Chef Nino Thibodaux

“Brother, are you sitting down?” asks Chef Nino Thibodaux when told that this issue would feature pastalaya, and when asked for his recipe, he exclaims: “I have cooked this pastalaya for tens of thousands of people all across the Gulf Coast. Look here: tens of thousands!” Thibodaux is a chef for Rouses Markets. He explains that pastalaya has a long and rich New Orleans history, going back to the large influx of Sicilian immigrants between 1890 and 1900. “When they came, it changed the language in the streets of New Orleans from French to Italian. Those immigrants intermarried with the French — and so did their recipes.”

His pastalaya, he says, uses bowtie pasta and oregano, along with Rouses andouille sausage and its all-natural chicken. (“There’s no antibiotics, no growth hormones, they’re cage free — brother, it makes all the difference in the flavor.”) His pastalaya recipe is roux-based, with an intense Cajun flavor that soaks into that pasta. “You’ve got Italian, Cajun — a harmony of two nations in your mouth at once — and it’s delightfully different. A pleasant change from what you might be used to.”

You have probably met the chef before at his popular cooking classes held at Rouses locations across the South. The classes were an outgrowth of a culinary and language school Thibodaux founded called Friends of Italy. “I started these in-home, private cooking parties where I would turn people’s homes into my Italian restaurant and classroom, with wine and fun and laughter.” The classes quickly grew in fame, and 13 years ago, Donald Rouse thought they would be a great addition to his family’s stores. Their shelves were loaded with groceries from across the country and around the world, and the idea was to teach customers what they could do with them.

“When Rouses brings something from another country to sell, it is the finest item from that country,” says Thibodaux. “They know, more than ever, that their customers are world travelers and bring a great knowledge of global products. So the Rouse family personally goes to other countries and handpicks only products that meet a high flavor and quality criteria.”

For his first class, Thibodaux introduced a first cold pressed olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and taught students how to make an alfredo sauce and a scampi. He taught the class in the Rouses deli area with a portable stove — and it was a hit. “I’ve averaged about 12 classes a month for the last 13 years for Rouses,” he says. Each class has a theme, such as sauces or entrées or pasta, and each with a name like “Pastabilities!” or “Entréepreneur.” Regular attendees over time develop a well-rounded culinary education and learn to be adventurous in their shopping — to reach for items on the shelf they might ordinarily feel too intimidated to try.

Thibodaux, who was born in Franklin, Louisiana, first encountered authentic Italian cuisine when he was a young man in the U.S. Air Force. During the late 1970s and early ’80s, he was an F-15 mechanic stationed in Germany, and his unit did regular joint exercises with NATO forces. The training was conducted from the island of Sardinia. “When the aircraft had problems, they would fly mechanics to the island,” he says. “The problem was, you had to stay there for a month before a passenger plane would come get you. Brother, I was a 19-year-old Cajun boy with a pocket full of money, stuck on an Italian island in the sun, eating their amazing food.”

He began to write down recipes, both local and his own, to the latter adding a Cajun influence — things like pastalaya. He eventually moved to Italy, where he remained for over a decade. His recipes became journals, and those journals became books. He says it started as a passion, then became an obsession and, finally, a profession. When he returned to the United States, fluent in Italian and the ways of Italian cooking, he opened his culinary school. And the rest is history.

Today he teaches classes on a rotating basis at Rouses Markets in Houma, Thibodaux, Mandeville, Slidell, Hammond — Louisiana cities, all — as well as classes in Ocean Springs, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama. And they can be crowded — but are nothing like what happened when Rouses opened its stores on Alabama’s Gulf Coast.

During the winter, not many people visit the beaches of the coast except for the snowbirds from northern states. So it was an experiment: The stores hosted Thibodaux’s classes just to see who might attend. At the first class, 45 people showed up, mostly women. “They were so excited about the class they told their significant others about it, and at the second class, we had 80 attendees — boom! — just like that.” Early on, he taught classes in the area every Friday in January and February. Soon, the crowds grew to 100. Then 150. Then 200. Then 250. They had to divide the classes between a 10 a.m. class and a 3 p.m. class, just to be able to handle the crowds. They were blocking the store aisles! The 10 o’clock class attendees were showing up three hours early to get good seats.

“They come looking for new recipes but they’re struck,” says Thibodaux. “They never had this kind of flavor, man! They never had andouille and tasso and hogshead cheese and boudin! They eat it once and they’re hooked on it!” What Thibodaux finds especially rewarding when teaching tourists is that they will return to their home states — places like Nebraska, Minnesota, Wyoming — and continue using the recipes they’ve learned. The Gulf Coast way of eating proliferates across the country, changing lives and how people think about food.

Each cooking class lasts about an hour, with the chef cooking the meal in question live, right there in front of the crowd. And there’s a festive spirit to it all. In addition to the back-and-forth banter, the jokes and the little lessons in Italian, bottled water and gourmet specialty bakery items are served, and every guest returns home with a recipe. “Rouses goes all out for these classes and spares no expense. Rouses always wants to do something that nobody else is doing, and with these classes…nobody can come close!”

Everybody is busy nowadays, he says, and for recipes like his pastalaya, the stores provide what Thibodaux calls “scratch-assist cooking.” The meals can be cooked from scratch…but with a little help. Rouses, for example, offers a jarred roux. “Flour and oil,” he says, “just like a roux you’d make at home, so you save 30 minutes right there.” Rouses offers, pre-diced, a medley of bell pepper, onions and celery (the trinity of South Louisiana cooking) in a package called Guidry’s Fresh Cuts. “Drop the vegetables in the roux and brown them. Right away, 45 minutes are saved. You’ve got the flavors without the prep time,” he says.

Helping home cooks is what Thibodaux lives for. “I’m so grateful to Rouses for seeing the potential in me to help them,” he says. “I eat, breathe and sleep my performances. It takes a lot of preparation to teach large audiences, and I would never want to do anything else. This is my life. This is what I do, this is what makes me tick. Brother, to learn the different flavors of the world and to have the right ingredients, our customers don’t need a passport. All they need is a shopping cart.”