1900 W. Pinhook Rd.
Lafayette, LA 70508
Oh, I’m nothing but a plate lunch. I’m not a chef. I’m a cook. Cooks work hard. – David Billeaud
Growing up in his Cajun family’s grocery and butchery, started by his great-grandfather Marshall Billeaud, in Broussard, Louisiana, David Billeaud started working with food at a young age. He remembers deboning and prepping pork chops and steaks to sale as soon as he was tall enough to “reach the meat block.” David opened up T-Coon’s in 1993, naming the restaurant after his father’s childhood nickname; he was “mischievous as a coon” (‘T’ is used as a diminutive in Cajun French). David serves what he’s deemed Zydeco cooking. For breakfast there’s brisket, pork roast, and crawfish omelets; all of the breads are homemade and freshly baked. The Plate Lunch special changes daily: smothered rabbit on Monday, short rib fricassé on Tuesday, Wednesday’s stuffed pork chops and smothered chicken and okra, Thursday’s smothered turkey wings, and catfish courtbouillon to end the workweek. The catfish in the courtbouillon is, in season, hyper-local, caught daily on David’s bamboo lines in the surrounding Vermilion Bay. A virtuoso hunter and fisherman, David lines the walls of T-Coon’s with trophies and photographs (and a stuffed raccoon’s behind) from his and his customers’ adventures in the “Sportman’s Paradise” that is Louisiana.
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: David Billeaud, owner
Date: March 16, 2011
Location: T-Coon’s - Lafayette, LA
Interviewer: Rien T. Fertel
Photographer: Denny Culbert
Rien Fertel: This is Rien Fertel with the Southern Foodways Alliance. I am in Lafayette, Louisiana, at T-Coon’s. I’m here with Mr. David Billeaud, and I’m going to have him introduce himself, giving his name and his birth date for the record.
David Billeaud: David Billeaud, April 10, 1959.
All right. Thank you, sir. So what is your position here at T-Coon’s?
Owner, manager, cook, dishwasher.
So everything—dishwasher, too. So let’s get into the name. T-Coon’s, what does that mean?
"T-i" is small in French; I dropped the “I” and just using “T.” Coon was my—T-Coon was my father’s nickname as a child. And I didn't want people to pronounce "Ty-Coon" so I just call it T-Coon’s.
How did your father receive that nickname?
His sister named him as a little child, no telling—probably because he was mischievous as a [rac]coon.
And did you have this nickname as a child too?
No, uh-uh. But everyone in the small community we’re from had a habit of calling all of us T-Coon because our dad was T-Coon. People would just—some people would anyway. But no, I—to this day my mother says, "Why does he call himself that?" Well, for obvious reasons: advertising.
Tell me about growing up in Broussard.
Well we’re a fifth-generation grocery, meat market, so growing up in the grocery business we knew everybody, which was cool. We moved away probably early ‘70s and we moved to Lafayette, but still worked at the store [Billeaud’s Grocery], still knew everybody.
Tell me a bit more about your parents. Tell me about the role that food played in their lives. Were they home cooks your mother and father?
Seven kids; we were at the trough three times a day. Every day I watched my mother divide up nine portions to the T, you know. The meal was cooked every day; not eating out and no—we had the grocery store across the street so there was a lot of seven steak, rice and gravy, pork and beans, fresh vegetables. My mother had a Home Ec major so she believed in the food pyramid, and my father was the meat guy. He could stuff and season a pork roast and, you know, handle the barbecue and of course I stepped in at an early age and took care of the barbecue.
But all the stuff that I cook either came from my mother, my father, or some lady that was working for us at some point in time because I was always in the kitchen.
I started cooking as early as I can remember. If it was pancakes or eggs or climbing up on the stool and stirring the roux, growing up in the meat market, you know, I was trying to turn the sausage press at five—six years old. I mean we were always around food.
So was T-Coon’s your first role in the food industry outside of your family’s grocery and meat market?
