Matthew Whitney had yet to graduate from culinary school when he was asked to audition for the chef position at the magnificent Grosse Savanne Lodge. He put on a show with sweet-and-sour alligator legs and deviled eggs topped with caviar and crabmeat. When he landed the job, he also scored permission from his teachers to count his real-world chef hours as a required internship. “So I interned at the lodge under myself,” he says, laughing.
Some twenty miles south of Lake Charles, Grosse Savanne is anchored by a twelve-thousand-square-foot “mansion in the marsh” surrounded by fifty thousand acres of fresh and brackish marsh, coastal prairie, and agricultural fields managed for waterfowl. For Whitney, the pace here compared with a hectic restaurant kitchen allows him the rare blessing of taking his time at the stove and experimenting with flavors. “Especially when it comes to sauces,” he says, “and I could make sauces all day long.”
This roasted duck with Steen’s cane syrup and a pomegranate gastrique is a perfect example. Steen’s is a classic Cajun ingredient, and the lodge had plenty in stock when Whitney arrived. He added pomegranate juice after spying the fruit at a small grocery store he often stops at on his way to work. “They just caught my eye,” he says, “and I thought: Huh, wonder what I could do with that?” The result is a tangy-sweet sauce that pairs beautifully with the smoky richness of the coffee-rubbed duck. The secret is to keep a careful eye on the sauce. “Once it comes to a boil, reduce and cook it down,” Whitney says. “As the bubbles begin to slow down, cut it off. You don’t want to risk burning it.”