The French Press: A Freshly Brewed Spin on Cajun Classics
by Rien T. Fertel
“Hey Otis, can we play some Bobby Charles now?” sous chef Nick Belloni shouts as he flips a saucer-shaped boudin patty on the grill. The French Press, in Lafayette, Louisiana, opened for breakfast less than an hour ago. Otis Doucet obliges, explaining that the late swamp-pop icon from Abbeville, Louisiana, is the kitchen’s Sunday-morning standard.
The room begins to rock like a boat on the Bayou Teche. The sweet and steady voice of Bobby Charles sets the kitchen pace. As the third track starts, chef Justin Girouard sighs, “‘I Must Be in a Good Place Now’—I love this song.” He may be talking about the song title. Or his state of being. Maybe both.
Breakfast is a serious endeavor at The French Press. Girouard pralines his bacon. He stuffs French toast with bananas and cream cheese. And he baptizes that toast with strawberry-champagne compote.
And then there’s the boudin, made by his Uncle Sammy at Hebert’s Specialty Meats in Maurice. The French Press goes through fifty pounds of the spicy meat-and-rice sausage every week. Among the highlights of that collaboration is an Acadian Breakfast Sandwich of eggs, bacon, and boudin, stacked between slices of locally baked Evangeline Maid Texas Toast, bound with a slice of bright-orange American cheese.
Gooey cheese-glue also plays a part in the Cajun Benedict of Langlinais French Bread, two poached eggs, and boudin. Instead of hollandaise, chicken and andouille gumbo provides the drench.
Girouard, who is of French-Acadian background, earned his stripes at the restaurant Stella! in New Orleans. As a college student, he signed on as a dishwasher. Soon he was shredding cheese and chopping onions. He became chef Scott Boswell’s sous chef within three years, before moving to Stanley, Boswell’s upscale Jackson Square diner.
Margaret Collier Girouard—who conjured the gumbo-bath for the Cajun Benedict while pregnant—also dreamed up the restaurant’s name. Her choice was fated. Planning the eatery, the couple wanted to serve the same pot-pressed coffee they drank at home. Propitiously, the downtown location they secured for the restaurant was once the Tribune Printing Plant. Here, antique wooden movable-type pieces decorate the brick walls, and black ink swaths still stain the floors.
Breakfast is the lodestar here, so much so that, on the two weekend nights that the restaurant opens for dinner, Justin Girouard and his crew incorporate breakfast techniques into entrées. A bacon-and-English-muffin-encrusted, deep-fried poached egg crowns the filet mignon. Seared foie gras tops molé-slathered cornmeal pancakes. Sometimes those fattened livers are tucked under sunny-side-up quail eggs.
Meanwhile, weekday breakfast continues to evolve. For their most recent invention, Girouard and his staff dreamed up the Sweet Baby Breesus, a biscuit slider that sandwiches a flat of bacon and a fried boudin ball. Otis, the man with his finger on the pulse of all sorts of sweetness, came through with the winning addition—a none-too-subtle swipe of Steen’s cane syrup, an Abbeville product with a history that dates back more than a century. The name of the dish, of course, references more recent Louisiana history: the Drew Brees–led victory of the New Orleans Saints in last year’s Super Bowl.
Rien T. Fertel, a bi-coastal South Louisianian living on the Mississippi River and the Bayou Teche, is writing a dissertation on New Orleans Creole literature. He is proud to celebrate 5 years of SFA membership in October.