Only three years out of culinary school, Cody Carroll might well be the hottest young chef in Louisiana. The 29-year-old wunderkind has made his first restaurant, Hot Tails, a rustic Cajun café in New Roads, a smashing success, drawing diners from all over the Baton Rouge area, lured by word-of-mouth raves over Carroll’s highly spiced, richly flavored cooking.
In May, the small-town star gained statewide celebrity when he bested a heavyweight field of culinary artists, including chefs from Arnaud’s and Bayona in New Orleans, to win the Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off, an annual Crescent City competition sponsored by the state’s restaurant industry and seafood promotion board. That achievement earned him the title King of Louisiana Seafood and a high-profile role representing the Louisiana seafood industry at state and national events over the next year.
It also set the ambitious Carroll up for his next move: opening a major restaurant to showcase his sophisticated take on Louisiana cuisine. Immediately after winning the cook-off, Carroll, who lives in Baton Rouge, told others that he was likely headed for New Orleans. He figured that there was no way a chef who aspires to make a national reputation can do it from Baton Rouge, whose restaurant scene is dominated by chain restaurants and a conservative, crab-meat-and-cream-sauce old guard.
As it turns out, Carroll decided to turn his back on New Orleans and is now looking for a Baton Rouge location for his flagship restaurant, which he hopes to open in the next 18 months. His change of heart says something about the promise a new generation of chefs is bringing to the Capital Region. More than that, though, it says something about the kind of chef Cody Carroll is: passionately, even evangelically, devoted to his roots among the people and the culinary heritage of the Baton Rouge area.
“I realized that this is where my heart is. It’s going to make me happier to make my people satisfied than to please these tourists in New Orleans,” Carroll says. “Don’t get me wrong; every chef likes all kinds of people enjoying his restaurant. But I’d rather make my community happy than anything else.”
Cody grew up on his family’s grain farm in Batchelor, a hamlet in northern Pointe Coupee Parish. As a boy, Carroll helped his father work the fields, but he loved to go back to the house and assist his mother, Mikki, in cooking supper for the workers. Carroll was only 10 years old when he began shadowing his parents and grandparents, good country cooks all, in the kitchen.
“I cooked a lot of rabbit, squirrels, deer. If we had gator around, we’d cook gator. We lived right next to Old River, so I cooked sac-a-lait, catfish, a lot of seafood,” says Carroll, in a Cajun accent as thick as cane syrup.
When he turned 13, Carroll began spending long stretches of time after the spring harvest with his dad at their Grand Isle camp. That’s when he got hooked on inventing ways to prepare seafood. “We’d be catching speckled trout, redfish, and I’d be cooking it in as many ways as I could think of,” he says.
In the winter, when the fields lay fallow, Carroll devoted himself to preparing lunch and dinner at the farmhouse. When his father and friends headed to their deer camp near the Morganza spillway, young Cody went with them. The camp kitchen held more allure than the woods.
“The guys would put up some money, and I’d go to the store, all by myself, and get enough to cook for 15, 20 people, and I would cook. By myself. They loved it, and that made me so happy,” says Carroll.
Bryan Carroll, Cody’s father, figured then that cooking was going to be nothing more than a pastime for the second of his three sons. “I thought he would eventually take over the farm,” says the older Carroll. “When he was 16 or 17, he leaned towards becoming an entrepreneur in Cajun food, and that’s where he went.”
In 2002 Cody became the first in his family to attend LSU. He majored in business, advised by his father to master the commercial side of the food industry. After earning a bachelor’s at LSU, Carroll enrolled in the 16-month degree program at the Louisiana Culinary Institute in Baton Rouge, to learn how to run a restaurant.
“He was all about learning. He was never a know-it-all. He always asked the most questions. I really admired that about him,” says Owen Hohl, 24, an LCI classmate and close friend.
Hohl says Carroll’s dazzling innovations made him a class standout. Classmate Samantha Neal saw the same thing in Carroll. “He would blow everybody’s mind. The things he was doing, nobody had ever seen before.”
