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Top Chef star Isaac Toups discusses his history of Louisiana cajun cooking and feeding his community in need

Isaac Toups is the chef and owner of Toups’ Meatery in New Orleans. His family has a long history in Southern Louisiana cajun cooking traditions. Chef Toups was also a finalist in Season 13 of Top Chef on Bravo and he has been a semi-finalist for the coveted James Beard Award “Best Chef in the South.” He built on his family’s Cajun cooking techniques by spending over a decade learning in the kitchen of world-renowned Chef Emeril Lagasse. He has also hosted shows on Bravo TV online and Food Network.

Right now Chef Isaac is not focused on TV shows or accolades. He is fiercely focused on feeding his local community in yet another challenging time for this historic city. New Orleans is currently under a “shelter in place” order by the city and state to help stop the spread of Coronavirus. All the restaurants and establishments that are so reliant on tourism are all closed for business and thousands of locals are out of work until this crisis passes. The streets are empty in the French Quarter and the music has stopped. Isaac and his team immediately went to work two weeks ago to help feed people in need in the community.

When the virus outbreak forced the city of New Orleans to shut down, you started offering family meals to people in need almost immediately. What made you choose to do this?

You know what, it spread organically. It really started with the takeout services and to help feed my crew. Any service industry friends out of a job, we would tell them to come over and have a meal. We just doubled family meals. Instead of food for ten, we made it for 20. Then a couple people asked if we could make a little extra so we made 30 the next day. It just grew organically from that. We didn’t have a plan.

I think we can feed up to 200 a day now. We added firefighters; we branched out, not just doing the service industry but firefighters and medical professionals. We had a couple hospitals pick up food yesterday. We are pretty much doing as much as my little kitchen can do, we have six burners, one grill, and one convection oven. We are the little kitchen that could.

Restaurants are handling the city shutdown in different ways. Some have closed completely, some are doing takeout, has your takeout business been sustaining?

It’s ok, it’s a hit and miss. It’s mostly turned into the family meal, we have gotten a lot of donations through Venmo, Paypal, and individuals coming to the restaurant and donating money. [The] takeout business is kind of slow but we are taking all that money and focusing it into the family meal. We are kind of just going with the flow.

If people wanted to make donations through Venmo, how would they do that?

The Venmo account is @ToupsMeatery, PayPal [email protected] or you can call the restaurant with a credit card at 504-252-4999. If somebody out there knows a big corporation that can donate food, I’ll take food donations and turn that right into family meal as well.

You tweeted out to Drew Brees. Have you heard back from him?

Not yet. But I have had my head down all morning making food so I haven’t checked.

[Note: Since our interview, Drew Brees has now donated $5 million to relief efforts to support Louisiana recovery efforts.]

What has been your favorite meal to make during quarantine time?

I think everyone’s new favorite will be today’s, I got some shrimp and scallops. I am making a Scallop and Shrimp Couvillion. But I think the Chicken and Sausage Gumbo I made the other day was a hit because everybody likes gumbo.

If we were to open your fridge at home what would we see? What is the one thing you can’t live without during quarantine?

I am one of the few lucky ones and I have a full stash of alcohol. The liquor cabinet is stocked. I have cases and cases of wine. I am fortunate enough to have a backyard. People have asked what I have been doing for quarantine. I have been working. I haven’t had a lot of sit downtime. My kids are driving my wife insane, she’s got some quarantine blues. I am a working man.

You grew up learning in the kitchen with Chef Emeril Lagasse. What is your takeaway from working with him?

He really helped us out during [Hurricane] Katrina. He is a take care of his employee’s kind of guy, he is a stand-up character. That is the main takeaway. Take care of your people because we may be the only ones taking care of ourselves.

You were on Top Chef Season 13. I loved it. Was it intimidating having Emeril judge you on Top Chef?

Very much so. I think I did the worst when he was judging.

Your cookbook “Chasing the Gator: Isaac Toups and the New Cajun Cooking,” You talk about how your family has lived in South Louisiana for hundreds of years. Tell us the dos and don’ts of enjoying a Louisiana staple, crawfish since we are in crawfish season.

 Do share your crawfish. Share, share share. Invite everyone over and have a cold beer. Don’t be greedy. Don’t rub your eyes after eating crawfish. Don’t touch anything important.

You support a lot of charitable causes towards resources dedicated to saving the wetlands. Why is protecting America’s wetlands so important to you?

There are so many reasons I could go on for days. It is quite literally the land I live on, my history, and my way of sustenance. It is where we get our seafood.  If we don’t start doing something now, we aren’t going to have oysters or shrimp and I’ll be real pissed off if I can’t get those.

Do you have any hidden gems in New Orleans that you visit?

I like going to Marjie’s Grill, they do a sort of Asian Bar-B-Que, it’s a real nice twist on it. I like to go to St. James Cheese Shop and get a nice cheese board and a sandwich. What do we like to do? We like to go out to eat, that’s our hobby.

Can you tell me one of your most treasured culinary experiences growing up?

Before my grandmother passed, I was able to cook with her. She taught me how to make Couvillion, which is what I am making today. I have her picture up on the wall in my eatery. The time I got to spend cooking with her over the stove and a big pot is a wonderful memory. I keep her in my thoughts today as we cook for everybody.

Once the quarantine is over and we can travel again, do you have a dream vacation spot?

Yes. We were supposed to go to Montreal to see Roger Waters in concert in a few weeks. Once this is done, I want to go to Montreal and eat some food and hopefully see some concerts.

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