Yeah, when I opened downtown 18 years ago I had never worked in a restaurant, so I didn't know the business part. Hell, I didn't even know what the food cost was. But I knew what I cooked people would like. I had always been cooking prior to that and, you know, always got positive results. And, you know, I told you before, I think taste buds are universa,l and most people like the same tastes and textures and whatever.
So what did you do prior to opening up the first T-Coon’s?
I was in insurance and investments for eight years and, prior to that, I was offshore for eight years. Remember, one of my first jobs in the oil field I was 16, and I went to work on a workboat out of Galveston. And it’s me, the captain, and three winos. The first thing he says is, "Who knows how to cook?" Well I wasn’t letting them cook my food, so I raised my hand. And I remember the first thing I found in the freezer was a pork roast. So I put together my seasoning mix, probably similar to what I use today and I injected it and stuffed it, and man, I was a hit. [Laughs] I was the king.
So you cooked forever after that?
Well you know, it’s just another example of the positive feedback you get when you cook a good meal. You know you feed off of that and—.
Tell me about this first location of T-Coon’s—where it was.
Well I had been doing festivals for a few years, and I needed a spot to prepare and freeze and ready my festivals. I had previously been doing it at night at my dad’s store, hauling everything to a freezer at another location, and for one festival you got to start with 1,000 pounds of boudin for example. And then you got to go back and make some more if you need to, so I definitely needed to get out of it or get a place.
Well I found this location downtown in Lafayette, just a ramshack[le]. I mean the roof was leaking; hobos were living in it. So the rent was dirt cheap. Well I figured that would be a good location to do a plate lunch also. So I could do both out of there.
Well, little did I know that it wasn’t just plate lunches and festivals; it was Downtown Alive and Mardi Gras and every—every time you turned around there was something to cook for. So that worked out pretty good.
And was the menu the same as it is in this iteration?
The menu was exactly the same except now I have everything every day. And back then I had one or two things every—each day of the week. But now it’s just a lot bigger. But you know it’s still the catfish courtbouillion, the shrimp and okra stew, smothered beef, smothered pork.
What items are made from scratch here on the breakfast menu?
Oh, the breakfast sausage, the smoked sausage—well everything but the ham and the bacon.
All the bread is homemade. I’ve been making the bread for 18 years now. We do a wheat bread, a white bread, it’s a French cut—French toast.
What kind of breakfast crowd do you get in terms of who comes in?
Anybody from the average laborer, the lawyer, the banker, every walk of lif.; I mean I’ve got millionaires sitting next to, you know, everybody. I got a very good cross-section of the economy. You’ll see dirt under somebody’s table from muddy boots. You know, you’ll see somebody in $2,000 shoes next to them. We all got a few things in common [Laughs]; eating is one of them.
Let’s talk about lunch. Do you describe yourself as a plate lunch place?
Oh, I’m nothing but a plate lunch. I’m not a chef. I’m a cook. Cooks work hard.
What’s the difference between a chef and cook, if there’s more than that?
Well to me a chef had to be taught. You know I can't say that. I was taught of course—I do a lot of things that nobody taught me. I just picture it and I do it. I guess when somebody picks up a paint brush they do the same thing; they picture it and they do it. I can't do it with a paint brush; I promise you. But if I’m going to make some kind of seafood sauce or whatever I just roll with it. I’ve never written one down or looked at one, you know, but—.
And you—and that’s not 100-percent true because you pick up ideas and you learn, you know. How did I learn to throw my seafood in at the very end and not cook it—overcook it? Well somebody showed me that one day; you know, I don’t remember when but—and there are a lot of things you learn the hard way. You learn—I mean how many things I do now because I did it by mistake at some other time, and I learned from my mistake. Hey; what a good idea. Or some idiot in the kitchen did something stupid and I said look; this is a good idea.
You got to think outside the box at all times and, you know—. There’s a lot to be said about out of sight, out of mind; there’s so much you see if you stay, you know—stay on the job, stay in the kitchen, stay on top of things. You’re always going to change and I believe that.
Some of the people in the kitchen that we just walked through have worked here for a long time?
