A Secret Soiree Hidden in Louisiana's Cajun Country
A secluded bed-and-breakfast hosts a can't-be-missed celebration in the swamp.
The turn toward Maison Madeleine Bed & Breakfast doesn't feel quite right. The road, barely wide enough for two cars, winds through fields of towering, emerald green sugarcane before it dead-ends at a scrubby boat landing for a swamp-tour operation. This can't be the way to the place that lures visitors from as far away as France and Brazil deep into Louisiana's Cajun country.
But just a bit farther to the left on the bumpy dirt lane that circles Lake Martin, a hidden oasis of two sun-dappled cottages appears behind the spiky palmetto fronds and Spanish moss-cloaked oaks. A one-eyed marmalade tabby cat named Dude saunters up the steps to find a sunny spot on the porch; an azalea pink roseate spoonbill soars over the courtyard; and the sweet smell of pain perdu (French toast) floats from the kitchen.
When Louisiana native Madeleine Cenac decided to start her namesake inn here, she was recently divorced with three children, and the dreamy French Creole cottage from 1840 that now serves as the main guesthouse looked more like a nightmare to restore. But Cenac saw promise in the property, mere feet from Lake Martin, part of the Atchafalaya Basin where snowy egrets and blue herons perch above the alligators and frogs that skim the water.
From the rustic bousillage walls (made with a mixture of clay and Spanish moss) to the heirloom furnishings gathered from Cenac's past life as a design consultant, she resurrected the house into a destination for discerning tourists visiting nearby Lafayette and Breaux Bridge.
When Walt Adams, a health-care design and construction consultant in Lafayette, heard about Maison Madeleine, he decided to celebrate the launch of his company there. But during the party, he found something else magical about the setting: Madeleine. Egged on by his adult daughters, Adams initiated a few subsequent meetings, but the couple (pictured at right) had their first official date at the Blue Moon Saloon in Lafayette. Their eyes met as the Lost Bayou Ramblers played onstage, and not long after, Adams checked in permanently at the Maison.
Soon, the couple hosted another life-changing visitor at the B&B: Anthony Bourdain. Filming an episode of his television show No Reservations in 2011, the writer-host invited a collective of chefs, musicians, and locals over for a crawfish boil. After an evening of cracking tails and pouring bourbon, there was a consensus that they should do this more often, off camera. "We wanted to establish [this place] as a nexus of Acadian culture," says Adams.
Cenac and Adams renovated another building on the property to house a restaurant-style kitchen complete with a pint-size juke joint in the back for the gatherings that became known as the "Secret Supper" series. Once word got out, chefs such as Isaac Toups came to cook dinners served beneath sprawling oak trees as a rotating cadre of musicians set the scene sonically.
At a recent Secret Supper, chef Manny Augello of Bread & Circus Provisions in Lafayette (who cooked at the very first Secret Supper in 2013) had returned with chef de cuisine Chanel Gaude and chef Jeremy Conner (the co-owner of Cellar Salt Co. and Olympic Grove, a mobile event service).
"The very heart of Cajun cooking is the idea of using ordinary, commonplace, and affordable ingredients to achieve some really extraordinary results," says chef Jeremy Conner. "Summer is awesome here. Crab, muscadines, corn, and okra are all in season."
While the three worked in the kitchen, tossing together crab salad and crushing Zapp's Spicy Cajun Crawtators potato chips to crust fried green tomatoes, the sound of a fiddle coming into tune cut through the humid air outside. Musicians Joel Savoy and Linzay Young (both formerly of the Red Stick Ramblers) strummed their guitars, Cedric Watson squeezed his accordion, and Kelli Jones (of Feufollet) sang in Cajun French.
An outsider might see this gathering, which includes a James Beard Award semifinalist and a Grammy winner performing traditional tunes, as a contrived display to impress out-of-towners, but this kind of overlap between music and food in Acadiana isn't unusual to those who call it home. (Nor is it uncommon to hear Cajun French spoken casually in the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly in town.)
"There's so much talent that it pushes all of us to remain parallel to each other," says Augello. "You've got to put your soul into it here, or it's nothing," echoes Conner.
Through Maison Madeleine, Cenac and Adams found a way to cultivate that community while also introducing visitors to the magic of their little piece of Louisiana. "This place is unlike any other on the planet, and people lose themselves in that," says Adams.
The Menu for the Night
Acadian Kitchen Staples
Steen's 100% Pure Cane Syrup
This yellow-labeled can doesn't look very different than it did when Steen's got its start in 1910, but that's what Louisianans love about it. Made with the state's sugarcane, the subtly tangy syrup is used by locals in everything from pies to cocktails.
Zapp's Potato Chips
Zapp's makes their cult-followed chips outside New Orleans, but they are the entire state's flagship snack. Now distributed across the South, the colorful bags are easy to find in grocery stores and gas stations.
Cellar Salt Co. Sea Salt
This small, Lafayette, Louisiana-based company harvests pyramid-shaped flakes of sea salt straight from the Gulf of Mexico.
Swamp Pop Noble Cane Cola
Flavored with summertime figs, this small-batch soda stands out with a deep, sultry sweetness.
Get In on the Secret
If you'd like to book one of Maison Madeleine's two guest rooms (both accommodate two to three adults) or inquire about dates for future Secret Suppers, call 337/332-4555 or visit maisonmadeleine.com.