Isaac Toups is a real character. He stands out through his bon vivant biker’s physique – a shaved head and a jet-black goatee and mustache – and his larger-than-life personality filled with hearty guffaws and curse words. Acclaimed in the reality TV show Top Chef, he was voted a “Fan Favorite” by viewers in 2016. He is now using this fame to share the food of his ancestors with as many people as possible.
Growing up in Rayne, a few miles west of Lafayette, Isaac Toups is a Louisianan “born and braised.” His family left France many generations ago and moved to Acadia, the territory now home to New Brunswick and certain regions in Quebec, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Maine. Chased from their homes by the British in the 18th century, the Acadians found refuge in Southern Louisiana, “a land of swamps and cypress trees, of hunting land surrounded by forests and bayous packed with fish.”
This environment helped shape what would become Cajun cuisine, which also draws on Africa, Spain, the Caribbean, and France. Roux, a mixture of flour and fat used to bind or color a sauce, is sacred in this cooking style. As is the “Cajun trinity” of onion, bell pepper, and celery. “We replaced carrots by bell peppers in the French mirepoix,” says the chef. “These are French techniques, but we utilize ingredients that grow in Louisiana.”
Long considered rustic and vulgar as it was associated with the state’s rural areas, Cajun cuisine is now enjoying a comeback – and Isaac Toups is its most eloquent champion. In his recipe book Chasing the Gator, at his New Orleans restaurant, Toups Meatery, and in the videos that he regularly films with Vice on YouTube, he shares the secrets of gumbo, boudin balls, crawfish boil, and couvillion, his grandmother’s legendary fish stew.
His grandparents spoke French and his two children attend the Lycée Français de La Nouvelle-Orléans, but he doesn’t speak the language. “I only know the terms that my grandmother would yell at me, like Fais pas ça! or Viens voir ici!,” says Isaac Toups. “And kitchen French.” Since he was a little boy, he has hunted, fished, sliced, peeled, grilled, browned, and mixed to cultivate his roots. Nothing is lost, nothing is created, and everything is passed down.