Interview with Taste of New Orleans restaurant owner Sam Rotolo

Taste of New Orleans restaurant in downtown Dells has brought the taste of fine southern Louisiana cooking to both locals and visitors alike, for the past six seasons. Recently, I got to spend a few hours with owner Sam Rofolo, who kindly shared with me stories of his colorful life, the history of the restaurant, as well as some of his delicious Cajun food. 

CHRIS DEARMAN: I can sort of tell by your accent, but I’m guessing you’re originally from Louisiana?

SAM ROTOLO: Born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. Went to college at U of L in Lafayette – Ragin’ Cajuns you know.

So, what brought you up to the Dells?

Made a wrong turn on the interstate! (laughs)

I can definitely see that happening, but I imagine there’s a little more to it…

Actually my wife and I are part Native American, and we were doing a show in Iowa, a horse show. Some guy had seen our outfit. We had a 20 by 20 square foot area with Native American regalia – jewelry, artifacts, stuff like that. We had been selling this stuff on the road for eleven years. And so a guy came up and said: “Man that would go good in the Dells!” And I said – where the hell is the Dells? (laughs)

So, we came up to the Dells, being a Native American town. We got lucky enough to get a place right on Broadway, just two doors down from here, so we stayed there for almost six years. Called the place Sage Brush Jewelry. So, people would come in and ask: “Where’s a good place to eat?” I’d say, well, you got Famous Dave’s, you got Culvers… “Oh, we can get that in Chicago.”  So my wife said: “Why don’t we open up a restaurant again…”

So, this wasn’t your first restaurant?

This is my third one.

What were the others?

I had one just outside of New Orleans in Waveland, MS – the hurricane took that one out. We lost that to Katrina. A couple years before Katrina, we were doing wonderful – it was called the Roundtable. We would sit 15-20 people at the one big roundtable, and we would put all the food in bowls. We had a Lazy Susan and just spin the bowls and take what you want.

Then I had one in New Mexico that went over real big. I had a partnership though, and the partnership didn’t work. So, those two didn’t last too long. For this one, I told the wife if we were going to do this, we were going to do it ourselves.

What year was this? When did Taste of New Orleans open?

2006, three weeks before Memorial Day.

Are you open year round?

No, in March are weekends only, unless spring break falls like it does now. Then, we stay open full time until September. October is weekends only. We shut down the last day of October and then we go fishing!

Did you have an anxiety about opening a restaurant up here in the Dells?

I didn’t figure it would last more than three weeks! Our biggest problem our first year was, the first three months, was not ordering enough food! We didn’t anticipate that kind of reaction.

So it was a success pretty much right from the start? That’s pretty impressive.

I guess the most impressive thing is that my landlord let me open this up not thinking I’m going to make it. He and one of his buyers didn’t think I had a chance. He’s a very good friend of mine, but he said: “There is no way he is going to make it; I don’t give him three months.” So, the other night, about three nights ago, they came in and sat right there – they’ve been here several times, but never late at night, they always sit with me at my table. So, they sat in the front, and all this was lit up (fountain, and main dining room), and he looked at me and says: “Sam, this is the most gorgeous place ever. I love it, you did a great job. I’m so proud of you.” And when I hear that, and I go back six years ago and hear: “You’re not going to make it, but we’re going to let you try. I’ll take your rent money, but I don’t think you’re gonna make it.” So, every time I see him I say – we’re still doing good!

This place is pretty impressive. I remember when you first came up here that it wasn’t quite as big…

We’ve gone from a 60K a year place serving just po’ boys, jambalaya and gumbo, to now being up to three quarters of a million a year. Every two years we’ve damn near double our sales! We’ve expanded three times, went from thirty-five seats to now three hundred. I tell myself though; we’re not quite there yet. So, I guess that’s my, you put your chest out and beat it like a gorilla.

Speaking of your chest, what’s that on your necklace, an alligator tooth?

It’s a thirteen foot alligator that we caught many, many years ago. This particular one came from my buyer, she had it mounted, and we sell the teeth now. I put it on here to remind me of the one that bit me!

You’ve been bitten by an alligator?

