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Local fan takes Cajun cooking back to basics

WITH their colorful signs hawking pork rinds and homemade sausages, the mom and pop stores that dot Louisiana's Cajun country left a lifelong mark on celebrated chef Donald Link.

"You drive around and there are these little specialized markets where everybody goes to get their Cajun meats and sausages," Link said. "It's the kind of meat you don't get in a regular grocery store."

It's also what Link, winner of a major American cooking award as best chef in the South, had in mind when in January he opened Cochon Butcher, a meat market and cafe in New Orleans' Warehouse District.

The enterprise is attached to the same building that houses Link's Cochon restaurant, and is near his flagship Herbsaint restaurant.

"We kicked around a lot of things," Link said. "But this seemed like the best idea. We felt there was a market for really good meat, great sandwiches, top grade products."

Link's German family added their own twist to the traditional Cajun gumbos, seafood, sausage and other pork dishes when they arrived in the 1880s in southwest Louisiana's Acadian country. The family produced much of the crawfish, pork, game and rice they cooked on their own land.

Lots of relatives

"It's still the food I like to eat," Link said. "When I go home I know what I can count on -- lots of relatives and lots of good food."

Link grew up near Lake Charles, Louisiana, and learned to cook as a boy in his grandfather's kitchen.

In his new cookbook, "Real Cajun, Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link's Louisiana," Link acknowledges his "most cherished, most powerful food memories involve two ingredients, rice and pork."

The German influence on Cajun food is strong, said chef John Folse, owner of Lafitte's Landing in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, and author of "The Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine."

"Although it's true that every early culture was self-sufficient when they arrived here and knew the basic ways to butcher and preserve meat, no one was better at it than the Germans," said Folse. "The strong German influence on the French is there in the wonderful boucheries, the jambalayas, anywhere smoked meat was used to flavor food."

At Cochon Butcher, Link and co-owner Chef Stephen Stryjewski, start with freshly butchered pigs and oversee the production of authentic boudin, andouille, smoked bacon, and head cheese that have found a ready market in New Orleans.

Unlike the highly spiced, frequently blackened and, according to Link, highly inauthentic Cajun food that gained popularity in the 1970s, Link produces simpler food with rich, but not necessarily spicy flavors.

Cochon Butcher sells meat by weight and a variety of sandwiches. The sandwich menu features pork belly with mint and cucumber; tuna melt on olive bread; pastrami and sauerkraut on rye; and hot sausage with cochon whole grain mustard and sauerkraut. All are made with house cooked meats.

"I just wanted to bring a little bit of home here," Link said. "Just good food and good flavors."


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