Chef David Guas
AUDIO INTERVIEW EXCERPTS WITH INTERVIEWER CESLIE ARMSTRONG
Ceslie Armstrong: Today I’m catching up with my pal David Guas who calls New Orleans and Virginia home. He is the chef and owner of Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery, an award-winning cookbook author and motorcycle riding TV star. Not bad! So David, I’m so thrilled to have you on the show today because Grapes, Grains & Grub, as our listeners know, we love to speak with guests who really know what it means when we say: “agriculture tastes good.” And that so inherently well that not only are you entertaining people in your restaurants and on TV, you really are quite an expert on fresh, sustainable food, and agribusiness from a chef’s point of view.
David Guas: Well, I mean, I know what I know.
CA: First I really want to tell our listeners about Bayou Bakery and what you’re doing now.
DG: We opened in November of 2010 and created a very casual space open seven to seven, seven days-a-week. I kind of just started adding things and layers to the menu that made sense to tell them my story and represent the state of Louisiana as best we could and the overall general deep South as well. And the idea was that mom and dad could come in with the kids, they could make a mess with powdered sugar and beignets and mom could get a glass of wine and dad could get a beer or vice versa or whatever. And so here we are years later and we’re still kicking butt in Arlington, Virginia, just a mile from DC. And it’s been a fun ride so far.
CA: So you’ve brought New Orleans to a DC by way of Cuba?
DG: Yeah, for sure. Growing up in New Orleans, well, born and raised in the great city of New Orleans, and then I left the Windsor Court hotel in 1998 to move to DC to help a local restaurant group opened their first restaurant. And then I was with those guys for 10 years. My father was born and raised in Havana until the age of 12 and he had a Louisiana mother and a Cuban father. And so during the revolution they brought all the kids back. He and his brother went to boarding school at Saint Stanislaus in St. Louis, Mississippi. That’s kind of his first introduction to the United States was right into the good old boarding school at Saint Stanislaus. And so , we were raised with Cuban food and Louisiana food growing up on our table. And so my dad did a great job to attempt to inject a as much of the Cuban aspect as he could along with my grandmother when she was still alive.
CA: That’s so interesting and there are such incredible layers to that story. And that really comes out in your food. The Southern Foodways Alliance and other organizations do such a wonderful job-that I know you’re a member of-of telling the story of the South in food, but, if you had to give an elevator pitch right now to somebody in Hollywood as to what is Southern food is, I mean, is that even possible?
DG: Well, let me say this, I narrow New Orleans down specifically. And I’ve done lectures over the years on, culturally what it kind of looks like from the outside as opposed to what people label New Orleans, because New Orleans is about as tricky as it gets to put a stamp on and say it’s “this.” We always identify ourselves as New Orleans as kind of being like a whole ‘nother country. Not just the state of Louisiana, but, specifically the city being like no other city in the world. And, from a culinary standpoint, as far as the influx of resources and products, over the past 300 years being a major port city, I often describe it as more Northern Caribbean than it is deep South.
CA: Oh, interesting.
DG: Just with how common rice is with every dish, the okra, tomatoes and the other sort of ingredients that have become part of Louisiana as a whole. In New Orleans specifically it is one of those cultures that we are often talking about lunch during breakfast and talking about what we’re going to cook for dinner while we are choking down a Po’Boy. So, I think as a kid growing up in any city, you take for granted where you’re from and then once you mature and get a little older – and especially for me falling into this industry – you really realize how special of a place it is. And I think that, for me, having been away now for 21 years, we do a lot of work with Louisiana here on the Hill and Capitol Hill and from the oyster men coming up here and lobbying and everything that we’re trying to do with the Louisiana Seafood Association and all these big groups that are trying to continue to have the resources we need to pull from the bounty that we have in that awesome state.
CA: It really is a bounty. I mean, part of what we love to talk about on this show and our listeners love is the stories behind the agriculture. When you’re raising a fork and taking a bite, first and foremost, you want it to taste good and be satisfied and all of that good stuff – have an emotional connection. But really, if you think about what it took to get that oyster onto that table and all the hands that touched that rice that’s on your plate and the origins of so many different types of rice that come from all over the world.