Oh yeah, I once got split here to here (motions a large section across his stomach) when one cut me open when I was twenty-two years old. This tooth is not the one that bit me though. We sold him – we took the $1300 cash instead of the teeth! (laughs)

So, back to the restaurant a bit. Over the past six years it sounds like you’ve grown it quite substantially. I bet it’s taken quite a bit of work…

I’m almost there, but I feel like I’m walking on eggs, any moment something can go wrong. I’m here from eight in the morning, to eleven o’clock at night every day. I never take a day off. My definition of a restaurant is 800 heads of cattle and they all sick! (laughs)

It’s a lot of work, you know. You got employment problems, rent problems, customer relationship problems. You’re constantly juggling – like walking on eggs everyday – not to make somebody upset with you. With your cooking or your attitude. You have a waitress that doesn’t come in and you’re shorthanded. You got a cook that’s sick, then in the back you don’t have enough help. So, you’re constantly in a turmoil trying to make everything just right so that when you open that door, you can greet that customer with a smile, and give them the best thing they ever put in their mouth.

That’s what true love of culinary is, being able to put the very best in someone’s mouth. The money is fine, don’t get me wrong, but the compliment is much more rewarding. Sometimes you just live for a nice compliment to make your day feel so wonderful, cause that’s what you open this up for. We enjoy the people here – a lot of times I feel my customers aren’t my customers…

What do you mean by that?

They actually feel – they become family. They come here once, twice, and back and everyone is on a first name basis. Well, I might not remember everybody’s first name, but we don’t forget a loving face. And we hug, I bet you I’ve hugged and kissed half my customers! Because we’ve just become family, and I think that’s important. That you have camaraderie between your customers and yourself. When I sign my cookbooks (he has written two of them that can be purchased at the restaurant) I always say: Good food makes good friendship.

I looked through your cookbooks, and there were a ton of recipes in there that I would love to try. Do you feel like it’s your job to help spread the word about the New Orleans culture to the people up here to those that might not ever experience things down there? 

I feel like I am the only ambassador here for New Orleans, and I want people to go to New Orleans. I want people to enjoy the culinary there, go down and see the love in New Orleans, the camaraderie of having such a wonderful loving, very romantic place. Old or ancient if you want to call it.

I’ve actually been to New Orleans several times. It’s one of my favorite U.S. cities…

It’s wonderful down there. We actually just got back from Mardi Grai. I haven’t made it to Mardi Grai in about fifteen year’s cause I’ve been so busy working. We went up on the bayou, that’s where I was born and raised, on the bayou up in Galliano, just outside of New Orleans. We used to commercial shrimp, me and my wife, for fifteen years. We got down there and everybody on the float knew me – and we just got bombarded with beads! We came back with like 21K pairs of beads – so it was really a lot of fun.

I was going to ask you, do you have any good stories about Grai? I’ve been three times, but don’t seem to remember too much of my time partying down there – drank too many hurricanes!

Well you know Mardi Grai, it’s “Throw me something mister!” It’s being that you’re getting a little something for free, and where in this world can you enjoy the biggest party on earth, for free. I mean, you got a get a hotel room and all that, but you don’t have to pay for the excitement. You don’t have to pay for the music. You don’t have to the glory of getting something for nothing. Just a little trinket makes you feel so good, but what is really nice about it, is watching everybody else have such a wonderful time.

All the first timers?

Oh yeah. We brought one of my workers that has been with me five years to New Orleans, and she went to the Mardi Grai. She was like: “I will never miss this again!” She just loved it that much. Of course, you also got the ones that flash the boobs and all that – so it’s a lot of fun.

You ever get any woman in the restaurant flashing for beads after a few cocktails?

Oh yeah, it happens! (laughs) But, I think the biggest thing about being down there is that you eat, you drink, you have a good time and then you come from Mardi Grai and say: “Let’s go get a snack!” New Orleans is a snack town, you always want to go and try to munch on something wonderful. We say in New Orleans, every time you eat, should be an experience not just a habit. You don’t want to just go and stick a hamburger in your mouth. You want something that’s really wonderful. We have a saying in Southern Louisiana. We say, some people stay alive by eating – but we stay alive just to get to the next meal! (Laughs)

Barbara came with us this time to New Orleans and she said that the one thing that I took away from this – when we went down to see your family and all that, is you-all people eating supper, and you’re talking about the next meal while you’re still eating! You-all just in love with the food!

