7-Up cake may never make it onto the contemporary French menu of Chef John Besh's New Orleans restaurant, August, but for his mentee, Syrena Johnson, the recipe will always be a sweet spot.
"I can always remember being in the kitchen cooking, helping my mom prep for holidays, going to my grandma’s house and helping her bake ... I remember making 7-Up cakes with her," Johnson told The Huffington Post, recalling her humble New Orleans upbringing and the road to culinary stardom she's been on for the past three years.
It's been a smooth journey, much to Johnson's surprise, since she decided the kitchen is where she wants to be. "I didn’t know that I wanted to be a chef, I [just] knew that I liked to cook," she says. "But I always thought I would work my way up the ranks."
From a stint on the fast-food scene, to a non-profit cooking school designed to help disadvantaged youth throughout New Orleans, Johnson's career path has remained relatively obstacle-free.
Her family was displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but by 2011, on the recommendation of a program director at Liberty's Kitchen, where she breezed through a 12-week cooking course in just seven weeks, Johnson entered the first-ever scholarship competition held by the John Besh Foundation's Chefs Move.
The scholarship to the International Culinary Center in New York, aimed at diversifying kitchen leadership and offering mentorship to minorities from New Orleans, belonged to Johnson after three rounds, which included an interview with MSNBC host and Chefs Move adviser Melissa Harris-Perry, and Besh, who Johnson says shared her passion for New Orleans cuisine.
"I really hadn’t heard of him," Johnson admits. "I’d seen his face around, but I never really knew him like that because I’m not into chefs and the Food Network -- I just like to cook."
Now Johnson says she's the one being recognized. "I could go out right now and people would say, 'You're that girl who won that scholarship!' I walk into any one of Chef [Besh's] restaurants and everybody is like 'Hey, Syrena, what's up?'"
But as connected as she is -- her nine-month semester at ICC in New York also included work at Lincoln Center's Lincoln restaurant with Chef Jonathan Benno of Per Se and at North End Grill with Chef Floyz Cardoz -- Johnson says she plans to hold on to her roots.
"If I ever get down to a point where I have my own thing, it would be a New Orleans-based food. I’m not going to stray from my roots. I might recreate it a little bit but I want to keep that in me, because that’s the stuff I grew up eating. That’s the stuff that everybody I know loves."
Case in point: her idea of the perfect Super Bowl fare.
Wings and pizza are fine, but "a crawfish boil would be appropriate, too," she says. "You’re outside, you’re around a big pot, everybody likes to tailgate, that would be awesome."
Check out Johnson's other go-to Sunday dinner dish in the recipe below.
Crawfish, Shrimp And Okra Etouffee With Rice Pilaf And Blackened Speckled Trout
½ lb. of butter
3 C of onions chopped
1 C of celery chopped
½ C of seeded diced red bell peppers
½ C of seeded diced green bell peppers
4 T of AP flour
2 C of water or chicken stock
1 lb. of peeled cleaned crawfish
1 lb. of peeled and deveined shrimp
½ t of salt
4 T of chopped onions
4 T chopped parsley
1 can diced tomatoes
½ t tomato paste
1 ½ t of garlic powder
1 ½ t of salt
1 t of black pepper
1 t of cayenne pepper
1 t of dried oregano
4 C of rice
4 ½ C chicken stock
1 sprig of thyme
15 g of shallots diced
1 T of butter
1 garlic clove crushed
2 speckled trout or 8 120-130 g portions
1 C of blackened mixture
30 g of canola oil
2 t of paprika
2 ½ t of dried thyme
1 ½ t of onion powder
1 t of cayenne pepper
1 t of dried oregano
- Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat, add onions and cook until soft and lightly golden brown 8 to 10 min. Add celery and bell peppers and cook stirring occasionally until soft for about 5 min. Cook until butter separates then sprinkle flour and stir to blend until mixture thickens slightly. Add the water or stock and reduce the heat to low. Stir to blend, add tomatoes and paste, season crawfish and shrimp with salt and add to pot. Add the green onions and parsley and cook for 10 min. Remove from heat and serve over rice.
- In a medium pot sweat shallots in butter over medium heat until soft. Add rice and stir in with wooden spoon until fully coated. Add stock, thyme, garlic clove, salt and pepper, bring to a boil cover and finish in oven at 350 F for 20 min.
- Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly until fully incorporated.
- Fillet fish or, if already prepared, season both sides with blackened mixture until fully covered. In a sauté pan with oil, blacken on both sides for 2-3 min over medium heat.
- To serve use a small cup to mold rice in the middle of plate place fish on top of rice and ladle Etouffee around rice top with parsley and serve.