As the unofficial "ambassador of New Orleans," Joe Cahn has made it his mission to set folks straight about his hometown, its food, and its world-renowned Mardi Gras celebration.
"I try to demystify misconceptions about New Orleans cooking, especially that it's hot," says the roving chef and Fat Tuesday cheerleader. "It can be hot. It just depends who's in the kitchen with the heavy hand on the spices. That misconception stems from people seeing Tabasco and bottles of other hot sauce on a table. It's more the Spanish influence than it is the French influence. Spanish is hot; French isn't."
Cahn, the guest of honor at this weekend's Hollywood version of Mardi Gras, Fiesta Tropicale, will let people taste for themselves during cooking demonstrations (2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday). The former culinary school owner will dish up authentic New Orleans versions of his spicy (not scorching) chicken-and-sausage jambalaya and sweet pralines. He learned to concoct both Spanish- and French-inspired dishes while growing up in the Crescent City.
"It's happy food," asserts the jovial Cahn. "It just makes you want to eat more and hug somebody. That's why we celebrate Fat Tuesday. We're not celebrating 2 percent, low-fat Tuesday."
In fact, long before he began cooking, Cahn began attending Mardi Gras. "I have a photo of my father holding me up at Mardi Gras when I was a year old," he says.
The family element of the giant party, he claims, is lost on outsiders, who see only the flashing and naked revelry of the French Quarter highlighted by the media.
"Mardi Gras in the French Quarter is always something different," according to Cahn. "But there are family parades and festivals in the suburbs. Thousands of people are lined up on St. Charles Avenue in the central business district. The barbecues are five and six deep for miles along the parade routes. Families are dressed up together as clowns.
"It's a day of good will," he continues. "Everybody is treated with respect and happiness. For one day you can be anybody you want to be."
Cahn turns into Mardi Gras Man, painting his bald pate official Mardi Gras colors -- green, purple, and gold -- and donning a crown, which he glues in place. He'll do the same for Fiesta Tropicale, so whether he's cooking, enjoying one of the weekend's zydeco concerts, presiding over crawfish-eating contests, or acting as grand marshal of Saturday's parade, he'll be easy to spot.