"You know, I got here as quick as I could": In Conversation with Karen Duncan of Casa Pelican B&B and Cooking School
For those of us raised in the sights and smells of southern Louisiana cuisine, it can be hard to imagine a childhood devoid of such a richly seasoned and culturally relevant treat. Enter former restaurateur Karen Duncan, a disciple of authentic Cajun and Creole cooking whose love of New Orleans stretches from her birthplace in Canada back down to south Algiers Point. She stopped by WWNO studios recently to talk about Bed & Breakfast and Cooking School and how she’s introducing a new slew of LA food admirers in the art of making it the right way.
Q: So, to kind of start this off, what brought you to New Orleans in the first place?
KD: Well, it’s a story often told. I came here for the first time for Jazz Festival in 1993, and I think part of me just never really left after that. So I immediately fell in love with the place and immediately fell in love with the food. As you probably are aware, but for those people who don't live in New Orleans, if you go to a basic restaurant anywhere else in the rest of the country you're going to see at least one menu item that's going to be called ‘Cajun’ this or ‘blackened’ something. So I had very, very low expectations of what the food was going to be like when I got here. So it blew my socks off. I absolutely, marvelously loved it and immediately needed to learn how to cook it.
Q: Interesting. What attracted you to that style of cooking? Was there anything in particular that just kind of led you to be like, “Wow! This is something different. I really enjoy this.”
KD: I think it was just the intense powerfulness of flavor and the layers of it. It’s just really different than any other formal kind of cuisine. It's very different. I mean my classic training is in French cuisine. We all know about French cuisine: it can be very fussy and it's lovely and it's very methodic.
But, there’s just something about the way that things smell [in New Orleans] and the way the things sound here that goes maybe in tandem with this marvelous wave of flavor that the food actually offers as well. It just all seems to be so beautifully in balance. Maybe it's just experiential? That could be it too. I don't know if the same food would taste just as good someplace else. I mean, I made it in Toronto and they said it tasted good. [Laughter]
Q: I think we’ll take their word for it.
KD: We will indeed!
Q: Speaking of— you exported this food back to Toronto, right?
KD: That's right. After taking a fair number of instructions here in New Orleans and elsewhere in South Central Louisiana, we opened a restaurant in Toronto called Cajun Corner. It was authentic Louisiana Cajun Creole. We imported everything. I didn't put my spin on any of the recipes. We just did it exactly as I was taught down here. And it was a smash really very quickly, because if you're bringing something that the people have probably experienced at one point in time coming for a convention or for Mardi Gras and they will have been wowed by the food here too. And then [they] realize that they can get it in Toronto too.
Q: Could you tell me about your experience running the restaurant? What was that like for you?
KD: There's a special type of person who really excels and enjoys the restaurant industry and they tend to be people who— well, I don't really know how to delicately put it— tend to be real workaholics. They're very focused. And that was something that just appealed to me and I enjoyed it. But, running a restaurant is 65 or 70 hours on your feet a week, all evenings, all weekends, all holidays, etc. So, it's your life and it's a wonderful great passion that I loved. It agreed with me really well.
Q: How did Casa Pelican come to be?
KD: After the ‘Big Storm’ I was down here on a purchasing trip. Along with the restaurant we also had an import shop, which was all Louisiana goods (particularly food products). So, we were the Canadian distributors for a whole bunch of the major brands that you would recognize from Louisiana.
So we were here on our purchasing trip and had the opportunity to look at a house that was for sale in the Algiers Point neighborhood and it was just a big, old and beautiful (what we called a) Greek Revival home with a wrap around balcony and wraparound front porch. I just immediately fell in love with it and thought that would make a fantastic bed and breakfast. So I purchased it and had it rented out for a couple of years while my catering partner at the time was harassing me to sell him the restaurant. And at this point in time I'm thinking, ‘”Yeah, you know retirement sort of sounds really nice about this time.’ So eventually I relented, sold the business and moved here full time and went about opening the bed and breakfast.
Q: Interesting. Tell me a little bit about the early years of the bed and breakfast. How was it switching from high stakes restaurant-mode?
KD: It sure is a lot more relaxed. I mean, I have the best commute in the world, right? I roll out of bed and I'm at work. There's a hospitality gene that people from the restaurant industry have. And if you leave the industry that gene really wants to be exercised. Having the B&B and meeting guests from everywhere who want to experience New Orleans really helps me to satisfy that part of my genealogy. So I really enjoy it.