Miss Helen [Norbert] who is now 72, she’s been here probably eight years.
Helen is—let’s face it, she’s been cooking her entire life, so I got to get in here and I got to make her do it my way, without hurting any feelings. So we have evolved, and basically if Helen does it I don’t worry about it. That’s where we are. She knows the routine. She does the work of any five of these guys in there, younger people. So basically all the bulk cooking she’s responsible for or I’m responsible for. Between the two of us, you know, the 50 pounds of pork gets cooked every day. The 50 pounds of crawfish étouffée, all the bulk cooking is done by myself or Helen....
Tell me more about Helen. Did you know her for a while or did you hire her?
I’ve known Helen all my life. Way back when my partners wanted out I said, "Helen, do you want in?" And she said, "Yes". So she’s a partner. And, you know, as long as she’s alive, she’ll get a piece of the action. She’s been very good to me. She’s a good person. She’s good to everybody.
Where is she from or where does she call home?
She’s from Broussard.
So she’s an old family friend or acquaintance?
Yeah. Well she’s—you go back far enough everybody knew everybody in Broussard and she grew up, you know, like a lot of people back then—she grew up picking cotton, working in the fields. She went to work for the School Board and retired at the School Board—kitchen work 30 years or whatever if not longer. I remember I got her a job at another restaurant in Lafayette years and years ago, and I remember the guying saying, "Now Helen, if I hire you, you’re not going to quit me?" Well 20 years later I had to say, "Helen, you can quit him. Iit’s okay. You don’t have to work three jobs a day". And that’s just the type of person she is.
So she basically does this full-time.
You describe your food as Zydeco cooking. Can you say what that means?
Ah, I don’t know what it means. It means string bean in French. I know what it doesn’t mean. The rest of the world cannot call it Cajun and if they call it Zydeco they don’t know what that means so they can't mimic it or screw it up or do anything with it. And really that’s the only reason I went with the Zydeco ‘cause I see Cajun, Cajun, Cajun, Cajun, and how much of it is—it has nothing to do with Cajun. And Zydeco implies to me more of the Creole, the black, and let’s face it, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with black women and black women back in the day could cook. That’s all there was to it, you know. Nobody could cook a rice and gravy. My mother couldn’t do it like them, like the few women I was familiar with.
Yeah; I mean Cajun doesn’t imply anything derogatory to me. It’s just the misuse of it. I think you said that. You know you go to Nashville; you get a gumbo in Nashville. Please, people; it’s not a gumbo. It has nothing to do with a gumbo. You got a local guy here in Lafayette from Alexandra and they’re serving a rice dressing. There is nothing in his rice dressing that has anything to do with rice dressing. It’s not a rice dressing, you know. So I just—I wanted to—not monopolize but I wanted to brand it my own way. I wanted people to say, "Wait, what is Zydeco?" You know, well you got to come here to find out. Obviously I’m Cajun; I kind-a talk like dat. I cook out of big black iron pots, you know. I’m five generation-Broussard, Louisiana. I mean that’s the obvious part. So what’s left; what’s—the food is left you know.
Let’s talk about the daily specials. You have one Monday through Friday?
I have what we call the daily special; each day we do something different on top of the whole menu, you know. If we have 15 things on the menu, each day we’ll have one item different. For example, my smothered rabbit is on Monday, you know. My beef short ribs is on Tuesday; stuffed pork chops—Wednesday and of course on Friday we have two or three different seafood—courtbouillion, shrimp and okra stew. But that started downtown—probably the reason I stayed open; everybody knew the smothered rabbit was on Monday. You know, so I could count on that day, you know. And then the turkey on Thursday, you know; people come in just for the turkey. On Wednesday they come in just for the chicken and okra—not everybody but people know that if they want some more chicken and okra it’s Wednesday, and don’t come here much after noon; 12:30 you’re typically out of it.
So that was the idea is getting them in, getting some of that rush early, you know you can have an early rush and a late rush; that makes a good day. Just a late rush, the numbers might come out the same but it’s a stressful day. So to spread that lunch out a little bit—.
