No city defines “fusion” quite like New Orleans—especially when it comes to food. Every facet of the port city’s culinary personality is rooted in the different cultures brought there by immigrants from around the world, from the iconic Cajun and Creole cuisines to the more recent blossoming of Vietnamese influence in the city’s best kitchens.
Just over 40 years ago, after the fall of Saigon, large waves of Vietnamese refugees settled in New Orleans, due in large part to the southern city’s climate, which is similar to that of Vietnam. Over time, the ingredients and dishes that they brought with them became a staple of New Orleans’s unique culinary tradition. Now, many of the city’s top chefs are elevating this blend of flavors to fine dining, but one chef in particular has taken Southeast Asian influences to new levels: Michael Gulotta.
Gulotta, who was born and raised in New Orleans, has worked as a chef in a range of places, from Italy’s Ligurian Coast to Germany’s Black Forest. Still, no flavors inspire him more than the ones he’s found in his hometown. Gulotta’s MoPho, a neighborhood spot in Mid-City, is described as the place where “the Mekong Delta meets the Mississippi River.” His more recently opened restaurant, Maypop, expands on MoPho’s Southeast Asian fusion-style food with classic European influences. We spoke with Gulotta about the distinct influence of Vietnamese flavors on Louisiana’s traditional cuisine. Here’s what he told us.
What inspired you to start cooking “New Orleans meets Southeast Asia” cuisine in the first place?
“There is something that has always interested me about taking ingredients and turning them into something completely different. Previously, I ran a restaurant that was, like, the preeminent spot for Creole fine dining in New Orleans. When I opened MoPho, and later Maypop, I wanted to include the flavors that I’d always craved when I wasn’t at work. It wasn’t until after we opened MoPho that we started to figure out all of the existing parallels between Southeast Asian food and classic Louisiana cuisine—and there are a lot, once you start looking into it.”
What kinds of parallels?
“New Orleans and Vietnam were both French colonies, are on river deltas, and have access to brackish water seafood. Vietnam is tropical while New Orleans is sub-tropical, but there are a lot of similarities in the way food has been cooked in both places because of these climates. Some of the popular dishes mirror each other, like bánh mí and po’boys, or pho and gumbo. The biggest difference is that Southeast Asian food is much lighter—it’s more vegetable-based and refreshing. New Orleans’s cuisine still holds on very tightly to its French roots and is extremely heavy food.”
What does the blend of Vietnamese and New Orleanian influences actually look like on your menus?
“On our menu at MoPho, we took cream and butter out of every dish and replaced those ingredients with coconut milk, which is a staple of Southeast Asian cuisine. We have a pork pho special, which is a really interesting dish because, while it’s traditionally Vietnamese, it speaks more to the New Orleans palate. In Vietnam, pho doesn’t have pork in it, but we added pork hock, which, in Louisiana, we put in everything. Our pho is heavy by Vietnamese standards and light by New Orleans standards. It’s literally a middle ground.“Our newer restaurant, Maypop, brings in more of my training from Italy and Germany [as well as Vietnamese flavors]. The menu includes charcuterie, fresh pasta, and more of New Orleans’s classical French influences—but still combined with Southeast Asian flavors. We’re finding that some people don’t know what to call it; it’s not really fusion, just a new kind of cuisine that we can’t categorize.”
From where do you source the Southeast Asian ingredients in your dishes?
“All of our seafood comes straight from the gulf in Louisiana, but a lot of our herbs come the VEGGI Farmers Cooperative, which was started by a group of Vietnamese-Americans in order to create jobs for Vietnamese immigrants who don’t speak English. We use a lot of the herbs and vegetables that they grow and all of our tofu comes from them.”
Lastly, what inspires you about the current culinary scene in New Orleans?
“I think New Orleans has two sides: There’s an emphasis on traditional cuisine, but there are also always waves of chefs who travel, come back to the city, and grow the local scene. New Orleans has always taken the best parts of different cultures and blended them together—which is why we have our own cuisine. New Orleans kind of walks to the beat of its own drum, and its cuisine does whatever it wants.” >>Next: Eating in the South’s Next Great Food Destination Sarah Buder