Standing in hip-deep water near the Chandeleur Islands—the easternmost point of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico—Gordon Ramsay hopes to catch a fish after an hour of relentless casting. “We’re in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “Look, it’s just water, and water, and water.” This fisherman’s paradise, plentiful with redfish and trout, has lured not only Ramsay, but also a shark lurking nearby. With a wary eye on the shark, Ramsay focuses on the task at hand. “I’ll just pretend it’s not there and get back to fishing.”
In southern Louisiana, the fragmented land is marked with bayous and swamps, looking like Earth’s lacework from the air. But closer in, much of this land is eroding at an alarming rate. “It’s a beautiful natural resource for everyone who lives here, but unfortunately, it’s dwindling quickly,” says Chef Eric Cook, Louisiana native, former Marine, and the executive chef and proprietor of award-winning New Orleans restaurant, Gris-Gris. “Growing up out here, you learn that getting by is about survival, even as the land beneath your feet disappears.”
From the original indigenous inhabitants, to the French Acadian settlers in the 1700s, to Vietnamese immigrants today, the culture of southern Louisiana has always been about survival in this hostile and wildly unpredictable environment. Cook challenges Ramsay to learn the secrets of the swamp pantry and the culinary bounty it has to offer, as well as understand that Cajun cooking comes from the soul. And it won’t hurt if Ramsay masters a dark roux—equal parts flour and fat—which Cook says is the “basis to all good Southern cooking.”
One of the causes of the area’s land erosion is due to the habits of nutria, a non-native swamp rat. While it hasn’t been widely incorporated in local menus, nutria meat tastes good, Ramsay discovers. Another source of protein is frog legs, a delicacy that’s plentiful in the region, and best to hunt at night. Crawfish, one of the most well-known ingredients in Louisiana cuisine, also comes from these waterways. The small crustaceans become the main elements in crawfish boils, where they’re cooked with plenty of spicy seasoning, as well as components like garlic, corn, potatoes, sausages, and lemon slices. But the best dishes from southern Louisiana’s bayous aren’t only about protein. The swamp pantry also offers oyster mushrooms that are found on decaying trees, fresh greens like the stalks of chadrons (the Cajun-French name for thistles), and satsumas—a variety of mandarin orange.
Even though getting out into the wild to forage among the waterways and groves of gnarled cypress trees dripping with Spanish moss requires Ramsay to watch out for alligators and venomous snakes, he enjoys the challenge. “This week has taught me a lot about how to survive off this incredible land right here in Louisiana, especially across this very fragile ecosystem,” he says. “And these hearty Cajuns have not only survived, but thrived while doing it. Trust me, at the same time, they’re enjoying every minute of it.”