Neal saw something else in the audacious charmer from Old River. The two began dating; in 2012 they married. They sealed their business partnership, however, by starting their first restaurant only weeks after their January 2010 graduation. The location? A dumpy concrete-block building next to a car wash on a depressing New Roads commercial strip.
A defunct drive-thru convenience store in a small town is not an obvious launchpad for a major culinary career. But Carroll saw strategic sense in setting up business there.
“I knew this would be an easy first step,” he says. “I decided I would make my name where people know me. Besides, there was a good enough market in New Roads to do it.”
With partial financial backing from his folks, Carroll bought the Hospital Road land and building, which was little more than a shell. He oversaw a complete renovation. Total cost: $420,000, less than half of what Carroll figures it would have cost him to open the same place in Baton Rouge.
Hot Tails, with 100 seats and a bar, opened on April 12, 2010. Assisted by Owen Hohl, Cody helmed the kitchen, while Samantha, then only 20, managed the business end. They started out serving a limited menu of Louisiana standards—po-boys, fried seafood, boiled crawfish, and the like.
Customers raved about Hot Tails’ distinct and unusually flavorful versions of Louisiana classics. For example, Carroll serves his shrimp po-boy open-faced on Leidenheimer’s bread—the New Orleans classic—smothered in a peppery rémoulade. His layering spice technique for cooking Shrimp Creole imparts fathoms of flavor that renders other chefs’ versions pale and two-dimensional by comparison.
“Everything we cook, we’re building in layers and layers of taste,” says Hohl. “We want people to think, man, I didn’t know there could be so much flavor in something so simple.”
Alas, the Hot Tails crew couldn’t easily coax the hometown crowd to try the more complex dishes Carroll would create for his weekend specials. But as the affable chef built a personal rapport with his clientele—Carroll had intentionally built an open kitchen so he could feel more connected to his customers, and greeted them by name when they walked in—they started to trust him to take them to gustatory places they’d never been.
The change has been dramatic. Hot Tails could barely sell a single chef’s special in those early months. These days, the specials routinely sell out. Carroll says with a laugh, “Now, in our third year, nobody needs convincing.”
Sales have also evolved at an accelerated pace. In its first year, Hot Tails grossed just under $1 million. In year two, that figure rose to $1.4 million. This year, the restaurant is on track to gross over $2 million—and that’s before factoring in the buzz from the Louisiana Cook-Off victory, where Samantha was her husband’s sous-chef. Even meeting payroll for a staff of 20, Hot Tails is making money so quickly that the couple expects to pay off their loans by year’s end.
Now they’ve got their eye on the Baton Rouge market—but not to open a city branch of their country-casual café. This time, Cody Carroll is making a bid for the big leagues, betting that he can create a high-end Capital City restaurant that can do what none ever has: gain a place for Baton Rouge on the national culinary map.
Baton Rouge over New Orleans is a bold, countercultural choice. Last year, Donald Link, a former Baton Rouge chef who went on to make his national mark with the New Orleans standouts Herbsaint and Cochon, told 225 Magazine that the Capital City is a culinary also-ran.
“Baton Rouge has a lot of places to eat, but it doesn’t have a great restaurant culture,” Link said then. “God help any place there that doesn’t serve burgers and beer.”
On hearing this comment, Carroll tells Business Report he couldn’t disagree more, adding with unabashed pride, “That’s my town he’s talking about!”
But Carroll concedes that he used to hold a similar view. He’s not alone.
“One of the things Cody is going to fight is to try to get Baton Rouge diners to be more adventurous,” says Jay Ducote, a Baton Rouge chef and media personality covering the local food scene.
“I think Cody is going to do some dishes that have never been seen on Baton Rouge menus,” Ducote continues. “In New Orleans, that would be celebrated. In Baton Rouge, that should be celebrated as well, but one of the challenges he will face is to convince people to want to eat something totally different, not the same thing they can get in 15 other restaurants in Baton Rouge.”
Unoriginal, lackluster menus are a familiar source of complaint among Baton Rouge foodies. Another way of looking at it, though, is that the more adventurous local chefs in town have an opportunity to build something distinct.