Speaking of Southern Louisiana, did you always want to be a chef, or did you have other jobs down there while growing up?

Well, I’ve been a commercial fisherman. In Louisiana we have four seasons – just like you-all have four seasons up here, but ours are: oyster, shrimp, crab and fishing.  So, each season, you’re changing over to something else – crabbing season is late summer, shrimping is in the middle of the summer, oystering is in the winter, and fishing is in dead winter – when it really, really gets cold. The red fish and the speckled trout come in. So, you have the four seasons that you can actually make a living on.

Did you have different types of boats for each?

Same boat, but you had to change up the gear for each season. Take the nets off, and put the oyster rakes up. You take the oyster rakes off, and put the crab traps on. You take the crab traps off and you’re filling it up with fishing poles – it’s always something.

Now before that you worked at different restaurants?

I’ve cooked in every rat-hole kitchen in the city of New Orleans! (laughs) But yeah, I worked at Court of Two Sisters’ for a while, and in the back quarters. We did all the major country clubs like the Covington Country Club. I worked at the Slidell Country Club, that’s where you make your most money, cause they are willing to pay the chefs top dollar for what they know. In fact, that’s how I met my wife, she was working as a waitress at the country club and I was a cook. It made a nice happy medium.

Most of the time though, I worked with my mother, she was a registered chef. I learned most of her recipes from her.

Would you say your primary culinary experience would then be from your mom teaching you?

Yes, most of our recipes are from my mother, or from family. Also, being on the bayou when we would shrimp at night, you would throw the anchor, and another boat would tie up to yours. We would put the boats back to back, and you would visit. They would bring some of their food, we would bring some of ours, and it be: “Boy that’s good, how did you make it?” And so you start swapping recipes of what you like.

That’s probably the biggest thing on the bayou. Everybody wants to know everybody’s recipes. So, you have a lot Cajun cooking, you have a lot of Creole cooking, you have a lot of French cooking. What’s unique about Louisiana is this one thing – you got about seven or eight ethnic groups, and everybody wants to try everybody’s seasonings. “I bet you that would be good in my gumbo!” – as they would talk to an Italian, or they would talk to a Spanish person, or they would talk to a German. Like for example, my mother was part German, she made German potato salad, but then we kind of grew into making Cajun potato salad, by adding shrimp and crab into the potato salad. Now you have a Cajun potato salad. So, it’s kinda like you’re sitting there and taking your ethnic food, and re-inventing it.

So, you basically grew up with cooking, and have been putting your own spin on it ever since?

Yeah, you know what does a person good, when they’re going into a culinary field, is that you work with this great chef for a little while, then this great chef for a little while, and then you change over to another great chef. You pick up a bit of each of their creativity, and then you begin to smart smashing their types of meals together, and making your own thumbprint. That’s the difference between a chef, and a cook. A cook mocks somebody, a chef creates. And that’s what’s important, to be in life where you have your signature foods, that ties into you.

People have been really excited about my food. I was really amazed to the fact that people actually like spice and they like it hot. Some people would come in from Louisiana and ask us if we can make it extra hotter, but some don’t, so we cook it generally mild. Then we add the spice if you want it extra spicy. There are two or three items that we don’t change the recipe on though, the gumbo, the jambalaya is spicy. I tell them right up front, that’s the way it’s made; I’m not going to change my recipe.

I’m a creative chef with over 180 items on our menu – and out of the 182, twenty-seven are my creations from scratch, and they’ve been really, really phenomenal with the people. They come in here and experience a different type of food. They keep wanting more and more and more, so we keep creating new stuff. As we grow we eliminate some things and then create new ones. We got a new dish called the Swap Burger…

What’s that consist of?

I never thought that it would work, but you got to try… and my guinea pigs are my people, so my waitresses, my chefs in the back, there my guinea pigs. I’ll get in the back and start creating something, so I took shallots and onions, ground beef and ground pork, blended them together, puts some egg, some breadcrumbs, then I threw in shrimp and crab…

Sounds pretty good so far…

Then I batter it, in an egg wash, batter in some cornflower, and then I deep fry it. And when it comes out, the quick heat of 350 degrees marinates and smashes the crab into the ground beef, and it causes a chemical reaction that causes a wonderful flavor. Then when it comes out we put it on a po’boy, and we put mayonnaise sauce on it.

