Kenneth Conn, affectionately known to his friends as Cajun Ken, was born and raised in the deep South, spending most of his formative years in the port cities of Mississippi and Louisiana.
While having a strong love for the South and appreciation for his Southern roots, he also has had a lifelong fascination with New York City.
Ken found his love for cooking at age twenty while working aboard an offshore tugboat. There he learned hands-on from the boat’s cook and developed a passion for the Cajun style and food experimentation. Ken is mostly self-taught and thinks that not having been professionally trained as a chef is an advantage. It gives him credibility when he tells people who say they can’t boil water that he’ll have them cooking a true Southern down home meal in no time. Fulfilling his dream, Ken moved to New York City from Biloxi Mississippi in 2004.
Changing cities didn’t change his passion for food. What began as an informal instruction for friends developed into a series of cooking classes taught and organized by Cajun Ken. Looking to reach more people, Ken began to develop and produce a network cooking show. Cajun in the City now airs to over 1 million New Yorkers each week and is slated to air in Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx in Fall 2014. Total Food Service had a chance to catch up with Chef Ken in this month’s Meet the Newsmaker.
You’re a self -taught chef with no formal training. Why do you feel that gives you an advantage? And do you have any mentors that led you to where you are today?
Being able to go culinary school is an awesome opportunity, don't get me wrong. I started grilling at age seven because I was hungry, and not for any other reason. Cooking a T-bone and not being able to see over the grill has its challenges I guarantee. I come from a long line of southern family cooks so working in the kitchen was a part of life and not playtime for me. I learned True Cajun cooking down in Port Foushon Louisiana on a offshore tugboat. I was a young deckhand and helped cook and catch fresh seafood for the boats chef. Learning at this level is a real advantage beyond any school or cookbook. Real southern and Cajun cooking comes from the heart and not any other place. I'll bet you a sack of Crawfish on that one!
What’s the goal of your new show Cajun in the City and what does it offer its viewers? And what can a chef take away from the show to put to use in their menu strategies?
New York City one of the best places in the world for food but one thing they don't have is our way of cooking. Being able to share my style of cooking with the masses on TV is a dream come true and they love it. I really mean it when I say, “I'm bringing the bayou to the big apple.” My goal is to get you in the kitchen and start cooking, If I have inspired you to cook southern food, then I have done my job. I meet great chefs all the time and most of them love southern, Cajun style food but not being from the deep south or trained in it, they shy away. I say don't let that stop you. Great southern Cajun food is allot about experimenting with ingredients and good recipes until you get it right. That's what I did. Any chef who wants to add a traditional Cajun dish to their menu go right ahead as long as you have three main ingredients, Love, Passion and Time. Also let me swing by and do a taste test.
Today, most restaurants serve dishes that consist of a blend of Cajun and Creole styles, which Chef Paul Prudhomme dubbed “Louisiana cooking.” However, there are fewer people cooking the classic Cajun dishes. Why Cajun over Creole for you and is the difference the ingredients or the people behind these famous cuisines?
I met Chef Paul Prudhomme down in Biloxi MS and he leans more to Creole but he is right about them both being Louisiana. Creole cooking was once more French and used expensive ingredients. Cajuns “Acadians” from Canada moved down south and settled in the Bayous and swamps of Louisiana where they were forced to live off the land. They merged their style of French cooking with whatever they caught. Being big on seasonings it was easy to make alligator taste like chicken and rabbit taste like steak. I grew up cooking with a more Cajun influence and I love Creole just the same. For the most part Cajun and Creole cooking has merged over the years and people confuse them for the same. There is some subtle differences but not much anymore. Most chefs think classic Cajun is pepper hot and it's not. Cajun food is supposed to be one thing, flavorful and delicious. If you order a Cajun dish and it's so hot you can't enjoy it, what is that good for. Allot of people think adding a half bottle of hot sauce makes it Cajun. I call it wasting good hot sauce.
Talk about Famous Justin Wilson Brand and their involvement with the show. And does the show offer sponsorship or product placement opportunities?
I grew up watching him on TV like the rest of America in the 80s-90s. If it wasn't for him, Cajun in the City probably wouldn't exist. He is the pioneer Cajun chef and I feel like I owe it to him to keep his cooking style and memory alive. I think he would be pleased with what we are doing. Cajun in the City is the only cooking show in America with the permission to use him in our show. He is a part of Cajun in the City and we’re very proud of that. Cajun in the City is a self-funded public network TV show. We currently have a few great sponsors that help fund the production and have many sponsor levels available. We are the only Cajun, southern cooking show airing in NYC so the unique TV exposure is huge for businesses. We offer product placements for sponsors as well. We are even in talks with a German cookware line and a national seasonings company. Things are looking good.
Behind the scenes and before tapings, explain the process of developing Cajun dishes and material for each episode.
The crew starts at 5 AM getting the set, food and five cameras ready. It's a little crazy with 14 people running around in all directions. We just shot 13 full episodes and most of the recipes were created and designed by me. I like to cook each dish 2-3 days prior so there are no surprises on set during filming. Each dish is fully cooked on camera and it's about as real as it gets. Misshapes do happen like the time when we had a delay and my grease got too hot waiting. When we went to shooting I dropped in my Cajun puppies on camera they burned instantly. We had to stop and reshoot the scene. I won't go into what happened during our Crawfish boil episode, I'm still not over that one.