Rayne, Louisiana native ISAAC Toups spent 10 years working in the kitchen for Emeril Lagasse before opening his own restaurant, Toups' Meatery (845 N. Carrollton Ave., 504-252-4999; www.toupsmeatery.com). He competed on the 13th season of Top Chef, a California road trip-themed edition of the reality TV cooking contest. Toups made it to the final four contestants before he was eliminated in a Las Vegas showdown in the March 10 episode. In consolation, he won the show's Fan Favorite vote on March 17, and last week he was named a finalist for a James Beard Award for Best Chef: South. Toups spoke to Gambit about what he took away from Top Chef.
In your final round of competition, you prepared something you called a "chicken fried steak" and you made an egg disappear. What is the story behind that dish?
Toups: They wanted us to use bells and whistles — to use chemicals and stuff. For me at least, they wanted me to go outside the box. For some contestants — that's every day. For me, it was like, I have to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Not to mention, the better part of that challenge was — for the rest of my life — I can say I did a magic trick in front of David Copperfield.
I actually juggle and throw hatchets, and I have always done little magic tricks. Sleight of hand is something I always enjoy. And to be honest with you, that's my one trick. I normally do it with a quarter in front of my babies and children. I have one sleight of hand trick, and I thought, "I can work this into the egg sauce. That's how I'm going to do this challenge."
When I say "chicken-fried steak," it was actually dry-aged rib-eye under a chicken skin (with fennel puree and yuzu hollandaise). I knew what I was doing. It's not something you'd see on the Meatery menu. I am perfectly capable of doing sushi and other cuisines, but not as well as I can do my Cajun cooking. But I have been a pro for 16 years.
During the season, some of the contestants were skeptical that you could survive with a heavy focus on Cajun cuisine.How do you think you represented Cajun food?
T: People come up and tell me that I put Cajun food in the spotlight and that it can be compared with some of the other better foods, nationally and internationally. I was just doing my thing; I didn't have an agenda. I was cooking Cajun food because that's what I do. That's just my heart and my background. The accidental Cajun ambassador title I've been given — that's been kind of nice. I knew I'd have a bunch of Cajun fans behind me, but people said you really put it out there and showed what New Orleans and Cajun food can do. You can hang with some of the best cooks of our generation.
Is there anything you brought from the show back to Toups' Meatery?
T: The venison dish that's on the menu was one of the challenges I did for the "Ancient Ages" challenge.
I learned some new ingredients, but not really too much technique. But I have this calmness now. When I go to these off-site (events), I am like, "OK, we have four hours to feed 300 people." I am like, I did that by myself in 20 minutes on Top Chef. I am so much more calm now when I walk into events. When people say, "Oh shit, we burned all the blah blah blah," I don't worry. We'll just make something with two shoes tied together. I am like, what could possibly be worse than some of those challenges?