Seasoned by the South
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
Kevin Tate doesn't sound like a Southerner — and, indeed, he isn't. An Air Force brat, he grew up in lots of different places, and primarily California.
But he has a Southerner's heart and hands and, as they say in the South, he comes by it honest.
His mother, a Cajun, grew up in Louisiana, and the family made annual trips to visit relatives in New Orleans and Cajun country. His father is from the Chicago area, where much of the black community has Southern roots, and where everyone was into Southern-style barbecue. His paternal grandparents lived in rural Indiana, with a barbecue grill, a fishing pond and a big garden in the back yard.
To this day, one of his favorite dishes is a medley of fresh corn, tomato and okra fried up with garlic, salt and pepper. His grandmother made it with vegetables pulled fresh from her garden.
"Both sides, I'm from country people," he said. Both his parents liked to cook, and the center of the family's day was a shared dinner hour. Tate soon learned his way around a cast-iron frying pan and was the only boy in the gourmet cooking class in high school, where he got high grades but took some ribbing for being a sissy. "I didn't care. I felt it was something I could be good at, so I just went on."
Tate, now a private chef and caterer, is best known on O'ahu for his short-lived but beloved restaurant, Kevin's Two Boots, which he operated from 2000 to 2004, learning some tough lessons about business but gaining many friends.
Now he's launching a new career — several, actually. He's still catering, but he's also teaching in the noncredit class series at Kapi'olani Community College; his three-part Southern Flair series begins this week (see box). And he's readying several of his recipes — a spice mixture, barbecue sauce and other products — for a launch into the specialty foods market. Tate also continues to run booths at special events, such as Taste of Honolulu.
Tate came to the Islands at age 24 in 1975, when his dad, who had been a cook in the Air Force, became food and beverage manager for the Hale Koa Hotel. Tate worked as a photographer for some years, but he always loved to cook and enjoyed potluck meals with his friends.
One day, a friend asked him to cater a dinner and, though he did so reluctantly, he found that he enjoyed the process, the compliments and the cash. A short while later, he began working for Marriott, which was then managing the cafeteria operations at the University of Hawai'i dormitories. He worked his way up from dishwasher to line cook, thinking the whole time that the food could get a lot better. "We were using these recipes that Marriott gave us and they were terrible, so I started improvising. I started hanging around in the dining room talking to students, finding out what they liked," he recalled.
He asked permission to clear out a neglected lanai, set up a grill and inaugurated Cajun Fish Fridays, which proved wildly popular, quickly followed by steak nights, Italian and Mexican nights. This mixture of cuisines is where "Two Boots" comes in: One student put together the facts that both Louisiana and Italy are shaped like boots, that Tate wore boots and that he cooked both Cajun and Italian cuisines, and the nickname Two Boots was born.
Tate later took the name with him when he launched a catering business in 1993, working out of a subleased commercial kitchen in Kailua, catering parties on weekends, and taking orders by fax and delivering lunches around the community on weekdays. He had one employee, his overhead was low, and, despite the fact that the takeout window was next to a trash bin, business "exploded" when people discovered his ribs and Cajun specialties.
It was a time of hustle and flow. "I just didn't sit still. I had the plate-lunch thing, I had the catering, I had a salsa business," he recalled. Then, in 1998, his landlord lost the lease. There followed a period of moving about until, in January 2000, he yielded to the entreaties of customers and opened Kevin's Two Boots, the sit-down version.
There he perfected his ribs, gumbos, jambalaya, etouffee, Cajun beef, honey cornbread and — a dish few people can talk about without superlatives — his sweet-potato praline cheesecake.
Now Tate is taking what he's learned hands-on and transferring it to the hands of students here, who, he says, have some misconceptions about Southern food. The No. 1 misconception is that Cajun food is always mouth-searingly hot. Not so, he says. Cajun food is highly flavored but not always with hot peppers.
Another misunderstanding concerns roux — the browned fat-and-flour blend that forms the backbone flavor of many Cajun and Creole dishes, and serves as a thickener, too. The key distinction is: browned, not burned.
A dark-chocolate-colored roux binds one of his specialities, Kevin's Big Pot — a gumbo of chicken, andouille sausage, kielbasa, shrimp, crab and whatever else is good and fresh. "The darker the roux, the more pronounced the flavor," he said. In more delicate Creole cooking, golden or very light caramel roux are used, while robust-flavored Cajun dishes employ honey- to mahogany-colored roux. But a dark roux isn't a burned roux, and the only way to know the difference is to taste. Burned roux can't be rescued.
Conventional home roux recipes require long, slow cooking and immense patience. Because the mixture can burn in a flash, the cook is warned not to turn away and must stir constantly and carefully control the heat. But Tate found he didn't have time for slow-cooking roux when he was in the restaurant business. He was making two to four pounds of roux every couple of days. So he taught himself a high-heat, quick-cook technique that he shares in his classes.
Asked about the differences among Cajun, Creole and Southern cooking, Tate mused a bit. "Cajun is country food. Creole is city food," he said. Or, put another way, Cajun is pork fat; Creole is butter. Cajun gumbos, soups and stews pretty much always begins with the holy trinity — onions, celery, bell pepper — sauteed in a roux with garlic. Creole food is more strongly influenced by French haute cuisine, and tends to be more delicate and more rich.
Southern cooking is country too, and it's lard and shortening. It's characterized by long, slow cooking; fresh farm and garden ingredients and lots of vegetables; lots of starch; and baked goods, he said.
For a photo shoot, Tate showed up with a classic chicken fricassee, a pan of fresh-baked honey cornbread and a bottle of what Southerners call "sweet tea" — dark, strong tea, sweetened within an inch of its life, and garnished with mint and lemon.
Chicken fricassee — an old-fashioned stove-top stew — traditionally makes its own gravy by means of the chicken having been dredged in flour, rather than starting with a Cajun-style roux, as Tate does. The cornbread was a hot seller at his restaurant, but he admits his mother, a true Southerner, wouldn't have it on her table. Southerners prefer their cornbread virtually unsweetened and rough-textured rather than tender. As to the tea, he chuckled, "it's a sin how much sugar they put in there."
"But, you know, Southern food isn't diet food." he said. "You have to enjoy it in moderation."
Reach Wanda A. Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.