In fact, says Ducote, it’s no coincidence that the most talked-about chefs in the area—Hot Tails’ Carroll, Ryan Andre at Le Creole, and Beausoleil’s Nathan Gresham, to name a few—are all well under 40. They are part of a new generation of cooks more open to new trends changing the food scene nationally: for example, the “farm-to-table” movement, which emphasizes fresh, locally sourced ingredients and efforts to nurture organic connections between farmers, chefs and diners.
“We’re starting to push back,” says Gresham, who, like Andre and Carroll, is an LCI graduate. “We have awesome chefs around the city who aren’t afraid to venture out. The trick is to stick to Louisiana’s roots but be influenced by outside. You want to bring a new freshness to the game instead of smothering things in cream sauces.”
This is precisely what Carroll intends to do with his new restaurant, the name of which he prefers to keep off the record for now, but which, he hints, carries poetic Bayou State symbolism. Carroll says the new restaurant’s name evokes the sense he had growing up on the banks of Old River.
“That camp, that pier, looking over the river, the garfish hitting the top of the water—it’s that whole feeling from my childhood, that whole culture,” he says.
If he lived and cooked in New Orleans, Carroll fears he would lose his connection to the place and the people that made him the kind of chef he is. In the end, it all goes back to the family farm and the deer camp.
“It’s always been the people that drive me, the people that want me to cook for them,” he says. “That’s what gets me excited: being around my family and friends, and cooking for the people I love.”
Growing up farming and fishing in south Louisiana imbued Carroll with a passion for localism and the integrity of those who grow, raise and catch our food.
“Yeah, they’re working their ass off, but they love it,” he says. “And I know how hard they worked for that. So to cook with it, that’s a privilege for me. That’s depth. It’s not only depth in flavor, but depth in feeling, too.”
The key question facing Carroll now as he lays the groundwork for the new place concerns its location. He has been looking at property on Hoo Shoo Too Road, in far southeast Baton Rouge, because he believes it will provide the right “destination” feel. One place he won’t go if he can help it: a shopping center. Unfortunately, city regulations mandating off-street parking don’t give local restaurateurs much choice.
Because Carroll is a perfectionist, the search for the right location could take a while. Once he nails a place down, though, the chef, aided by his creative team—his wife, Samantha, and sous-chef Owen Hohl—will design the theater for the fullest expression of the young phenom’s culinary vision.
One matter that’s already settled: As with Hot Tails (which will stay in business), his Baton Rouge restaurant will feature a kitchen in open embrace of the dining room. It’s not simply stagecraft. Nurturing a personal, emotional connection to the people he’s cooking for is essential to Cody Carroll’s artistic sensibility.
“There’s nothing like the feeling of seeing how happy you can make people when they’re eating your food,” he says. “It’s why I do this.”
Carroll’s broader goal is to help build a restaurant culture in Baton Rouge so rewarding that up-and-coming chefs no longer feel they have to leave the state or its capital city to do great things in the kitchen and be recognized for it.
Taking a stand in Baton Rouge may be a long-shot move for a chef who aspires to a national career, but in truth, New Orleans never had a chance with this guy. Staying here is the only thing Carroll can do to stay true to himself and his cooking. The land and its people—not just south Louisiana, but Baton Rouge and the surrounding countryside, with its fields, gardens, hunting camps and fishing holes—are the source of his particular genius, and his creative energy.
Besides, Carroll is confident enough to think that he can make America pay respectful attention to Baton Rouge for something other than college football.
“If you’re good enough, they’re going to find you, and it’s going to put Baton Rouge on the national scene,” he says. “Just like we did with this win, you have people who never heard about Pointe Coupee Parish, and this magazine came out, and it goes everywhere. Just like that.”
He tosses a copy of the July/August issue of Louisiana Life magazine onto his office desk. The cover model is, of course, Chef Cody Carroll, flashing his Dennis Quaid grin. Confident? You bet. A perfectionist he may be, but deep down this is not a dude who harbors significant doubts about himself or his life’s work.
And no wonder. The young man from the banks of Old River might be staying close to home, but he’s well-positioned to go far. And who knows how many of us he’ll take with him?