Most people would agree that 25 years is a good, long time to work on a career specialty. Chef Stephen Daney has been cooking Creole and Cajun for that long, and earlier this year he brought his expertise to Riverbend Restaurant & Bar. Ever wonder what the difference between Creole and Cajun cuisine were? Well, the New Orleans native took some time to school us on that and give us the scoop on his time in the kitchen.
25 years is a long time. How’d you get your start?
I started with my cousin Sam (Kogos, Riverbend’s owner) at the Rendon Inn in New Orleans. It was a little neighborhood place like this. From there I moved to the mayor’s office and I was executive chef there for six years. I left there and moved to Arkansas [to work at] Alligator Ray’s [for a while] and then moved back to New Orleans. Katrina hit and I was stuck there for a year, then I went to Germany and I’ve been there ever since.
You work in Germany, too? That’s quite a commute! How do you split your time between your work there and Riverbend?
I’ve worked in Baden-Baden for the last five years. When my cousin decided to open this place I helped set up the menu. I work the summer in Germany and then come here.
Are you planning to keep that up for a while?
Yeah, as long as I can. It’s a good gig. I work at a resort area, so it’s a relaxing, poolside job. I’m also learning a different style of cooking; it’s German with a bit of Thai. It’s fun.
When Sam said he wanted to open a place in St. Louis, how’d he lure you away from the pool in Germany?
Well, it’s family. He gave me my start in the kitchen and helped introduce me to the mayor. So, it wasn’t hard to say, “Yeah, I’ll come help you out.” They’re trying to keep me here year-round, but I’ve made so many good friends in Germany and the experience there is so nice, that it’s not gonna happen right now!
Before starting work here had you been to St. Louis before?
Oh, yeah. Years ago I used to work for Sherwin Williams, and I traveled through here then. I love St. Louis; it’s a beautiful city, especially Soulard and the Landing. They remind me a lot of New Orleans. Between here and New Orleans there’s a lot of similarities because [they’re both] river cities. You embrace the Creole and Cajun style cooking here.
How does Creole cooking differ from other cuisines?
Creole is more the African-American style of cooking. There’s a lot of tomato base and a lot of rice dishes. Cajun and Creole are both pot-style cooking. It’s only been upscale since the price of seafood went up; it was poor mans’ cooking. Creole food in New Orleans is found more than Cajun, but they’re so close that it’s easy to merge the two styles. Like my jambalaya; it’s Creole style with a tomato base instead of a brown roux that Cajuns would use.
There are quite a few Creole or Cajun places in the St. Louis area. What do you think makes Riverbend special?
I like to say we’re the real deal. We’re from there. We grew up with it in our families all our life. It’s like putting on your shoes and socks; you just know how to do it. And we stick to the original flavors. We don’t lighten up spices or take a dish and put cayenne in it and call it Cajun. If it’s been a while since I’ve made something, I’ll go back to an old cookbook and make sure it’s right. We also try to use Louisiana products as much as possible.
What makes you a good chef?
What makes anybody a good chef, not just me, is you have to live it. I read cookbooks all the time, I don’t read anything else, and watch the Food Network. My whole life revolves around food, sampling different [cuisines] and learning to cook them. Every dish, whether you work in a sandwich shop or a high-end restaurant, is like your baby. It has to be more a part of your life than a girlfriend. I think that’s why I’m still single; I love it more than anything else.