I hold my hands up: the first thing I think of when someone mentions "Southern American cooking" is a tub of fried chicken. But slipping into a booth and scanning the menu at Pamela—the East London bar that houses Louisiana-inspired pop-up Decatur—I'm struck by the complete lack of chook. There's not a fried wing in sight. I also want to eat everything.
"People are sold the idea that all American food is deep-fried, covered in cheese, or drowned in butter," Decatur founder and chef Tom Browne tells me. "Don't get me wrong, we do use a lot of butter, but it's so much more about the South's regional specialties and people being proud of where dishes come from."
Named after a street in New Orleans (pronounced de-kate-ur, for those not down with the N'awlins drawl), Decatur's dishes include Louisiana-style chargrilled oysters, Cajun rabbit gumbo, and a-hug-in-a-bowl crawfish etouffée—each paying homage to the regional cooking of the Deep South.
Browne himself is from Birmingham. Not—as his homely 'Merican cooking would suggest—the city in Alabama, but the one in the Midlands of England. That's right, this Southern chef is actually a Brummy.
"I grew up eating and cooking food from all over the world, but when I visited a friend in San Francisco at 19, I was hooked on American food," explains Browne. "I traveled with a band all around the States and then worked in New York, but would spend any free time taking advantage of cheap flights and going to New Orleans to hang out with friends."
After Browne's American visa expired, he returned to the UK, and packed in his day job in the travel industry. In February last year, he started Decatur as a Southern American street food stall at London's Druid Street Market.
"It was a way to connect back to living there," he explains. "I was really into cooking and by looking back to my time in the States through rose-tinted glasses, I've been recreating the taste and putting my interpretation on it. In a weird way, I'm cooking for homesick Southerners like myself."
Browne is also on a mission to dispel many British diners' misconception that Southern American cooking is all grease and cheese. He admits that while the cuisine can be rich (and OK, if you only eat the fried stuff, it's not great), it's about more than smothering things in barbecue sauce and sticking on the grill.
"It's about celebrating the specialties that each region has with those Cajun and Creole influences," Browne says. "Immigration played a huge part in shaping the South's cuisine, with West African cooking arriving with the slave trade, French styles coming over with those who brought the slaves, and even German sausage-making having an impact on today's blood sausage-making tradition in Louisiana."
Browne celebrates this diversity in Southern cooking by adding his own spin on tradition dishes. His chargrilled, softly set oysters are served with a garlicky, pecorino butter, smatterings of Cajun spice, and plenty of Crystal hot sauce—a Louisiana condiment staple the Decatur kitchen keeps a huge stash of.
"They're based off something that I ate at a backyard barbecue in the States," says Browne. "I remembered eating these oysters at a friend's and they were grilled with garlic and Parmesan butter. I just tweaked it with pecorino, added the other bits in, and it became a thing."
So much of a "thing" that the 150 oysters Decatur had in last Friday night were demolished in the first couple of hours of service.
Browne's knowledge of Southern cuisine stems from that most reliable of culinary methods: eating out a lot and trying to replicate his favourite dishes back in his own kitchen. From experimenting with the perfect roux for gumbo in the kitchen of his tiny New York apartment to poring over books by Cajun-Creole cooking king Paul Prudhomme and trawling the internet for Southern family recipes, he's clearly a Deep South food nerd.
Browne does admit however, that his experiments don't always go according to plan.
"The first time I tried [famed New Orleans bakery and coffee shop] Cafe du Monde beignets, I didn't know how the fuck they did it," he remembers. "I'd made doughnuts before, but these were so crispy on the outside and light in the middle. I ended up cornering a guy who worked there while he was on his cigarette break and grilled him. He insinuated what the recipe was so I went home and tried it."
But no matter how many Louisiana dishes Browne manages to master, he says his food is still met with skepticism by some "authentic" Southern chefs.
"Once I've finished talking at people who question my credentials, they're usually convinced that I know a thing or two. Once they've tried the food, they're really into it," says Browne. "It's always like that if you're not of a culture that you're cooking. But I think that if you know the food, understand the flavours, and have spent time eating it and cooking it, you develop the palate."
There are parallels between Southern American food and traditional British cooking, too. The oysters Decatur use are from Maldon in Essex, and have more in common with Louisiana than you might think.
"The oysters we use are farmed on the Blackwater River, which is a mixture of salt and fresh water—a similar environment to that in Louisiana, where their shellfish are farmed so they both grow big and plump," explains Browne.
Crawfish—also known as crayfish—is a huge part of Southern cooking, and due to the introduction of American signal crayfish to British waters in the 1970s, there's now an abundance over here too.
"I want to do food that would stand up as a casual spot in New Orleans as much as in London," Browne concludes, as I mop up the last of the oyster's juice and take a final bite of radish smothered in beer cheese.
I just hope that he doesn't up sticks to the States again any time soon.