DG: Yeah, I mean, I joke about rice being such a part of the New Orleans dinner table and lunch table and breakfast table! And now that a lot of the sugarcane has depleted over the years with overdevelopment and city’s growing – 20 years ago Lafayette looked a lot different than it does now – sugarcane is difficult and hard on the environment. It’s not an easy thing to grow. So I think from a yield standpoint, we’ve seen a lot of changes in our, our cane harvest and in productivity and in the U S in general, but specifically in Louisiana. So, when you can double up and be a crawfish farmer and a rice farmer at the same time, I think that’s kind of the best of both worlds. And that’s what we see a lot of down in that Vermilion Parish region, Lafayette, Abbeville, Crowley and, New Iberia – in that whole region.
CA: Is that something where an organizations have come in and said, “we’re going to train you to be a rice farmer and how to raise crawfish?” Or, is that something that is just a, a learned practice because of the geographic nature and the culture of what’s there?
DG: I think it’s a little bit of both.I think that, from a generation standpoint, families brought up the next generation to continue doing what they’re doing. With the innovations we’ve had, obviously the newer generation that brings more drastic changes and more efficient practices with less footprint on the environment, but yet, better yields. And overall I think farmers are definitely smarter than they ever have been. I think Louisianians – obviously I’m a little partial to this comment and maybe a little bias – have always been innovators and the ingenuity is always been there going all the way back to when the Cajuns actually ended up traveling and staking land. And they claiming their properties in their territory after being exiled from numerous places and ended up down there. They had to live off the land and figure it out.
And this is a product of all of that and being survivors. And I think that, with LSU, the Louisiana State University and all their agricultural programs, it is amazing. The University does so many different research programs and invests a lot of time and funds and energy and has great curriculum based on what Louisiana is known for from an agricultural standpoint. The rice program that spawned from data about Louisiana’s different varietals – so I think that they’re always sort of reinvesting back into the the area that they’re in, whether it’s wetland erosion, or farming practices, or what have you.
CA: I think it’s exciting and I think there’s such growing opportunities and a shifting mindset that agribusiness is something that hasn’t necessarily been something in the consciousness of the public as to what that really takes.
DG: Yeah, adapting , learning new techniques, and, coming out on top and shifting gears has always been, the skillset and a required resume for farmers. Including our issues with climate change and everything else that’s going on. If you don’t subscribe to the fact that we’ve got environmental issues with our climate, you just go hang out for a couple of weeks with farmers today versus 20 years ago versus 40 years ago – they can tell you firsthand the effects.
CA: Sage advice, Sage advice. Well, it’s interesting because with your background and how these things develop in life, you get to a certain point and you look back and you say, “Wow, how did I accumulate that skill and that knowledge and why did I step into that arena being a chef?” But you’re so knowledgeable on agribusiness and organizations and sort of moving the needle forward on certain things. Was that a conscious decision that you made being in the culinary industry, or, or did it just happen because of your passion?
DG: I think it is sort of a gradual process. Like the desire to learn more about the ingredients that you’re physically checking in on a dolly that comes through your restaurant. What we’ve done here at Bayou Bakery over the last eight and a half, nine years is the byproduct of my relationships with farmers and I get phenomenal product. The main motivation and drive for seeking certain vendors and farmers and artisans bringing their product into my restaurant solely was based on relationships. Initially, obviously I wouldn’t engage in a relationship with someone who didn’t have a quality product, but, now we fly all of our bacon in from Madisonville, Tennessee for instance. Every Monday 150 pounds. And, we get all of our hams from down in Surrey, Virginia, Sam Edwards, and they’re family that has been going on for over a hundred years. And, our peanuts come from Belmont Farms down in South Hampton, Virginia. And so, our Pecans are coming from Georgia, Pearson Family Farms. I can’t get every single product from the artisans, but I get my handful of probably about eight to ten that I deal with from all over the country that are kind of in my opinion, the best at what they do.
CA: Gosh, David, that’s a lot of work, but it really is about the quality. You really put the effort in. So let’s talk about the corn meal that comes off of George Washington’s Gristmill. I mean, you guys have been working with them a long time to make your delicious items in the restaurant.
DG: The distillery and the mill are on about seven acres just three miles away from the main estate in Mount Vernon. We’ve got a long term relationship now with the master miller out there and they do our yellow cornmeal and our white corn grits for us. And Steve Bashore is the master miller and his kind of shifting gears a little bit and oversees both the distillery and the mill and every weekend we, we make our grits. And then throughout the week, we use the yellow meal for cookies and cornbread and things of that nature. So know we’re always trying to think about how we put it in front of people.
CA: And you’re really tasting a piece of history if you think about it. So Bayou Bakery is sounding a little bit more like an embassy of American products!
