x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

True grits: a taste of the US South comes to the UAE

A new Cajun restaurant has opened in Dubai. We talk to its Louisiana-born chef about his offerings, including the most popular dish on the menu: southern fried chicken, cornbread waffles and smoked turkey gravy.

Chef Jeffrey Whitfield, originally from Louisiana, is the head chef at the first Cajun restaurant in Dubai, Cravin' Cajun. Antonie Robertson / The National
Chef Jeffrey Whitfield, originally from Louisiana, is the head chef at the first Cajun restaurant in Dubai, Cravin' Cajun. Antonie Robertson / The National

He played the drums for the American singer Lauryn Hill four years ago, a hobby he juggled with 14-hour shifts in the kitchen. A passion for cooking and a more stable career won over. Meet the 43-year-old Louisiana man Jeff Whitfield, who swapped New Orleans for Dubai as the head chef of the newly opened Cajun restaurant Cravin’ Cajun in the Novotel Al Barsha.

“Cooking was the only thing I was good at apart from playing drums. I like the excitement. I like the reaction from people to a plate,” says Whitfield. “They go ‘wow’ and that gives me a rush. That made me want to continue working in the kitchen. Plus, I like to multitask – the badness and the craziness in the kitchen.”

He’s had to ditch the drums for now, given his new apartment-living habitat, but he talks about bringing a drum set to accompany Cravin’ Cajun’s jazz trio.

Interestingly, while the restaurant’s name promises Cajun cuisine, Creole dishes are very much on the à la carte menu as well. Whitfield simplifies the differences: “Creole food in Louisiana is influenced by the Spanish. Think the rice-based dish jambalaya; it’s a version of paella. On the other hand, Cajun cuisine has French-Canadian traits – such as roux for gumbo and étouffée.”

From my visit a few years ago to Nola, the affectionate nickname for New Orleans, Cajun and Creole natives live side by side, reflected in the town’s dining scene with restaurants serving both cuisines. That authenticity is delivered in Cravin’ Cajun’s menu – with Whitfield dishing up hearty, home-cooked fare such as dirty rice derived from the caramelised chicken liver ingredient and grits, a coarse yellow cornmeal grain with a similar texture to polenta. His home-made Andouille chicken sausages are so good, guests ask to buy them to take home. His most popular dish so far is a Cajun staple: Southern-fried chicken, cornbread waffles, potato purée, fried cabbage and smoked turkey gravy, which he drizzles with a chilli-spiced maple syrup.

But he’s quick to dispel the notion that all Cajun food is fiery. “It’s not true that Cajun food is spicy. Some dishes such as the jambalaya have a nice kick, but we do tone it down if the customer requests. Whatever they want, they get.”

Whitfield may have grown up cooking Cajun and Creole food in his grandma’s kitchen, but he only has one chef out of his team of six cooks who also hails from Louisiana. Therefore Whitfield has spent the past seven months since he arrived training and developing their palates.

“Only one person does the gumbo, another the jambalaya and so on. Every plate has to go out consistently right. I almost sent out a jambalaya that I didn’t taste. ‘Oh no, stop what you’re doing,’ I said, and chop up some more trinity which is a staple in every Cajun and Creole kitchen – onions, peppers and celery.”

Whitfield adds: “If I love the food, then people will love it. It’s food with flavour – if it lacks soul it doesn’t taste good. That’s my philosophy and what my grandmother taught me.”

The combination of waffles with deep-fried chicken may be an acquired taste for some, but the dish is a runaway success and not just due to the Southern American community here. He’s quick to point out the carb-heavy menu with a good laugh.

“If you worry about carbs, don’t come here.”

• Cravin’ Cajun Restaurant and Lounge, Novotel Dubai Al Barsha, Sheikh Zayed Road, is open daily, from 7pm to 11.30pm. Call 04 304 9000 for reservations

artslife@thenational.ae