Local food experts head to Russia, with roux, to share culture and build bridges

While the tools of international diplomacy typically include accords and treaties, aid packages and trade agreements, one delegation departing for Russia this week will bring to bear the roots and history of Creole cooking, ideas for incorporating Russian beet molasses into Southern staples and directives for smaller crawfish and a darker roux

This team includes Liz Williams, executive director of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, and Ryan Hughes, chef of the Southern-style restaurant Purloo, which is slated to open inside the museum when its new Central City facility debuts in September. For the next few days, both will serve as representatives for Louisiana cuisine and food culture in Moscow as part of a first-of-its-kind program called the Louisiana Culture Project/Russia 2014.

They’ll lead cooking demonstrations and master classes for Russian chefs, take part in a reception for 150 VIPs at the U.S. ambassador’s residence and oversee a feast of gumbo, boiled crawfish and bread pudding for thousands of Muscovites at the Usadba Jazz Festival, one of Europe’s largest music festivals. While specific Louisiana flavors will be the focus, international relations and cross-cultural exchange is the undercurrent.

“This is about people who share a passion for food coming together on that common ground,” said Williams. “It’s using food to convene people to share ideas and learn about each other’s culture.”

The program is funded largely by the U.S. Department of State as part of its international outreach efforts, and it’s organized by Tony Micocci, a New Orleans-based producer of arts and cultural events. Planning for the Louisiana Culture Project began more than a year ago, well before the Crimean crisis put top-level Russian and U.S. relations on new footing. But Micocci said those developments only underscored the purpose of the trip.

“There’s an on-the-street perception that America really has no culture of its own, that it’s all just big brands,” he said. “But this city has a real distinct and unique culture, and there is a tremendous feeling for New Orleans among Russians, so it’s a chance to show people a different view and change some stereotypes.”

Food is only one part of the exposition. Micocci recruited musicians from jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. to zydeco bandleader Keith Frank to the KIPP McDonogh 15 Middle School marching band to perform at festivals around Russia this month. Presentations on Mardi Gras Indian traditions and zydeco and second line dance steps are on tap, and the program includes screenings of Louisiana films and a month-long museum exhibit of 1,100 images from scores of local photographers curated by New Orleans photographer Frank Relle.

But the food component aligns with a broader program at work in the realm of international relations. In 2012, the State Department created its Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, an initiative intended to use food to break down cultural barriers and open new access points for diplomatic efforts. Through the program, chefs from the U.S. travel abroad to present American food culture and host traveling delegations of chefs from overseas.

As these programs gather steam, Williams is excited for the potential of New Orleans to be a major stop for international culinary missions. When the new Southern Food & Beverage Museum opens this fall, she pointed out, a city already renowned for its food culture also will have a dedicated facility for culinary education and research, with a demonstration kitchen and restaurant built right in.

“It was always our goal with this place to make New Orleans into a destination where you can come, not just to eat, but to study and research food,” Williams said.

From beets to boils

More immediately, making Southern food part of this week’s Louisiana Culture Project activities in Russia has taken a good deal of research of its own.

For several months, Hughes has been working with Russian counterparts to lay some long-distance groundwork for the dishes he’ll present in Moscow. First, he had to overcome some widespread misconceptions about what he would be bringing to the table.

“Their first impression was that, if it was American food, it would be something they could handle pretty easily,” Hughes said of the Russian chefs. “But look, when I tell people here where I’m going, they’re like, ‘oh look out, all you’re going to have is borscht and vodka the whole time.’ So how can we blame the Russians if they have the impression all we eat is pizza and hot dogs?”

The menus Hughes planned cover some Creole standards, from jambalaya and shrimp po-boys for the festival crowds to shrimp remoulade canapés, cornmeal-crusted oysters and callas with tasso for the chefs and dignitaries gathered at the ambassador’s residence. He also picked Southern dishes to highlight connections with the Russians’ own local ingredients. For instance, for a Paul Prudhomme recipe for black molasses muffins he’s swapping out Louisiana cane molasses for readily-available Russian sugar beet molasses.

“I want to teach the chefs something they’ll take home and cook for their families,” Hughes said. “We’re not trying to outshine anybody with flashy ingredients or preparations. We want to show the connections that exist and how they work out differently with the different techniques and culture behind them.”

This prep work has entailed a lot of intercontinental consultation between chefs, with Hughes providing recipes and ingredients lists and the Russians sending back detailed photo progressions showing their test runs with these unfamiliar dishes.

In this way, Hughes could counsel chefs accustomed to making a classic French-style roux to cook one much longer and darker for a proper gumbo. And while it turns out crawfish are readily available in Russia, Hughes was alarmed to see how his instructions for a boil were initially interpreted.

“They got the largest crawfish they could find, one-pound each maybe,” he said. “And they threw out the corn and the sausage they boiled them with. They thought that was just to cook with. I had to tell them, ‘No, no, we definitely eat that. That’s the best part.’”

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.