DG: We try to represent the vendors as much as we can while also educating the general public. There’s always going to be a percentage of people that just say, All I want is a Muffaletta, I don’t need to know where the olives came from!” But we do it for selfish reasons for me, it’s my place. It’s like my house, it’s my everything and it’s a team effort too off course. I never take all the credit for what happens behind these doors. But as far as being the showman and being proud of what we’re attempting to do – as far as starting at the top and starting with quality – I invite anybody to argue that with me as far as what we do here. So yeah, we try to remind our team that we are special and unique and we’re not your average counter service operation. Because of these relationships that I have with people, and that I believe in their products, I’m proud to be part of these guys.
CA: That’s really wonderful. And at the end of the day, the proof is in the puddin’ and , everybody knows that your food is good food. So, let’s talk about your television career and also participating in competition type shows while being so well informed. Do you feel as a judge it gives you a different insight? With Chopped or Chopped Junior on Food Network, or other shows that you do, do you have a different viewpoint sometimes than your co-judges because you are so knowledgeable about agribusiness and quality products?
DG: I think, speaking specifically with Food Network and my few appearances on Chopped as a judge , I think that a lot of times, they’ll call me up based on what they already know about me and kind of what I stand for and represent. Whether it’s Louisiana and New Orleans, Southern cuisine, Cuban cuisine what have you, I think that’s the beauty of having three judges. It’s that you have a couple of house judges that have their opinions that are pretty consistent with their judgments and their critiques and their feedback. And then you have a lone wolf coming in that’s considered an expert on a particular topic, I guess you could say. Their words, not mine “expert,” so, I’ve done a Cuban episode on Chopped and I have a lot of pride around that, and also to see all the different contestants represented with such a prideful sort of energy around Cuban cuisine.
CA: That must have been great fun for you.
DG: Oh, it was a blast. Absolute blast.
CA: I want you to shed some light and information on coffee for our coffee 11 listeners. So I know that Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery is known for COFFEE.
DG: We’ve partnered with Counter Culture Coffee as our lead and main roaster. I’m out of Durham, North Carolina and we’ve been with them since we unlocked the doors. I love how in the last ten years there’s been so much growth – and I can only really speak for the DC area – around coffee. The game has definitely stepped up. A lot of the big boys from outside of the state have come in and set up shop here and got some local success stories of local roasters doing amazing things. And, for us, I’m with Counter Culture and the support they provide us that we have access to their training facilities and labs where we can send our Baristas to continue their education. They will help Baristas get certified if that’s something that they desire in the world of coffee. But for the most part, our main goal is just to get them familiar with coffee enough that they can learn the ins and outs. They can create a quality product and love what they do when they’re at work.
Add a handful of people that have kind of gone on to compete and do other things. We are always representing New Orleans. One of our most popular beverages is our NOLA Ice Coffee and we just call it “Ice NOLA.” It’s a chicory blend that we do ourselves. We, match up a roast from Counter Culture and then we blend roasted ground chicory into that blend of coffee. And then we’ll flash brew brew it over ice and then we’ll hit it with a little simple syrup. And then we finish, once it’s poured into the glass, with a little bit of half and half. And the half and half gives it just that kind of round fattiness that kind of helps cut some of the bitterness of the chicory. And of course, a little bit of the simple syrup helps to kind of bring some of that harshness out a little bit, but it doesn’t mask it entirely. And it creates kind of this really unique kind of rich, smoky iced coffee. It’s delicious.
CA: Oh my gosh. Now, I’m just sitting here listeners, I don’t know if I told you that I’m in our in our studios in San Antonio today and I’m thinking how fast can I get to Bayou Bakery for one of those NOLA Ice Coffees? That sounds incredible. So let’s explain to our listeners about chicory. Not everybody knows what that is.
DG: Chicory is a member of the endive family. The route itself is what’s used to kind of roast and grind. It’s almost treated like coffee in the process of how it’s roasted and dried out and ground. But, this was something that was introduced to the city of New Orleans years ago. And that was because, again, being a major port city and having unique products come from all over the world to New Orleans. New Orleans, I think, was the first city that actually brought coffee into the US along with bananas and a handful of other products that made their US debut through New Orleans. And it’s prevalent throughout the city. The menus and the culture and to celebrate how much of a coffee city New Orleans really is
The chicory was brought in to kind of create and stretch out the coffee because coffee was more expensive. And so basically during the depression era and when times were tough, it was easier to steep this ground roasted chicory and kind of stretch out the coffee. So, the percentage of chicory to coffee was a lot higher back in the day. So imagine drinking a cup of black bitterness. It definitely was an acquired taste, but culturally it caught on and now the city kind of celebrates that aspect of the coffee preparation. And, for me, as a kid it was not something I drank growing up, but a chicory Cafe Ole prepared table side in the right places, well, it’s a pretty special thing these days for me. So I do enjoy it. I think the older I get – just like my coffee and my chocolate and everything else -I like things a little bit more on the bitter end than the heavier, sweeter end.
