Vive Les Bons Temps

Johnny and Alice Wooten renovate your Mardi Gras menu (and a historic Louisville landmark)

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter

“Insane, insane, insane,” Chef Johnny Wooten murmurs, in a culinary incantation. A Puck-like grin plays across his face as he ladles rich Creole sauce over Mississippi catfish done to wicked perfection. Each filet is crisply coated in a golden breading of ground Ritz crackers and Old Bay seasoning. The phrase “to die for” might be appropriate here.

“This dish is crazy,” he chuckles. “You’ve got the spicy sauce on top of the catfish and fried okra on top of the sauce. It’s very Southern and very New Orleans — great for Mardi Gras.”

In honor of the Big Easy’s biggest party, Chef Johnny shares recipes for three specialties worthy of Fat Tuesday: Creole catfish with fried okra, Cajun shrimp and grits and caramel praline bread pudding.

“In New Orleans, dining out and eating is a celebration of life for everyone,” smiles Wooten, who spent part of his food service career in Baton Rouge.

He talks as he cooks, his eyes crinkling with every laugh. He laughs a lot. And why not? He and his wife, Alice, are successfully busy with their Market Café in downtown Louisville, as well as their Ala Carte Alice line of increasingly popular food mixes distributed in more than 200 shops nationwide.

In a way, Wooten’s been heading toward this since he was a kid helping out Uncle Red and Aunt Phyllis Moore at the Big R Drive-In in West Point where he grew up, graduating from Oak Hill Academy and later Mississippi State University.

“I was flippin’ burgers before I could even see the top of a grill,” the 46-year-old says, plating shrimp and grits brimming with savory Andouille sausage and a customized medley of seasonings.

Longtime dining devotees in Northeast Mississippi will remember the Wootens’ upscale Portobello’s Restaurant in the historic Elks Lodge on Columbus’ Main Street, as well as their Café Portobello’s in Starkville.

But Alice’s roots are in Louisville, and since moving back there four years ago to raise their two young sons, the Wootens have flourished. After outgrowing their original restaurant location, the couple has been ensconced since spring 2011 in the newly-restored 1890 Blon Harris Hardware building on Main Street.

Wooten remembers the first time he walked inside the deteriorating structure that had been used for storage for the past quarter-century.

“When I saw it, I knew it could be awesome. I envisioned where everything would go the minute I walked in the door … and it became that place,” he relates.

The Market Café family has become a good neighbor in an invigorated city center. And the eatery has quickly become known as a Southern regional downtown kitchen with an uptown twist.

With a nod to contemporary chic, the vintage Harris building that once held hammers and nails has been transformed into a day-and-night destination, where diners can watch the staff at work in the open-plan kitchen, with its “high energy” atmosphere.

Wooten’s culinary philosophy is deceptively simple: Start with the best raw ingredients, purchased from local growers and vendors whenever possible. “Then, with the right preparation and seasonings and sauces, you can make anything taste good,” he says. “You have to have a passion for the food. If you’re not excited about a dish, why would anyone else be?”

He moves on to final prep of his Mardi Gras pièce de résistance — caramel praline bread pudding. “The secret is to make homemade caramel sauce,” he tutors, drizzling the sweet topping, filling the air with come-hither aromas.

“There are just a few fat-free calories in that,” he jests, setting the pan aside.

He delivers the still-warm concoction to a restaurant guest and waits expectantly, intently, as her fork slides into the dessert.

“Oh gosh, it’s like taking a bite of heaven,” the diner effuses, her eyes rolling upward. Wooten’s grin widens.

“It’s such a great satisfaction to experience someone making that ‘mmm!’ sound after taking a bite of something you made,” he shares.

For Mardi Gras, or any occasion that calls for Southern mojo, Wooten hopes these recipes will help the good times roll.

“I really just want to create dishes that make the taste buds burst with joy,” he says. And then, eyes crinkling, he adds, “I just thank the Lord I have the talent of cooking and serving food — ’cause people are still eating.”

SAVING BLON HARRIS
“Every time I’d drive past the Blon Harris building, I’d think what a vibrant place right in the center of town it had been,” recalls Mike Forster of Louisville. “I loved that old building. I thought it had good bones and great architectural features.”

