A couple of months after moving from the San Francisco Bay Area to New Orleans back in 1981, Pierre "Pete" Hilzim was given the cooking chores at a dinner party.
He made a dish he'd been playing around with in his head, a combination of crawfish, pasta and a spiced cream reduction. He named it Crawfish Monica that night after his new wife, Monica Davidson.
Two years later, the pair, who started a food manufacturing business called Kajun Kettle Foods Inc., pitched the dish to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. It sold and sold, becoming a favorite of the masses, including many Bay Area chefs with Louisiana roots who shared with us their favorite Jazz Fest dishes.
"It is a Jazz Fest sensation," says Chuck Maddox, chef-owner of Cajun Pacific in San Francisco. "Mention Jazz Fest food and Crawfish Monica comes up immediately."
The annual festival, now in its 43rd year, wraps up Sunday following two weekends of music that include international and local entertainers ranging from Billy Joel, the Black Keys and Dave Matthews Band to Rebirth Brass Band, Galactic and Trombone Shorty.
But the festival is also known for food from nearly 70 vendors, who'll serve everything from gumbo and etouffeé to fried chicken and more than a dozen variations of the po' boy sandwich. In honor of the event, we asked Bay Area chefs for their most memorable Jazz Fest dishes. We noticed familiar themes -- and lots of emotion.
"This is the food that I came up on," says Michael LeBlanc, a New Orleans native and owner of Picán Restaurant in Oakland. "It brings back memories of family, friends and distinct cultures -- the epitome of Laissez les bons temps rouler. This food inspired me to launch Picán."
Ronnie New, chef at Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery in San Francisco, says it's hard to go wrong with anything he eats at the festival. He is now in New Orleans, attending Jazz Fest's second weekend.
"I may be biased but I truly think it's by far the best food at any festival," he says.
Below are their favorites, in no particular order.
This year's festival marked the 30th anniversary of Crawfish Monica's first appearance at the festival. It's a favorite of Justin Simoneaux, chef at the Boxing Room, Brenda Buenviaje, chef-owner of Brenda's French Soul Food, and New, of Magnolia.
"We've fed this stuff to four presidents, Pope John Paul and all kinds of people," says Hilzim. "It's taken us places neither of us would have gone without it."
He predicts he'll sell enough Crawfish Monica to fill a semi-truck during the seven days of Jazz Fest.
Simoneaux is featuring a dish inspired by Crawfish Monica at the Boxing Room this weekend. You can also find Creole crawfish and pasta on the menu at Cajun Pacific (Maddox once called the dish Crawfish Monica until he received a very nice letter from Hilzim's company.).
There is also the possibility that Hilzim and Davidson will serve Crawfish Monica at this summer's Outside Lands in San Francisco, being held August 9-11.
Soft Shell Crab Po' Boy
Dennis and Vicky Patania have been selling soft shell crab po' boys at the festival for 36 years. The soft shell crabs are dipped in the Galley Seafood Restaurant's house batter of cornmeal and spices before landing on a Leidenheimer French roll with nothing but a couple slices of pickle.
"We don't put any filler, no lettuce or tomato," says Vicky Patania. "We also have (on the side) homemade tartar sauce, ketchup, hot sauce, lemon juice and butter. A lot of people don't want lettuce and tomato because they want to taste the crab."
The soft shell crabs are only available twice a year, Patania says, the result of crabs shedding their hard shells.
"Soft shell crab really is like a miracle seafood," she says.
Nothing says Jazz Fest to Maddox of Cajun Pacific more than a soft shell crab po' boy.
"It's the very beginning of crab season and the burst of juicy crab flavor and crispy fried crunch means summer is on its way," he says. "We won't see soft shell crabs for another three weeks in San Francisco until the Chesapeake crab season starts. They are the ultimate po' boy for me."
He'll serve his rendition at Cajun Pacific in the next few weeks through the summer.