CA: Isn’t that interesting? I think that particularly too with all of your baked goods and everything that you bake that you incorporate into your whole menu, the savory side of baking is something that you guys really are known for as well.
DG: Exactly. We’re always doing things with rendered pork fat – bacon specifically- or sharp cheeses and herbs and whatnot. So not always thinking about sugar and cane syrup and honey and things like that. So we try to kind of have a nice blend of all of it.
CA: Well, I just need to get up there. I’m starving now! It really is such a beautiful part of our country. What a beautiful and an interesting part of the United States that you’re in up there. A lot of our listeners really enjoy rural living and really being outdoors. So let’s just talk about you outdoors on a Harley, and, I know you’re a Hunter.
DG: I am.
CA: Do you take your Harley with you. Do you have a toy trailer that you, hide it in and pull behind?
DG: Now, no, I don’t have a trailer. I never trailer it. If I’m going to go somewhere, I run it from point A to point B and back. And we have a group of chefs that we kind of started forming a group together about maybe 12 or 15 years ago and we’ve been out to Sturgis, South Dakota in 2006 together. For 12 days we took off and it was nine of us. And we put it on 4,600 miles on the bike trip. And we did it, we raised some money and did a charity thing. But now as you get older and busier with life, you don’t get those getaways as often as you’d like. But, I’m always tinkering with it and having it ready to go when the clouds break and if it’s slow at work or I’ve got those windows of opportunity, I go. I could be at work at noon and say, “I’m going to head out and head to the house, grabbed the bike, and I’m gone for the next four to six hours just for a quick getaway.”
Shenandoah is only 50 miles away. The Blue Ridge mountains are literally in my backyard here in DC. Alot of people forget that. They always think of Capitol Hill and the White House and the business aspect and the politics; but, DC is surrounded by waterways and mountains and everything else. It’s amazing. And then the hunting side offers again, like riding, both things are getting me outside and that that’s where I thrive. That’s what I love, that’s closer to my heart. Being kinda cooped up in a kitchen is my world; but, outside of that I’ve balanced my work life with the things that I enjoy and I love to pass down to my kids. That is teaching ethical hunting and practices and harvesting whole animals and things of that nature.
And, my boys know how to break down geese and ducks since they were about 11 years old and know what to do with them including five different preparations. It’s always a question if what are we going to do this year is different as far as making jerky or marinading or sausage or whatever. So that’s of course, when I always find myself back in the kitchen with all of these types of habits and hobbies.
But the bike allows us just to literally get away, put it in the rear view mirror and leave all the crap behind. And just get out there and wind in your hair and everything else. Everybody, all the cliches are all pretty accurate. So, that sense of freedom and picking bugs out of your teeth. I mean, I just love it, love everything about it.
CA: The breeze on your knees?
DG: Yes the bugs in your teeth, everything. So it’s incredible.
CA: Well, that’s great fun. Listen, David, thank you so much for sharing time with us today and doing some great storytelling behind your food and your life and your family and those things are not mutually exclusive in your world – and in most people’s worlds. I think that what you’re saying is what a lot of people at home think about when they’re trying to find the best ingredients and, what I would say to listeners is follow chefs like David and others who really have the knowledge. Follow them, look at their menus online and go to their websites. You don’t have to be there. You can go online and sure, take a look at their menus and see where they get their ingredients from. And, if we get into that mindset as consumers when we’re out shopping, we may just take an extra 30 seconds and really compare products at the grocery store, read the labels, go to a farmer’s market, divert your shopping to a farmer’s market or literally go to a farm. I know that there’s hog farmers out there, there’s all kinds of places that people don’t realize that are right there in their towns, in their regions.
DG: We’ve got a ton in Maryland, and in Virginia, so it’s, it’s amazing in our here.
CA: Hey everybody, this has been David Guas. We thank him so much for being on the show today and this won’t be the last time that we check in with you from Grapes, Grains & Grub. Thank you, David.
DG: You bet. I appreciate being on. Thanks so much.