By Bill Coyne
To start, I’d like to begin with a well-deserved congratulations to Amanda Cusey, executive chef at Villa Harlequin, for her most recent accolade as winner of the 15th annual Louisiana Seafood Cook-off.
The Louisiana Seafood Marketing and Promotion Board began hosting a state cooking competition to highlight the skills and creativity of chefs, focusing on one of Louisiana’s most bountiful resources — seafood. There was an open invitation to applicants, and a final panel of 12 chefs selected who would be acknowledged as the creator of Louisiana’s best seafood dish.
Cusey is only the second woman to earn this recognition, and the first Lake Charles chef to display the crown. For the first time ever, two women took the first- and second-place honors.
Over the years, and for many reasons, I became a huge fan of Cusey’s. An advocate for animals in need of homes, Amanda created and is president of Do Good Dog Rescue. With genuine concern, she cares for and helps dogs transition into their forever homes.
As soon as I heard that she had won this award, I jumped at the chance to be able to cover her story and finally meet her in person. She agreed to meet me at the restaurant an hour before the evening preparations began. I found Cusey to be a vibrant woman with a down-to-earth demeanor. She led me to the empty bar where she’d prepared an elaborate sandwich to snack on before her day began.
Born and raised in Arizona, Cusey entered the restaurant industry at 14. Starting out in the back, as many of us did, washing dishes, she eventually worked her way up to a busser position, and then on to a server.
In her early 20s, Amanda ventured east to North Carolina, her parents taking the empty-nester advantage with a move to England. Frustrated with catering to unappreciative customers in a popular chain restaurant, Amanda began exploring opportunities in the kitchen. Frequent conversations and visits with her parents across the pond sparked interest in culinary academia in Europe. Cusey eventually earned her Cordon Bleu certificate at Tanté Marie in Surrey, England.
“England just wasn’t my thing. With my certificate, I knew I could go anywhere,” Amanda states. “So I looked to Ireland.”
And Ireland was definitely more her vibe. There, Amanda found the opportunity to gain experience in diverse settings, from American themed diners to working alongside renowned Chef and Restauranteur Kristan Burness at Fiorentina Restaurante in Dublin’s City Center, where she would respectfully earn her title as Head Chef. In time, Michelin-Star Chef Oliver Dunne would since purchase Fiorentina Restaurante, launching it into a signature pop-up, named Eatily, retaining the craft and skills of Chef Amanda.
“To have the opportunity to travel, to learn techniques of different cultures as a cook, is a huge benefit,” says Amanda. I asked, “Who is your inspirational chef?” Without hesitation, she answered, “[Anthony] Bourdain. (He’s) such an influential chef, with a persona and delivery that anyone can understand. You just got him.”
Although this is Cusey’s first competition, it’s not her first award. For four consecutive years beginning in 2017, she won Best Chef in Lagniappe’s Best of SWLA annual poll.
“Were you nervous going into this cook-off?” I asked.
“I watched so many videos of chefs running around, all frantic and stressed,” Cusey responded. “I wasn’t. Italian food is really about the simplicity. It’s about respecting the ingredients, fresh ingredients, being patient with it and putting love into it. That’s what I wanted to bring to the table. A bite that really packed a lasting flavor and exceed their expectations.”
Cusey’s winning masterpiece, a pan-seared and butter-basted filet of redfish and seared green beans nested over tomato polenta and topped with crawfish in a Creole mustard cream sauce, was her play on fish and grits. This recipe secured her spot to represent Louisiana at the 18th annual Great American Seafood Cook-off, to be held Aug. 6 in New Orleans.
In 2019, I wrote a piece on Villa Harlequin featuring Amanda‘s work. To say her creations were visually appealing is an understatement. The taste was nothing short of amazing.
I asked Amanda about her future, whether she would ever consider opening her own restaurant. She paused for a bit, then answered, “I don’t know. I love what I do. I get to do this without the headache and hassle of running an entire restaurant. I have my kitchen, I have my people, and I’m good with that, for now.”
I reached out to Mike Sperandeo, owner of Villa Harlequin, to ask him about what Cusey’s award means to him and to the restaurant. “Cusey is the second woman to have won this prestigious award and the first chef to bring the crown home to Lake Charles,” he said. “To say the least, we at the Villa Harlequin are all extremely proud of that accomplishment.
“All the hard work that Chef [Cusey] and the entire staff of the Villa Harlequin put forth is done with the desire to make Lake Charles a food and beverage cultural destination. Many of our fellow SWLA restaurants and restauranteurs are striving towards that same goal. Support and eat local!”
The weekend following her first-place finish, Cusey offered the award-winning dish for two nights at Villa Harlequin, and of course both nights were a complete sellout.
Sperandeo allows Cusey to have full control over the menu, so I asked her if she plans on incorporating the dish as a regular menu option.
“I really want to bring the dish to the people, so they can at least try it. I think it represents who we are at the Villa — it represents the south, and it represents Louisiana.”
I, along with everyone at the Villa Harlequin and in Southwest Louisiana wish Cusey the best of luck as she moves to the next level of competition in August.
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