NEW IBERIA, La. (AL) – Royalty has a special symbolic meaning in the Bayou State. Having been a part of several different crowns throughout its long history, Louisiana now regards it as an honor bestowed onto those showing remarkable achievement and contribution to the community at large rather than something that is mandated by birthright.
One milestone in this new monarchy came about when Bonnie Breaux made Louisiana history this summer after besting 12 of the state’s top chefs and winning the 10th Annual Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off to be crowned the first Queen of Louisiana Seafood.
Breaux, 51, is the executive chef at the St. John Restaurant in St. Martinville. However, the notoriety bestowed onto the Lafayette native by her reign as Seafood Queen now has her traveling across her statewide kingdom, whether that means traveling to Monroe to participate in the North Delta Wine & Food Festival or riding to New Iberia to start a roux at five o’clock in the morning ahead of the World Championship Gumbo Cook-Off.
“I won the Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off and that has taken a lot of my time,” says Breaux. “So, right now I am actually not at the restaurant very often. I have somebody that’s running the kitchen at this time. So, we have a lot going on right now, and we’re doing all kinds of things.”
Breaux has spent many years immersed in the rich culture of South Louisiana’s culinary climate. While she admits having no formal culinary training, she has been fortunate enough to receive a hands-on education in the area’s distinct gourmet experience.
“I always wanted to cook,” she recalls. “It was just something that I chose to do. It was something that I knew how to do.”
Her culinary acumen actually stretches all the way back to her childhood when her mother taught her the foundations on which she would build her career as an award-winning chef.
“I learned how to cook from my mother, and then my grandfather was a cook in World War I,” says Breaux. “So, we kind of have a long history of cooks in our family.”
Breaux’s official introduction into professional cooking began when she was 39. Following a divorce, Breaux says she was a stay-at-home mom and the idea of starting a business was lost on her at the time.
But one day while attending one of her children’s many sporting events, she noticed a demand for quality food by the other families that were in attendance.
“I started doing at-home food–meals that people could bring home and eat–because my children were all in sports and very athletic,” she explains. “So I would cook food for them and they would get it from me and take it home and that’s what they would have for their dinner that night for their children, instead of picking up your typical fast food on the run. ”
She then began catering weddings, baby showers and other social events for her friends, and with help from her brother she began her first catering business–Breaux’s Cajun Catering in Covington.
“When I first really got started in it, I was a stay-at-home mom and had no culinary training,” says Breaux. “I didn’t go to school for this, so there’s a lot of things still to learn even though I’ve been doing it for a while.”
However, Breaux found that she had a knack for catering and a passion for cooking, which would only grow from there.
“I realized that was something that I loved to do, so that’s what I did,” she says.
Breaux dived head first into her catering business until she was offered a position at Clementine Dining and Spirits in New Iberia as their executive chef and head of the restaurant’s catering operation.
“I always did a lot of catering for that, and then eventually in the kitchen I moved into doing my own dishes for the restaurant,” she says.
It was during New Iberia’s World Championship Gumbo Cook-Off one year that Breaux was approached by Roger and Susan Perry from Tampa, Fla., who invited her to work as a guest chef at their Cajun-Creole, Southern-inspired restaurant Roux.
Breaux says she quickly fell under the spell of the big city’s charm and the opportunity to relocate there soon followed.
“It was new and fresh and fun and they offered me to come back and work for them as their executive chef,” she says. “So I did that, and I taught them how to cook Cajun and Creole and they taught me a lot of things. I had a lot of people that worked for me that were culinary-trained, and one of them had been trained by Julia Child. So I got to learn from them as well.”
Breaux then later moved from Tampa back to Acadiana to accept her current position as the executive chef at the St. John Restaurant in St. Martinville, which is something she describes as a perfect match for her skills and temperament.
“My dream job is exactly what I’m doing now,” says Breaux. “Being able to create dishes and being able to represent Louisiana seafood, it’s a dream. I never thought I’d end up here.”
It was there that she was able to craft her award-winning recipe for the Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off: Crackling-Crusted Black Drum.
“Black Drum is my favorite dish and a lot of people don’t like Black Drum, but I feel like If you cook it properly you can do a lot,” says Breaux. “I grew up with a lot of local flavors, and cracklin was always a Sunday thing in our home growing up.”
Breaux says she collaborated on the dish with her sous chef, Jason Leboueuf, whose family owns Leboueuf’s Deli in Lafayette.
“I remember sitting there and I said, ‘I need to crust the fish with something.’ And then I said, ‘I could use pecans,’” she recalls. “And he said, ‘Cracklins!’ Because he knew how much I loved cracklins. And I was like, that’s it!”
That’s when Breaux says everything starting falling into place.
“Before you know it we had a dish and went with it,” she says. “He and I worked really hard on that dish that night. One of the judges told me ‘it was like a party in his mouth.’ I thought that was a huge compliment.”
The full dish was Crackling-Crusted Black Drum graced with a Fennel Marmalade, nestled on Abita Amber-infused Brabant Potatoes and Sautéed Haricot Vert, topped with butter-poached, Jumbo-Lump, Blue-Point Crabmeat.
“We tried to take as many local flavors as we had,” says Breaux. “Like Abita Amber, because it’s not local but it was something that was dear to me. And the cracklins, and the Steen’s vinaigrette–Steen’s was a staple in our house–and the marmalade. We kind of just took all of the different local flavors to create that dish, because I wanted to keep it as true to my area as I possibly could.”
The resulting combination quickly won over the judges at the cook-off who handedly declared Breaux’s dish the winner–a victory that she admits is still difficult to believe.
“It was absolutely surreal,” she says. “I couldn’t seem to get my head around it. I think for four or five days I still couldn’t believe that it had happened to me. I never would have ever thought that I would have won that.”
Breaux accepted the award with characteristic humility adding that it was an honor just to stand alongside the best chefs that Louisiana has to offer.
“Just for me to be accepted to the cook-off was a win already,” she says. “So when I won it was just so much better than I could ever imagine.”
For her victory, Breaux received a commemorative crown befitting her title along with a plaque and plenty of well-deserved fame for her feat.
“I am the first Louisiana Seafood Queen ever,” says Breaux. “I’ve gotten so much recognition out of that that it’s really helped my career. It’s really helped me to put myself out there.”
As a result of her recent renown, Breaux was chosen to represent Louisiana in the 14th Annual Great American Seafood Cook-Off this summer in New Orleans where she was ranked fourth, much to her incredulity.
“What an experience! I mean I was competing against people from all over the United States. Who does that?” she says. “I mean it was crazy. It was great. It was fun. I met some terrific people and some great chefs. So it was a really great time. And I did very, very well. So for me, just doing that and being so close to placing was just amazing.”
When asked what’s next on her culinary crusade, Breaux says, “I am going to take this title and I’m going to represent Louisiana seafood the best way that I can.”
[This article was originally published on the cover of the November 2017 edition of Acadiana Lifestyle and appeared on AcadianaLifestyle.com.]