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SECRET SAUCE: HOW ONE CHEF BROUGHT CAJUN COOKING TO CHICAGO
Photo Courtesy of Jesse Lirola
SECRET SAUCE: HOW ONE CHEF BROUGHT CAJUN COOKING TO CHICAGO

Chef Alfredo Nogueira helms the kitchen at Chicago's Analogue with his famous Creole-style cooking. From red beans and rice to filé gumbo, Chef Alfredo blends ingredients from Chicago's local farms with the flavors he remembers from his hometown of New Orleans.

I started cooking Cajun food because I was homesick—I actually never made much gumbo when I was living in New Orleans!

Recently, he created an imaginative culinary adventure as the "Master of Sauces" for the Citi Experience booth at Chicago Taste of the Nation, a benefit to support No Kid Hungry. Guests were invited to use custom-built sauce dispensers to smother hushpuppies—one of Chef Alfredo's favorite Southern snacks—with their choice of spicy aji pepper tartar sauce or sweet Southern fried apple sauce. I stopped by to sample his delicious concoctions, and asked the Cajun chef a few questions.

KIT GRAHAM: New Orleans is an amazing food town. What inspires a Cajun chef like you to go north?

Chef Alfredo: I am a Katrina evacuee who just stayed in Chicago. I had some friends who were living here at the time, so I came here to work and the local community took me in. I started cooking Cajun food because I was homesick—I actually never made much gumbo when I was living in New Orleans!

KG: What's the secret ingredient to a great gumbo recipe?

Chef Alfredo: I like to put a lot of fresh herbs into my gumbo—thyme, parsley, bay, and green onions. But taking the time to create the roux is the most important thing; it's the backbone of a really good Cajun gumbo recipe. The roux is equal parts fat and flour and it must be stirred for close to an hour to get it the right color and thickness.

KG: What's your favorite place to eat when you go back to New Orleans?

Chef Alfredo: My favorite place is Casamento's—one of the oldest restaurants in New Orleans in Uptown. It's an old-fashioned oyster bar, only open in the months that have the letter "R" in them, so they are closed in the hot months when you aren't supposed to eat oysters. They do raw and fried oysters, plus a couple of different specials. It's a beautiful place—tiny with just two little stoves. It's well respected in the food community, and it's always my first recommendation.

KG: What's your favorite place to eat in Chicago when you are not working?

Chef Alfredo: Lula Café is many chefs' favorite. It's inspiring; they are always doing different stuff. It has a cool staff, a nice room, a great beverage program, and great wine. It's a good place to go for a date, or you can go by yourself for lunch.

KG: Analogue is known for its cocktails. Are you inspired to create dishes to accompany them or is it the other way around?

Chef Alfredo: The cocktail program is run by Henry Prendergast and Robert Haynes, and we are all really good friends. They wanted to open a bar with good food and I wanted to work with them because they are great guys. They do esoteric cocktails and I do very straightforward Cajun and Creole food. We share a similar aesthetic and are all just silly boys wanting to have fun at work!

KG: For Chicago Taste of the Nation's Citi Experience, you were the "Master of Sauces." How was the experience conceived and created?

Chef Alfredo: It was extremely creative, wasn't it? The team came to me with the idea for a contraption that would dispense sauce on tater tots. They had a loose framework and I thought it was so out there that I wanted to be a part of the vision. I suggested the idea of hushpuppies because I love them and they are ubiquitous in the south. So we worked together to evolve the concept to include the aji pepper tartar sauce. Since we are at the beginning of apple season, I made a Southern fried apple sauce. I think it was successful!

KG: As the Master of Sauces, can you name a sauce that every home cook should try to master?

Chef Alfredo: Learn to make a good salsa verde. I love to experiment with making my own hot sauces. You can make salsa as simple or as complicated as you want. You can make it spicy, sweet, or mild. You can make a big batch and then make five different things to have it with for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Our house hot sauce is so simple to make at home, too: just chilies, vinegar, and salt.

KG: Thanks for allowing us into your flavorful world, Chef Alfredo! Your creations are delicious and I'm heading home to make my own salsa verde!