When Johnny and Alice Wooten needed a larger locale for their growing businesses, Forster put together a group of investors to acquire the 120-year-old, 8,000-square-foot building that had served as a hardware store for nearly a century and as storage for antiques and such for 20-plus years after that. The group also purchased the circa 1910 3,000-square-foot Bradford building next door.

“We did this with the express purpose of making it a ‘home’ for Johnny’s Market Café and Alice’s Ala Carte business,” Forster shares.

From concept to moving in, the renovation took six months. A critical stage was early in the process when Forster pursued establishing a Louisville Downtown Historic District that made tax credits available to offset restoration costs.

Backers worked closely with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to make sure that everything done met guidelines of the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. A lasting benefit is that any other qualifying business in the city’s designated district also has the NPS-sanctioned credits available.

With fashionably dark, scored concrete floors, warm colors chosen, in part, for food-related names (like Anjou Pear, Habanero Chile and Macadamia Nut) and numerous framed photographs of Louisville’s yesteryear, the vintage building exudes a warm, comfortable atmosphere.

Johnny Wooten praises the effort, saying, “We saved an old wreck of a building, and it is now one of the most beautiful landmarks in Winston County.”

Forster agrees. “We’ve seen increased downtown traffic, a ton of visitors to the café from surrounding towns, and the building is a big attraction for special events. … Of course, Johnny’s artistry in the kitchen has a little something to do with that.”


CAJUN SHRIMP AND GRITS

1 Ala Carte Alice Shrimp and Grits package
2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 sticks butter
2 cups cream
1 cup sliced onions
½ cup bacon crumbles
5 cups milk
1 cup Andouille sausage, diced

• In a skillet, melt butter and add Cajun spices from package. Add shrimp, peppers, onion, bacon and sausage. Cook until shrimp is done and onions are tender.
• In a stock pot, cook grits (included in package) according to directions; add cream and simmer to thicken on low heat, stirring often.
• Pour grits into a 9-by-13-inch baking pan and cover with the shrimp mixture. Simmer in oven for 15 minutes or until ready to serve.


CARAMEL PRALINE BREAD PUDDING

6 cups French bread (torn pieces)
3 cups milk
2 cups caramel icing*
6 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
½ cup chopped pecans

• Break bread apart and let sit out overnight to get stale. Put stale bread in a buttered baking dish.
• Mix milk, eggs, 1 cup caramel icing and vanilla and pour over bread. Sprinkle with pecans. (Reserve 1 cup icing to mix with whipping cream and drizzle over finished dessert.)
• Bake in 350 degree oven for 45-50 minutes until set.

*For the icing:

2 ½ cups sugar
½ cup unsalted butter
¾ evaporated milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup whipping cream (for sauce to drizzle)

• In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, mix butter, evaporated milk and 2 cups sugar. Heat and stir until sugar dissolves. Do not allow to come to a boil. Once sugar dissolves, reduce heat to low.
• In a small cast iron skillet on medium heat, melt ½ cup of sugar, stirring constantly until liquid and brown.
• Pour the browned sugar into the sauce pan and quickly stir to incorporate. Stir regularly until the liquid reaches soft ball stage, about 235 degrees on a candy thermometer.
• Let cool slightly. (If you wait too long, the caramel will become difficult to spread or use.)
• Mix in vanilla.
• For caramel to drizzle on baked dessert, mix 1 cup icing with 1/2 cup whipping cream; whisk thoroughly. Drizzle and eat.


CREOLE CATFISH WITH FRIED OKRA

Six Mississippi farm-raised catfish filets
Cracker meal
Old Bay seasoning

For the sauce:

2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
1 cup sautéed onions, diced
1 cup sautéed peppers, diced
¼ cup jalapeno peppers, diced
1 tablespoon sriracha hot chili sauce
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

• Dice and sauté all vegetables and cook in oil about 10 minutes. Add all other ingredients and simmer for 30 minutes.
• Season cracker meal with Old Bay seasoning to taste; dredge fish into the seasoned meal. Fry at 350 degrees until done.
• Ladle sauce over the catfish and garnish with Southern fried okra.