As part of Classics Week 2015, Eater NOLA is taking a closer look at what makes the most iconic dishes of New Orleans, well, so iconic. Kicking off these Try Before You Die Dishes of New Orleans, James Beard Award winning chef Tory McPhail explains why the turtle soup au sherry at Commander's Palace is the stuff of legend.
When does turtle soup date back to?
I would probably say 325 years. Their indigenous to Louisiana, and really all over the United States. When the first French settlers came down from Acadie in the late 1700s, they settled the land and ate anything that crawled across the yard. They ate fish, not sure how many folks actually ate oysters back then, but certainly fresh seafood, alligators, turtle for sure, fresh shrimp and shell fish. All that stuff was kind of happening, and so, this restaurant is 135 years old, and turtle soup was well established long, long, long before that. Really all our history of food dates back to the 1700s.
Who came up with the Commander's Palace recipe?
We've had several chefs here. My gut feeling, something tells me, this modern version was probably tweaked by chef Paul Prudhomme, and he started working for the Brennan's back in the early 70s. He was the first, really big famous chef to take over the reigns here at Commander's Palace. And after him it was our friend, Emeril Lagasse, and it's to my understanding, that from that point the turtle soup recipe was pretty well set. All the turtle soup recipes around the city basically come from the same humble beginnings. Everybody's has a different sort of a slant on it. It's the exact same recipe I remember making as a teenager here twenty-two years ago. I think Paul is the one who set it on its current path.
Why is it so popular?
I think it's just one of those iconic dishes, and if you think about Commander's iconic dishes. How many can you really think of? Turtle soup, bread pudding souffle, gumbo. It's not just an iconic dish for Commander's but for all of Louisiana. After us, it's Philadelphia. They have a very iconic turtle soup. But we end up buying and selling more turtle than anywhere else in the United States. Definitely, a nice iconic dish.
What another of your favorite classic dishes in New Orleans?
I'm a huge fan of beignets, and I always have Cafe du Monde on my list when I have friends and family coming to town. Not only because the beignets are the best in the city, but it's the whole experience. It's much like Commander's. People don't just come here for the turtle soup. It's the ambience, the setting, the bread pudding souffle. It's Southern hospitality at its prime, and I feel like the beignets at Cafe du Monde are exactly the same way.