Isaac and Amanda Toups on Cajun Food, Southern Traditions + Why ‘Whole Hog’ Is a Buzzword

Isaac & Amanda Toups on Cajun Food, Southern Traditions & Why 'Whole Hog' Is a Buzzword

Just over a week ago, Isaac and Amanda Toups opened the doors to Toups South, a restaurant in the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFAB) in New Orleans. As a museum restaurant, Toups South is tasked with showcasing the flavors and culinary traditions of the South — a tall order, considering the region’s signature dishes range from barbecue to crawfish étouffée and represent countless distinctive communities from Texas to the Carolinas.

Toups South is the couple’s second concept. Toups Meatery, which they opened in 2012, boasts “straight Cajun” offerings like lamb neck, confit chicken thigh, and authentic cracklins. The Meatery helped Isaac win the attention of Top Chef, where he competed in Season 13 (and won “Fan Favorite”).

Now, just days into their new opening, we talked to Isaac and Amanda about real Cajun food — what makes it special, why stories matter, and why people are listening.

Was Cajun cuisine a big part of your childhood growing up in Louisiana? Tell us about the foods and influences you were exposed to.

Isaac: My father’s from Louisiana — a coastal Cajun. The culinary influences on that side are all seafood: we were shucking oysters, boiling crawfish and crabs, making seafood stews and whatnot. My mother was a prairie Cajun, from the flatland. They had pig roasts and rice dishes. I was very lucky in my youth — I didn’t realize how good of a background I was being influenced with from the get-go.

And my family all loved to eat. We talked about dinner at lunch. And we had an experimental side — we would try anchovies, Vietnamese food, sushi, all kinds of new things. I’m the first professional cook in my family; I started professionally cooking when I was 20, but I had a jumpstart with my food knowledge.

Isaac & Amanda Toups on Cajun Food, Southern Traditions & Why 'Whole Hog' Is a Buzzword

Did you always know you wanted to cook this kind of food?

Isaac: No, I thought I didn’t want to cook Cajun because I grew up with it. I wanted to cook fancy food and classic fine-dining stuff. But in the last six or seven years, I realized I can cook Cajun food at fine-dining quality. It took me a hot minute to realize what that dream was, and now I have the Meatery.

I just can’t see myself doing anything else. I cook with ingredients from Japan, from Italy, but it always comes with a little bit of a Cajun hand to it. That’s just who I am.

Amanda:  Now, at Toups South, we’re exploring the entire South. There’s a Cajun hand, but that’s a very small 100-square-mile area where these foods are coming from. Now, we’re exploring barbecue, we’re smoking, we’re looking to the Carolinas — it’s cool to see those influences. 

Tell me about the concept at the Meatery. How would you describe it? Lamb neck isn’t on your typical restaurant menu.

Amanda: People didn’t start giving us gold stars right away. Now, our clients trust us enough that if Isaac puts it on the menu, they know they’re going to like it. Lamb neck is Cajun — it’s a fatty piece of meat with a ton of flavor. It’s definitely a whole different type of restaurant. Some people fall in love with it, and some people say, it’s too weird for me. 

Isaac & Amanda Toups on Cajun Food, Southern Traditions & Why 'Whole Hog' Is a Buzzword

Tell us about the opportunity to open Toups South. How is it an extension of the Toups Meatery brand?

Amanda: We travel extensively to Charleston, Austin, and other places that feel homey to us. We’re attracted to those types of foods. It’s easy for people who live in Louisiana for their whole lives to find something they didn’t necessarily grow up with, but they feel like they could have grown up with. Southern food has so many different regions, and they’re all their own thing. Right now we’re obsessed with crab fat, from the Carolinas — we’re putting crab fat on everything right now, like our sourdough biscuits from a 100-year-old starter. 

SoFAB is fighting to protect history. We feel really proud to be representing the South and to be a voice in the education of people about the South. Everything has a story, and we’re excited to frame that.

What do you want to teach people about Southern food? 

Isaac: The main one is that Cajun and Creole are different cuisines. A lot of people think something is straight Cajun when it’s really Cajun with Spanish and classic French influences. That’s not bad — it’s very good food, but it’s a blend. There are only a couple of people doing straight Cajun food. 

For us, we’re doing very old-school classic Cajun. Sometimes we’ll take other things and evolve and modernize a Cajun dish. We use a lot of new techniques, ingredients, heritage pig breeds, and a lot of local produce. Now, we can take Cajun food and transport it back to what it really was because we have the option and opportunities opening every day to use artisanal products. 

Amanda: It was so expensive to do it for a long time. Now, it’s so affordable that you’re almost lazy if you’re not doing it. We build relationships with farmers, who give us what we’re looking for. We have a completely open kitchen in Toups South, and we have a chalkboard with the names of all our farmers. They’re so proud of what we do to protect heritage ingredients. They’ll ask us, “What do you want me to grow for you this year?” We’re catering a wedding next month, and Isaac told the farmer he needed a pig on that day and the farmer raised a specific pig just for that wedding. 

Isaac: “Whole hog” is a buzzword. We’ve been doing that for 300 years.

Amanda: It’s exciting with Toups South to explore other areas. We’ve loved doing Cajun food for years, and now we can respect other ingredients the way we respect Cajun ingredients. We have Aaron Franklin’s [of Franklin’s BBQ] original smoker in the museum, and we use it every day. That’s such an honor. 
Isaac & Amanda Toups on Cajun Food, Southern Traditions & Why 'Whole Hog' Is a Buzzword

What did the R&D process for Toups South look like? 

Isaac: A lot of wine on the couch, having menus out. Cooking in the restaurant and in the Meatery. It was a mad dash of a process — no sit-down board meeting and then we have menu at 5 p.m. 

Amanda: It was very organic.

Isaac: It comes from the heart. There are dishes we put on and then we’ll go, that’s not good enough. We are constantly testing and tweaking. Even now the menu has a lot of good stuff, but we’re not at 100%.

Do you feel like being on Top Chef brought more awareness and attention to Cajun food in general?

Isaac: It was definitely advertising on my part because we had a lot of new people come into the restaurant. Being Southern is very cool right now, and I’m not sure why. We have a story to tell and things to say, and ways of doing things that are not necessarily what other people do. And seriously good food.

Amanda: It’s also a really prideful people. Cajuns are very self-sustainable. When we had the flood, everyone was rescuing each other. The government got there a week later. 

Isaac & Amanda Toups on Cajun Food, Southern Traditions & Why 'Whole Hog' Is a Buzzword

What’s going on in the New Orleans dining scene today that you’re excited about? How do you see the balance of traditional vs. fresh and new?

Amanda: It’s so exciting to be restaurateurs in New Orleans now. Up-and-coming chefs are now becoming leaders in the community and getting attention after working under Emeril and John Besh. We’re able to put our footprint on the city now and say something that’s important to us, and people listen. 

Isaac: It’s exciting to be able to do whatever you want and create what you want. It’s liberating, but also scary, finding my own voice in Cajun country that’s unique. The bar is set very high. Chefs are like rock stars. I didn’t get into cooking for that, but I’ll take it. Why not? 

Amanda: The talent level in New Orleans is so high. People said we were crazy to open another restaurant. But the people who are doing a good job rise to the top, and the people who aren’t will fade away.

Olivia Terenzio is the Content Marketing Manager at OpenTable and editor of Open for Business.

Photos courtesy of Toups Meatery and Toups South.

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