Bayou Eats | Fontenot’s Cajun Way
article by VANELIS RIVERA
photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
Mention the word Cajun anywhere in Louisiana and you’ll be met with immediate recognition of the heritage belonging to a fiercely proud people. Descending from a group of French Canadians driven away from the French colony of Acadia—Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island—Louisiana Acadians or Cajuns have carved their culture into southern Louisiana. This vast region, known as Acadiana or Cajun Country, encompasses twenty-two parishes. That’s close to 14,500 square miles of distinct language, customs, music, art, and food. Regardless of what part of the state you inhabit, Cajun food is unmistakable—robust, fresh, and packed with seasoning. And while many restaurants offer Cajun flare, it’s rare to find Cajun-made home cooking outside of Cajun country—until now.
Chuck Fontenot, owner of Fontenot’s Cajun Way, hails from Eunice, the “prairie” cajun capital of Louisiana. A proud Cajun living in Columbia, he remembers fondly the patchwork of his youth, like his father not learning to speak English until he was a teenager, the pressing value of respecting elders, and the lighthearted approach to neighbors and strangers alike. Even then, his travels around the United States due to his construction job helped him and his wife, Sue, grow closer to their roots by way of food. During that time, one of their favorite pastimes as a couple was cooking for friends they met along the way. “My wife loved to see them enjoy the food that we were raised on,” says Fontenot. Eventually, the couple decided to leave life on the road behind in order to spend more time with their grandkids. Between that shift, all the people they had met kept reaching out, craving their homemade smoked sausage. Fontenot began considering the possibility of a restaurant, but it wasn’t until he stumbled upon a restaurant space for rent in Columbia, Louisiana that he brought the idea to his wife. His approach was uncomplicated: “Let’s see if a restaurant with what we were born and raised cooking would work.” They opened their doors in 2018 and soon after grew their customer base. With the success of his first location, the couple began considering another location, and Monroe was a strong contender. Sadly, his wife passed away in October. “She told me to stay busy,” Fontenot asserts. And that’s just what he did. “Her dream was to have a second restaurant. So here it is,” he says, adding proudly, “Her food still comes out of this kitchen just like if she was in there.”
Fontenot defines Cajun cuisine, foremost, as made from scratch. Attention is given to how food is prepared and the combination of seasoning. “We use a lot of onions,” he says, also mentioning how his Columbia location has used close to 1126 eggs in one week, all whisked for a variety of batters. “Again, that’s how we were born and raised.” In his kitchen, only and always crawfish from Louisiana and Gulf shrimp. “There’s only one thing in this restaurant that don’t come from Louisiana or United States, and that’s the snow crab. A Cajun ain’t caught one yet,” he laughs. Finally, when considering the medley of ingredients that serve as the basis of almost every meal, he mentions the “Holy Trinity” of celery, green bell peppers, and “a lot” of onions. As far as authenticity goes, Fontenot turns to heritage, pointing out that many of the recipes used in the restaurant have been handed down from generation to generation. “What we know how to cook, we didn’t have to research. It has all just been drilled into us for years and years. We don’t have to open a book to see how to cook these dishes,” he says.
With that said, it wasn’t difficult for husband and wife to curate the menu, which, from the get-go, was meant to reflect the dishes that hallmarked their upbringing—gumbo, crawfish, fried fish, fried shrimp, shrimp creole, gator sauce piquante, fried eggplant, and many more. But when asked about the staple Cajun dish of his childhood, Fontenot didn’t miss a beat—crawfish étouffée. The recipe on the menu has two points of intersection. The first can be traced to the Annual World Championship Crawfish Étouffée Cook-Off held in Eunice. One year, a family friend entered the contest and won, so Fontenot’s wife took ninety percent of his recipe, and ten percent of her own to conduct what would become a Fontenot’s Cajun Way delicacy.
One of the standout elements of the restaurant’s crawfish étouffée, besides the meaty crawfish tails, is the rice. “We don’t buy rice from nowhere else but here. So I would think that has a lot to contribute to the taste,” emphasizes Fontenot. Believe it or not, the type of grain makes a world of difference when it comes to Cajun cooking. Unlike the use of short grain the further south you go (areas south of Crowley, Louisiana like Kaplan) or the use of long grain throughout the northern region, when it comes to his dishes, there is only one grain that will do. “Every grain of rice in this building and my other building is medium grain,” he presses. For some, this may seem like a minute detail, but there’s a science to the size. “To me, gravy sticks better to the medium [grain]” he claims, adding, “We go through some rice. Lots and lots of rice.” In fact, the secret to their homemade boudain is the use of medium-grain rice. The moral of the story—don’t underestimate your smallest ingredient, especially if it’s being made by a Cajun. In fact, an old saying his wife used to tell customers goes, “A Cajun can look at a rice field and tell how many plates of food can be made.”
Since its Monroe doors opened in June, Fontenot’s Cajun Way has hit the spot for many Cajun food lovers. One Facebook review enthuses, “The best Cajun food I’ve had since I’ve moved from Baton Rouge!” Another review raves about the towering Cajun Dream—two eggplant medallions, one crab cake, a softshell crab, and fried shrimp, all topped with étouffée—writing, “Honestly, reminded me of some of the best seafood places in New Orleans and Lafayette. Hands down, a spectacular experience.”
Fontenot makes sure to credit his kitchen staff, some of whom were directly trained by his wife and have been growing with the restaurant for five-plus years, for the visually stunning and savory meals coming out of his kitchen.
“I’m a Cajun cooking Cajun food,” says Fontenot, wanting to emphasize heritage as one of his greatest motivators, as well as the memory of his wife. “I think she’d be proud of this place,” he says, reminiscing on the early days of his first location. He had some doubts about how his home cooking would be received, but taking a cue from the film Field of Dreams he told himself, “Cook it and they will come.” And that’s exactly how it went.
Fontenot’s Cajun Way is located at 436 Desiard Street, Monroe, Louisiana. Take advantage of their take-out fridge items and don’t forget to go home with a container of their housemade seasoning which some customers claim is better than Tony’s!