Joe Cahn didn't pay much attention to his mother. ''Mother taught me that the kitchen was the worst place in the world to be,'' said Joe, his smoothly shaved head shining like a freshly picked honeydew melon. ''But she wasn't from New Orleans, she was foreign, from Connecticut. My father is foreign too - Chicago.''
So what's Joe doing running the New Orleans School of Cooking, right in the heart of the French Quarter?
''Well, first of all I was born and raised here - and that helped, although when I opened up this cooking school 3 1/2 years ago, I couldn't cook a thing. Someone else did the teaching. But there was the teacher up there in front of the stove telling students how easy it was, so I thought I'd better learn. Then I learned to make a roux.''
Now Joe does the teaching. Six days a week he holds classes made up mostly of tourists, with some locals.
''I don't like the word tourists,'' he says. ''Tourists don't slow down long enough to smell the flowers or taste the food. I prefer to call them 'visitors.' ''
Well, whatever you call them, Joe will teach them - from a class of one to a busload of 50. For a modest $15 fee per person, and 2 1/2 hours of their time, Joe will give a running history of Creole cooking, complete with audiovisual aids, while demonstrating the preparation of four authentic dishes - gumbo, jambalaya, bread pudding and pralines.
''The same four recipes, six days a week?'' I asked.
''Don't you get tired of the same four things?''
''Nope. And we don't tone down the spices for our classes. If they don't like it, they don't have to eat it.''
Everyone, it seems, has his own description of Creole food. Joe describes it as '' . . . not classic, like French.''
''Paul Prudhomme (one of New Orleans's best and most popular chefs) can look over my shoulder and say, 'I haven't seen that method before,' but he can't say it's wrong,'' Joe continued.
''Another thing - it's very unique. Just think, it's food that was cooked by African slaves, using American ingredients, to satisfy European tastes, and often under the eyes of a native Choctaw Indian overseer.
''I really try to communicate to the noncook. Food is our common language. We might not speak Chinese, but we can sit down beside them and enjoy their food.''
What's Joe's goal? ''To see more turkey gumbo on the tables of America.''
And the best part of Creole cooking?
''You get to use everything. Jambalaya and gumbos, especially; they're the catch-alls.''
Here is Joe's recipe for chicken and sausage gumbo. Chicken and Sausage Gumbo 1 1/2 pounds smoked sausage, in 1/2-inch pieces (Andouille sausage is preferred) 1 cup oil, lard, or bacon drippings 1 chicken, cut up Cayenne pepper to taste Salt to taste 1 cup flour 4 cups chopped onions 2 cups chopped celery 2 cups green pepper 1 tablespoon chopped garlic 8 cups stock or water with bouillon Pepper to taste 1 cup green onions (scallions) 1 cup chopped parsley File powder (sassafras powder)
Saute sausage in oil until browned - using a 12-quart stockpot. Remove from pot.
Season chicken with a little cayenne pepper, salt, and a dusting of flour. Brown in oil and remove from pot.
Make a roux by slowly adding flour to hot oil in pot. Stir constantly over medium heat. Roux must be dark, but not allowed to burn. When desired color is achieved, add onions, celery, green pepper, and garlic all at once. This will stop roux from cooking further.
Cook until glaze forms on vegetables. (They should be slightly tender.) Return chicken and sausage to pot and cook a few minutes on low heat. Gradually stir in stock and bring to boil. Reduce to simmer and cook one hour or more. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
About 10 minutes before serving, add green onions and parsley.
File may be added to individual servings - 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon per serving is recommended.
Serve over cooked rice. Serves from 10 to 15 people.