What’s your favorite thing to cook here in the kitchen? ... Or maybe to eat.
Hmm. Catfish courtbouillion, served on top of fried catfish.
Can you describe what that is—courtbouillion?
Courtbouillion is typically a seafood dish. I happen to use catfish, fresh if possible, catfish bellies if possible. And I’ll use shrimp and crawfish also, in it, to stretch it, to add a little more color to it so to speak. It’s a tomato and—and roux-based gravy, cooked real long, a lot of onions and celery, a little lemon, and basically I’ll throw my seafood in long enough just to get it cooked on top of rice.
It’s probably a thicker courtbouillion than what you’ll find most places. Yeah; well you can't find it anywhere but, you know, I grew up cooking. My mother cooked a very thin tomato courtbouillion.
What makes it thicker?
More roux and more tomato. [Laughs]
And why do you use the bellies?
The belly is a firmer meat; it’s got a lot of flavor in it. And I don’t like throwing them away. It’s typically not the part you’re going to fry because it’s got—it’s got a richer flavor in it.
And yesterday you were describing to me where you get the catfish.
Oh, right now we’re running pole lines. It’s basically a 14—15 foot bamboo stuck into the side of the riverbank right at the drop-off, and as the water goes up and down with the tide these big catfish are waiting for fish and varmints and critters to come off the mud flats, so they’re feeding up and down these drop-offs. You know, you can have a 20, 30, 40, 50-pound catfish pulling on that bamboo pole and he can't go anywhere because the bamboo is at an angle. And nothing flexes like bamboo. I mean it’s—God made that thing right.
So right now we have a lot of fresh catfish. I’m running lines instead of buying catfish.
Hmm. Can you tell us where that is in proximity to Lafayette?
Yeah, it’s south of Lafayette. It’s off of Vermilion Bay, freshwater bayou area.
So when you catch the catfish and when you take them off the pole, how long until they’re being filleted and served in the restaurant?
Well from the—from the pole—oh the next day, oh the next day. If not, right now I might sit on them a week, you know. We get them filleted, bagged, frozen; they might be in the freezer a week right now, which is pretty damn fresh.
Before we end, I want to ask a local question. Lafayette and Southern Louisiana just suffered an oil spill within the past year and I want to know what effect that has had on your business, what you’ve seen, your customers many of whom I imagine work in the oil industry and the fishing industries?
Well overall it’s—it’s really hurt our business. It’s hurt my customers, which is, you know—I feel that. We’re down tremendously. And now with food prices skyrocketing I’ll lose more customers. I can't lose money. I’ll just have to go up on my prices. But—and I’ve done that. You know when—when you got payroll going out and you don’t have a penny to meet it, literally not a penny in your checking account, you just got to do what you got to do. If you’re going to stay in business you got to go up on your prices and you got to get those margins back. That catfish that I bought for $3 a pound for years is now $4 a pound—boom, 25-percent increase just overnight. And there’s so many items like rice—20 pounds; I remember paying $7 a 50-pound bag of rice. Now that’s over $20-bucks—for rice; we grow it right here. There’s no reason for that.
But, political as it is, it is what it is.
Do you think food culture is more important in South Louisiana to its people than other places you’ve visited or other people you’ve talked to?
Well, yeah. Other people live to eat; we eat to live. Other people eat to live; we live to eat.
And why do you think that is so in this region?
I don’t know. It started a long time ago. I know that. Maybe we had an abundance of it where other parts of the country didn't. It’s always been a community effort. When it was time to slaughter pigs, everybody came together to do the work; everybody left with a piece. Cattle, there was no refrigeration to speak of, so a family couldn’t sit on a whole hog. It would go bad. So they split it up and so it became a community—maybe not a community but it was shared amongst families. Probably how it all started; I mean who can do one up on the other one. Taste this [Laughs]. Next week—taste this.
And do you feel that way about your food?
Oh, yeah. I rule.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.