Perhaps known best for spreading joy through their lockdown shrimp boils through the pandemic, Decatur’s chef-founder Tom Zahir Browne has dedicated himself to working on what he describes as a custodianship of Southern cuisine after developing an appreciation while spending time in the Southern states. The cuisine can be difficult to get right, and can be even more difficult to find in London — which makes Zahir Browne’s residency all the more notable, and especially so given the setting at one of London’s best independent wine bars.
We spoke to him to learn more about his approach to Southern cuisine, the finer points of Creole and Cajun cooking, and what guests can expect from an evening at Quality Wines while he’s behind the stove.
First off, for those who may not be familiar, how would you describe what you do at Decatur?
It started when I moved back from the States around 2013-2014. I’d spent several years working in the US. My best friend is married to a girl from New Orleans, so we spent a lot of the time in the South and got a real appreciation for good Southern food and Southern culture and hospitality. When I got back to the UK, I felt a lot of it was a pastiche-y of what Southern food was in my eyes even though it was revered as a cuisine in the States.
So, I started off just wanting to cook the Southern food that I wanted to see in the UK and missed from living in the US, and it developed from there. I’d describe it as Southern specialities and the harder to find dishes, especially focused around Louisiana and the wider country-style cooking of the southwest of Louisiana or Cajun country.
In my mind, it’s more of a custodianship of that cuisine – I’m not trying to do anything too crazy with any of the techniques or recipes. I’m just trying to translate it with British ingredients and cooking it with a bit of respect.
What are your favourite dishes, and what are you excited to share with your guests at Quality Wines?
The way that Decatur’s existed up until last year was in this kind of format in popups and residencies, so it’s been great to get back to cooking those dishes; what you can share via the post, versus what you can make when you’re cooking to order is really different. I’ve been looking forward to getting back to cooking different expressions of Southern food. The key goal for us generally is to share what’s such an interesting and exciting culture with people in the UK who have seen a version of it that doesn’t really do it justice for the most part.
Whether that’s expressed via a shrimp boil at home, to cooking more restaurant style dishes, the purpose of Decatur is to share Southern food in all its glory and in its different forms.
In terms of dishes, I love cooking boudin, the Cajun rice sausage that we make; it’s a recipe that I’ve worked on since we started eight years ago. It’s always evolving, but I’m really happy with where it’s at right now – texture, flavour, everything’s bang on. I also really love shrimp and grits and I think good grits are hard to find in London.
“Whether that’s expressed via a shrimp boil at home, to cooking restaurant dishes, the purpose of Decatur is to share Southern food in all its glory and in its different forms.”
We have a stone mill and I’ve started milling our own grits from dried hominy corn; so it’s a beautiful artisanal product that’s been controlled more or less at every step of the way. We cook them out with milk and bay leaves, and they’re super fragrant and perfumed and unctuous and delicious and everything grits should be.
Those two dishes are highlights for me. And it’s nice to have that one-on-one interaction, especially in this space, because the customer is right in front of you and you’re in an open kitchen — you can chat to people and see people enjoying it. You can look after people and offer a little bit of hospitality.
Can you tell me a bit about the rabbit and dumpling dish?
Creole food, generally speaking, is kind of like city food – fine dining rooms in New Orleans, but also food made by Creoles, who are people of colour, and so there’s a little bit more French, African and Spanish influence. Cajun food travelled down from Acadiana when the British came – they were exiled down to southern Louisiana, so it’s much more country food. With Cajun food, in particular, there are so many crossovers between nose-to-tail British eating and nose-to-tail Cajun eating and game as well. The boudin, for example, is a liver and pork sausage and it would be made with off-cuts. and they do a Cajun version of brawn called hog head cheese, so there are these amazing parallels.
The rabbit and dumpling dish is a celebration of the relationship with game animals and it’s essentially what you’d call an étouffée or a smothered rabbit dish. But rather than just over rice, we’ve done it with a buttermilk biscuit – it’s a very similar recipe to the kind you’d pair with fried chicken or in biscuits and gravy. And it’s essentially thrown into the cast iron pot and cooked out.
And then inside, we have the andouille sausage which is made for us in Hertfordshire, and we throw it in there to add a little spice and smoke. From there, the dish is made from the braising stock from the rabbit, a mirepoix of vegetables and a little bit of spicing. I figured as the nights are drawing a bit colder, it’s maybe not a dish to eat in mid-June, but now that we’re in October, it feels like the right type of stick to your ribs cooking that you get in Cajun cooking.
Cajun food is generally – you couldn’t get it in restaurants – but a little bit more homestyle. So, the rabbit is a little bit of a nod to that. Plus, it’s delicious.
Have you and Chris [Madden, Quality Wines sommelier] chatted about pairings for dishes?
Those guys are thoroughly in control of those, but we’ve certainly had tasting notes and they’ve eaten most of the menu. I think there’s been a push with some of the spicier dishes to go with the Rieslings and the Gewürz, and I know that they have quite a few big spicy reds on. They’ve also done a little menu of New Orleans cocktails.
According to Chris, for whites, we’ve tended towards richer wines and off dries; the classic kind of thing is Kabinett and Spätlese Rieslings with a bit of age on them from producers like JJ Prum or Dönnhoff. But a real favourite has been the Hatzidakis Nykteri from Santorini – a really vibrant and full-bodied white from century old vines.
On the orange side, Chris says that guests have really liked the “Zegwur” Gewurztraminer from Yann Durrmann – a zesty, zingy, pineapple-y wine that’s going great with the shrimp. On the reds, the Syrahs and Cabernet Sauvignon from Kidnappers Cliffs in Hawkes Bay have been flying out — really expressive wines that are carefully made, potent yet elegant. But something which has gone down a treat has been Lambrusco! The Angol d’Amig Scaramusc works so well, it’s almost like it was made for this food.
Your journey has taken you from KERB to residencies at Pamela in Dalston. Is the goal still a restaurant for you?
I think the goal is to be a place that anyone that is a fan of Southern food or has enjoyed Southern food at any point in their life, whether they’re a Southerner in London or whether they’ve visited, or they’re interested in the culture; they can get a taste of something that is found 3,000 miles away. And so, whether that is in the form of a restaurant – I feel like there’s going to be eventually, hopefully, a suite of different ways you can interact. And I suppose that’s what everyone’s been seeing post-pandemic. Everything’s about diversifying.
So yes, I think maybe in 2022, we’d be looking at bricks and mortar. Initially we’re focusing on a few pop-ups this year. And getting some of the other dishes and other spice blends we do to retail. So hopefully we’re going to have the spice blends in stores quite soon – we’re just going through a packaging design phase with that now – and until the end of the year, it’ll be a case of catch us wherever you find us while we look to find a more permanent home.
But whether that’s a traditional neighbourhood restaurant or something a little bit different, I’m not entirely sure yet. But certainly, the pandemic has changed my mentality on how it could potentially work – there are so many different paths to being able to provide people joy through food.
During the residency, £1 will be added to each bill to fund Hurricane Ida relief efforts in Louisiana.