So, I made of like eight of them and gave them to the employees. They are the ones that puts stuff on and takes stuff off the menu. They thought I should buy a half page ad and put it in the newspaper – the new swamp burger. And of course we are going to marinate that with our swamp fries.

What’s that?

It’s a Louisiana tradition to put brown gravy on top of the fries and put a cheese sauce on top of that.

Wow, that sounds like quite the combo.

The main thing is that I want to tell the entire world is that when you take a taste of food, you should taste the bouquet, the flavor, you should experience something that is wonderful in your mouth – it should be a party! It doesn’t have to be hot, it doesn’t have to be spicy, just good Cajun cooking, I don’t care if it’s my food, or wherever you go in the world, the first bite you should be able to taste the bouquet, the second bite should have a little bit of spice, by the third bite, it should be hot, you should drink a little pop, take a little bit of beer or something, to wash it away, so it’s no longer hot. Then you start over, taste the bouquet again, and keep going…

Looking around here, the d├ęcor’ and memorabilia looks as unique as your food sounds. Where did you get all this stuff?

Me and my wife by ourselves collected everything, and put everything in here. We built our own tables, we got the fountain specially made out of California, all the portraits you see here we took with a little Cannon One-shot camera, and then went to a billboard company and had them put on vinyl.

The shrimp wheel came off my shrimp boat, the crab nets gave us a fit, the lobster trap we got, I got my daddies old hunting traps, muskrat traps, got them handing on the wall. The little shack in the back – that’s a replica of my hunting camp. We have two stuffed otters, two raccoons, two possums, two minks that we picked up at the same time we bought the twelve foot alligator that’s new this year.

I saw that, it’s quite impressive!

I used to alligator hunt when I was younger. My father was a trapper and so was I. I used to alligator hunt out of an airboat. So we went down to the bayou in February and picked this up from some of the guys that are on the show Swamp People. I got autographed pictures of them on the walls. We went and visited Willie and junior, Bruce and his dog Tyler, I used to buy my alligator meat from his father-in-law, he lives right behind his father in law, so that’s how I know him. Then Willie and junior are from Pierre Port area and we know them, so we went down and seen them this past year.

While we were down there, we were kinda looking at Pierre Port area, so we’re pretty sure that’s where going to buy a retirement home. I want to get my airboat again, I love them airboats. When I was younger, the one I had a long time ago was ancient, today they’re modern and have big engines on them. They go fast, but I’m too old to go too fast! (laughs)

Do you have any crazy stories from your time down on the bayou?

We sometimes accidently caught turtles in our throw nets, and I had to give a turtle mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to keep it alive once! Because some turtles are illegal to catch, they’re protected, and if you’re caught, cause normally I would cook them up and eat it, but on this particular occasion it was an endangered species, so I gave it mouth to mouth resuscitation to revive it and put it back in the water. (laughs)

So yeah, we do a lot of stupid things in Louisiana, but we’re – let me tell you about Louisiana people – specially the Cajuns, down south bayou people. We like to make fun of ourselves, and enjoy you laughing with us, but don’t you laugh at us. We are very, very hard workers; we’ll give you the shirt off our back, but don’t take it. And that’s just the way we are. We’ll do anything for you, you’re our friends. We don’t know any strangers.

Well I have to say, you have certainly made me feel like a friend today. Inviting me to your restaurant has made me feel like I was back in Louisiana, and now I’m anxious to get back!

What I’ve tried to do here, because you want to be psychological about things, is that I’m in Yankee Country, and I don’t want to be in Yankee Country mentally. I want to be home. So, the restaurant is really decorated like my home. I want to feel like I’m coming to work, no, I want it to feel like I’m coming to my house. People come here to eat, and I want them to understand that they are not coming into my restaurant; they are coming into my home. Come in to enjoy my food and southern hospitality.

That’s how we feel. Me and my wife really worked hard at this. We are very proud at what we got, and you know at night I walk up on the balcony to do the money after closing, and I look down at the place and I say – damn this was my dream and I’m living it now. 

Thank you Sam for taking the time to speak with me today, and for your hospitality. The food was delicious!