After a turbulent year that involved living in temporary housing after his home was flooded, Executive Chef Wesley Turnage, CEC, received recognition as one of the best chefs in the state of Louisiana by the American Culinary Federation of New Orleans.
Turnage had just started last year as executive chef at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette when his house in Denham Springs was destroyed in a flood, forcing Turnage and his family to live in a trailer and then a camper for months.
He kept working—and competing—during the long rebuilding process. And he was victorious. Turnage won with a single dish that he named A Celebration of Louisiana. The locally sourced plate featured local rum-brined, pan-seared, bone-in pork chop with sides of Louisiana sweet potatoes, wilted local arugula, and a crispy leek-fresh herb salad with quick green tomato pepper-jelly glaze.
FM caught up with Turnage, who recently settled into his new home with his family, to talk about his culinary journey, inspirations, Cajun vs. Creole jambalaya and his favorite Southern comfort foods.
Q: Tell me more about your winning dish…What is Bayou rum?
A: Bayou rum is a brand that’s made locally. The dish came together with the sourcing of local ingredients. We have great partnerships with local vendors in Louisiana. Having good partners at local meat and produce companies…it’s about what’s local, what’s fresh and what’s happening right now.
Q: How did you get started cooking?
A: My mom and grandma were really good cooks. My grandma was a foodservice director at a hospital. Before the Food Network, I really had an interest in it. Something innate inside me just said, “I really like this.” Then I got into college and I played football and baseball, but I had an accident with my leg and I was just attending college. A friend of mine said, “Hey, I work in a restaurant. Do you want a job?”
Q: How did you like that first restaurant job?
A: I started washing dishes, doing prep, making salads…within a year I was kitchen manager. That reinvigorated my passion for being in a kitchen. It was also a lot of fun. I got fully ingrained in the restaurant experience.
Q: What other restaurant experiences have you had?
A: I did an internship at the Biltmore in Asheville, N.C., and then I worked in hotels and fine dining in Memphis. And I opened a restaurant in Oxford, Miss. We did everything from scratch, from bread to ice cream. After my divorce, the restaurant closed, and I became a teacher at the Louisiana Culinary Institute in Baton Rouge. That helped me reset and step back; I love teaching. It inspired me to get involved with cooking again. Then I worked as executive chef for a healthcare system. I got remarried, and then started working at the University of Louisiana.
Q: What kind of cuisine is your favorite/the most interesting to you right now?
A: Acadiana (aka, Cajun). I’ve fallen in love with it since moving down here. I was never a fanatic for Cajun food before, but it’s really good. They use local stuff. They don’t want sausage from anywhere else; they don’t want bread from anywhere else. They call it micro-culturalism. And the Acadians have such a rich culture, including French heritage. Food is life for these people. I’ve fallen in love with the way they make a gumbo.
Q: How would you describe the difference between Cajun and Creole food?
A: Their jambalaya is very different. Cajun jambalaya would never have tomatoes; it’s brown and it has a lot of meat in it.
Q: What’s a Southern dish that especially speaks to you?
A: Grits. It’s such a versatile dish. I grew up with that as a staple at our breakfast table. It can be breakfast, with butter and cheese. You can dress it up and make it classy or you can do just a simple preparation. It was one of our core items at the restaurant in Oxford. A guy I work with caught some redfish recently, and I just seared it, made a pan sauce with peppers and onions over grits…I set it down in front of my wife and she said, “What did I do to deserve this?”
Q: It sounds like you find a lot of inspiration from regional dishes wherever you are.
A: Yeah. Let’s feature what’s popular in Oxford or Memphis or Lafayette…it gives you something to hang your hat on.
Q: Any tips for cooking catfish?
A: The way everyone does it in the South is to cornmeal-crust it and fry it. That’s the quintessential way to serve catfish. As a fish, it has a different texture; it’s not a flaky fish. It’s meatier. You can braise it, sear it…it’s versatile. We have a great local catfish supplier at the U of Louisiana. It’s a local fish for us, so that’s a good value.