While nothing reminds Maddox of Jazz Fest like a soft shell crab po' boy, the crawfish bread has the same effect on several Bay Area chefs. It's the best, says Mitch Rosenthal, co-owner of several Bay Area restaurants, including the Southern-themed Town Hall in San Francisco.
"I only see it at Jazz Fest," he says.
The crawfish bread was the inspiration behind the crawfish beignets at Brenda's in San Francisco, according to Buenviaje. Simoneaux also added it to the Boxing Room's menu through Sunday.
"If I had to pick a favorite it would have to be crawfish bread, because I enjoy the kick and the cheesiness of the filling and it’s also much easier to eat in a festival environment," Siminouex says in an email.
John Ed Laborde is flattered that the recipe he invented decades ago has made such an impression on people. It took years of petitioning Jazz Fest organizers before he finally received permission to sell the crawfish bread because it was an original recipe, not an indigenous food that is part of Louisiana's culinary heritage.
He cooks and cools the crawfish tails before adding spices, onions and four types of cheese. The filling is rolled into a basic yeast dough and baked. Laborde goes through about 6,000 pounds of crawfish during Jazz Fest.
"Twenty-seven years ago, it was exactly the same way it is today," Laborde says. "It is handmade in Marksville, La. I have about 15 ladies with rolling pins, they measure out the dough, they portion out the ingredients and each one is handmade. That's why not every one is exactly the same."
Hot Sausage Po' Boy
When LeBlanc of Picán heads to Jazz Fest, his makes a beeline for a po' boy made with a hot sausage or crawfish sausage from Vaucresson Sausage Co., which has sold sausage po' boys at Jazz Fest since 1970, its inaugural year.
"Over the course of the seven days, we're selling thousands of pounds of sausage," says President Vance Vaucresson, a third-generation Creole sausage maker.
Over the years, the family has brought variations of other sausages to the festival -- turkey sausage, green onion sausage and turkey andouille, to name a few -- but its hot sausage po' boy has been a mainstay. It's a fresh, all-pork Creole sausage made with spices and fresh vegetables, such as garlic, green onion and bell peppers, served on a roll with lettuce and tomato.
He's not shipping sausages directly to any restaurants on the West Coast, but anyone can order the sausage from the Vaucresson website. Beware: As with shipping any perishable product halfway across the country, shipping costs can be hefty.
Cochon de Lait Po' Boy:
When he visits Jazz Fest, New of Magnolia usually doesn't leave without eating a cochon de lait po' boy, a sandwich named one of the best sandwiches in the U.S. by Esquire Magazine in 2008.
"It's pretty simple roasted pork with chunks of crispy skin," says New, who sometimes features a cochon de lait po' boy on the menu at Magnolia during the Mardi Gras season.
Wanda Walker has sold cochon de lait po' boys at Jazz Fest since 2000. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Walker and her catering company, Love at First Bite, prepare the cochon de lait -- French for suckling pig -- by slowly smoking a ton of pork butt over hickory for 12 hours. A mound of the shredded pork sits atop cabbage and horseradish sauce on French bread.
Pheasant, Quail and Andouille Gumbo
Bob Guilbeau, the founder of Prejean’s Restaurant in Lafayette, La., calls this recipe a gift from above.
Back in the early 1990s, he held several gumbo dinners in Arkansas as a thank you gesture for the help and supplies his community received from the Natural State after Hurricane Andrew. His hosts told him to only bring his roux and spices and they'd furnish the major ingredients. In a 500-gallon crawfish boiler, he and his staff made gumbo with a chicken base instead of salt (he forgot to bring it) and boneless, skinless chicken thighs, another first.
"The chef and I looked at it, smelled it, tasted it and realized we had never cooked a gumbo that good in our whole lives," Guilbeau says. "It was a gift from God."
Much of the flavor comes from a dark, silky and nutty roux spiked with a blend of peppers and tender chunks of pheasant, quail and andouille sausage. He cooks the gumbo in 30 gallon batches for Jazz Fest at the restaurant. He's been selling the stuff at the festival for 20 years.