You know, the big thing for Casa Pelican is, of course, the breakfast and we really advertise that. We have a retired chef restaurateur (me) and the room is really nice, but really the breakfast is the thing. That's kind of what we're known for.
Q: Why is the breakfast the thing?
KD: We get people from all over the world and this is the Deep South so they're looking forward to a nice, big American breakfast. And so we feature all kinds of sort of classic New Orleans dishes as well as things that you would see at a diner and also things you would see at higher level ‘fussy’ kind-of breakfast places. We try to keep up with the traditional breakfast dishes that you would see here in New Orleans and show them the homey side of it.
And I'm always shocked when somebody you know says, ‘Yeah, I'm game to try anything,’ and you bring them grits and grillades, for instance. Their eyes get all big and wide. They smell it as it's cooking in the morning and then they always come down early for coffee when we're doing this really fragrant kind of breakfast.
I like to think that we do our best to represent New Orleans in a pretty authentic fashion, despite the fact that I was not born and raised here. You know, I got here as quick as I could. [Laughter] And again, I really respect the traditions of New Orleans and I respect the way that people have done things for hundreds of years here, and I try and really embrace that as best I can. So, we like being ambassadors to the city. It feels good.
Q: Speaking on that subject, culture and ownership is very sensitive in this city. Have you ever run into trouble with that?
KD: I personally haven't run into trouble with that, and I think part of that might be that I can completely understand where they're coming from. It's important that people acknowledge how unique this city is and how important it is to keep that uniqueness. So, I find myself getting huffy about people coming in and trying to change things or trying to go against the grain or not representing themselves in a respectful way while being here in New Orleans. I can understand where people feel that their culture is being usurped or twisted or Disney-fied. I have not personally experienced anybody directing that at me, and I think part of that is because I go so far out of my way to not be ‘somebody from another place passing judgment on New Orleans.’ I mean, [my views are]: oh my God how fabulous is this place.
Q: Well along with the B&B you do cooking classes and run a cooking school. Can you tell me a little about that?
KD: We renovated our kitchen about three years ago. And a lot of people that we've had as guests were asking me, ‘Can you teach me how to make gumbo? Could you teach me what's the secret to a really good crab boil?’ That type of thing. So the idea dawned on— why shouldn’t we make this into a commercial kitchen? It’s a nice place, we could make it kind of pretty, and make it relaxed and comfortable and start maybe doing a few casual cooking classes. It kind of took off and people really enjoyed it.
We keep largely to Cajun and Creole basics. It's not just how to make a roux, but how to make sure that your jambalaya is always fluffy and never dry and never overcooked and mushy; how you get that really good dark brown roux for your gumbo, how to season things properly, and how to work with high heat. And also how to not be afraid of those things because those are things that a lot of home cooks from other parts of the country come here and they're very timid about: the process that Louisiana cooks go about preparing their food.
We do a Louisiana seafood course which is everything from how to shuck an oyster and how to properly gut and scale and fillet a fish to dealing with shrimp. I mean a lot of people have never really bought shrimp with heads on. I know that seems very odd being here and where everybody just grew up with that. Believe it or not, there's a lot of people out there who've never seen a shrimp with a head on it. And after you get past the initial stage, people quickly understand how important it is to know how to prepare these things and how to deal with the crawfish [or] how to clean a crab. And then what to do with that once you've got that part of it dealt with.
Q: What is the hardest aspect of Louisiana Cajun and Creole cooking in your opinion?
KD: I'm a lady of a certain age so I guess maybe I would probably say shucking oysters has become something that I'm happy to pass on to someone who has no arthritis.
Karen is always accepting guests at the B&B and holds cooking classes weekly, as well as for special events such as anniversaries. You can find out more about Casa Pelican via their website here: www.casapelicanneworleans.com
This interview shortened and edited for clarity.
David Benedetto is the Assistant Program Director and Marketing Director at WRBH Reading Radio for the Blind and Print Impaired here in New Orleans, where he also hosts the weekly “Writer’s Forum” program and “Audio Portraits” podcast. He writes about culture for NolaVie’s “Notes From New Orleans” series and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.