Chef Joseph Williams scrutinized a bowl of ground beef, sprinkling it with dried parsley, chopped white onions and peppers, a secret red seasoning that turned the mixture light pink. He pressed and juggled the patty between both palms, spinning it like a thick round of pizza dough with a snap of his left wrist. Then he indented it with his thumb and placed it on a smoking grill.
Flames sprang up around the Cajun burger, and it broke a glistening sweat.
Williams is the head chef at the new Amoy’s Cajun Creole & American Restaurant on Orange Street. After opening earlier this year, the 15-table restaurant has fallen into a rhythm, placing a sign outside offering po’ boys and muffaletas as low jazz comes through the inner speakers, and bowls of red rice, jambalaya and macaroni and cheese make their way from the kitchen to the front of the house.
The secret, co-owners Amoy Kong-Brown and Phil Brown said, is to keep it in the family. A big, extended crawfish-boiling family that started almost 30 years ago.
Amoy Kong grew up in Chicago, with grandparents in Bridgeport who she visited every year. Long before she ever knew recipes for red beans and rice or gumbo, they were her entry point into cooking. She watched them fuss around fresh vegetables and meats in their small kitchen, coming up with recipes on the fly.
“My grandfather would cook anything that walked,” Kong-Brown recalled, whisking a stiff cornbread batter until it was a deep yellow and held small peaks. “Everything fresh, which is how it should be.”
She brought that knowledge home to the Midwest with her, perfecting a recipe for stuffed Cornish hens as she moved into her 20s. Despite “a lot of failures” in the kitchen, she began to bake, learning which fruits worked best in cake batter, how to temper eggs and sugar for sweet breads, what changing ratios of brown and white sugar did for her dishes.
But she wasn’t interested in cooking professionally. She kept her culinary experiments to close circles of friends and frequent dinner parties. Stints in Chicago, Portland, and then New Haven led to work in housing services with the City of New Haven. (She is currently an administrative assistant for the city’s Small Business Association). That is, until she met Phil Brown at a now defunct jazz club in Bridgeport, at the beginning of the 1990s.
Brown, a jazz musician who had made his way to New Haven from New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and then New York City, had just finished a set with his band Top Notch Ensemble. Kong-Brown’s older sister introduced them. One date later, “we decided to be soul mates, if you will,” Brown said.
Still southern at their roots, Brown’s six siblings welcomed Kong-Brown into the family with Louisiana recipes rolled into every hug, handshake, and conversation. Red beans and rice. Crawfish boils. Moist, sweet cornbread with hot butter on top. Kong-Brown was hit with a desire to do more in the kitchen, and started a baked-goods catering business six years ago.
But the company, on top of her day job, was exhausting: she found herself serving some 70 clients out of her home kitchen and taking odd days off work to finish orders. When the space at 40 Orange St. opened up, she went for it. She still hasn’t quit her day job: she works for the city through 5 p.m., and then is at the restaurant until 10 p.m. each night.
“I always think back to the Greek days, where people could sit back and relax and talk,” she said in the kitchen, donning a white apron to help Williams with an order for salad and cornbread that had just come in. “That’s what we’re trying to do here. It’s a family thing.”
For Kong-Brown, “family” is a broad term, encompassing anyone wiling to brave its blazing kitchen, meat-scented char marks and speedy chatter. That includes Williams, a 35-year-old ConnCAT student who stunned the restaurant with a plate of “smothered chicken” — browned chicken, thick chicken gravy, and a mix of soft, slow-cooked veggies — during his interview, and then joined Kong-Brown to plan the menu and work in the restaurant full time. “Joe’s Smothered Chicken” was one of the first dishes to permanently make it on the menu, and that was just the beginning.
In the steamy kitchen, Williams bounces between simmering, red-orange pots of gumbo, sweating Cajun burgers, marinated ribs and scoops of red beans. He works at the stove, adding coffee, brown sugar and balsamic vinegar to bacon fat until “it just looks right.” Between orders, he reads cookbooks, propping one open beside the stove at all times (the latest is Gordon Ramsay’s World Kitchen).
Williams also chats with Kong-Brown about her oozy, steaming macaroni and cheese that leaves an orange stain at the bottom of the bowl, then pivots to discussing his favorite teams — the LA Lakers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and New York Yankees — all while tending to an order of fried chicken. He’s working on loving the New Orleans Saints, he said, but it’s an uphill battle — they’re not very good, and they haven’t been for a while. The Cajun burger does more to tie him to his roots then they do.
Raised in Lafayette, Louisiana for the first 12 years of his life, Williams comes from a self-professed “long line of cooks.” He grew up with crawfish boils each Sunday, learning to soak the crustaceans in a mixture of hot sauce, garlic, cayenne, and salt for hours before mixing them with corn, onions, peppers and more hot sauce. At an early age, he learned the differences between gumbo and jambalaya (one is more soupy; the other is like a hot, Creole porridge) and the right amount of ham hock to throw in with collard greens.
He moved to New Haven with his mom at the age of 13 and held a number of odd jobs until landing at Eli’s in Branford on a ConnCAT externship. When he heard Kong-Brown was hiring, he arrived at Amoy’s ready to beta test in the kitchen, and switch out recipes when something new rolled in.
That’s how the Cajun burger was conceived. On a trip back to Lafayette for a funeral, he ate a dripping, spicy burger that he remembered for the entire drive home. When he told Kong-Brown about it, she had one command: perfect it, then put it on the menu.
He devised the mixture: ground beef that was 80 percent meat and 20 percent fat, studded with minced onion and garlic, green bell peppers, and topped with cheddar, fresh onion, lettuce, tomato, and a homemade bacon jam. Once Kong-Brown gave it her stamp of approval, he began serving it with hand-cut potato wedges, doused in salt and Cajun seasoning, on the side.
“Everything we do, we do as a team,” he said. “I just stay here, and stay cooking. Besides my son, that’s what makes me the happiest.”
Back in the restaurant, Amtrak conductor Brian Sizer was settling in with his burger, trying to figure out the best plan of attack before hopping on the Northeast Regional to Springfield. He eyed the silverware beside his plate, the fries and pickle on the side. Then he lifted the whole thing to his mouth.
“That’s one of the best burgers I’ve ever had,” he declared. “I’ve got to come back, and check more off the menu.”