely pork-centric culture. Right now there's a pork — especially bacon — craze here, but for them, that's just their meat of choice.
Besides that, there's a lot of drinking. [German] people drink a lot of beer. With the food connection, there also was a link (to New Orleans) with the celebrations. Every time you ate and drank, it was a type of celebration. Like the German beer halls where you sit with strangers and have a beer with them — it's like a crawfish boil here.
I knew a limited amount about German food going there. But the food, let's face it — it's not really light. I remember when we used to cook and it was all about the taste ... now it's about how much fat is in something or how much salt or whether it's gluten free. There, it was still about the flavor.
For our (Oktoberfest) menu, we're doing it their way: traditionally. I had this rotisserie pork knuckle in Munich that was just out of this world. So (we'll) serve this big pork knuckle on top of sauerkraut. There will be spaetzle made with Creole mustard in the batter, and we're going to do pretzels, which I'm really excited about.