A Genuine Taste of New Orleans, Right Here in BrooklynHow a painter-turned-chef launched Cafe Booqoo, an authentic creole destination in Carroll Gardens
When you enter Cafe Booqoo, at the corner of Smith and 9th streets in Brooklyn, a welcoming neon sign reading YES INDEED! flashes on your left side. “It’s just a term of agreement. If you’re really into something you go, Yes indeed!” explains Matt Pace, a New Orleans native and Booqoo’s chef and owner. “My mom says it, her sister says it the whole time, they got me saying it. You walk in and you wonder, Is it real, is it gonna be good? Yes indeed!”
The name Booqoo itself echoes that motto, being a New Orleans slang term deriving from the French beaucoup, meaning “very much so.” But does the restaurant itself deliver on these promises of a genuine taste of New Orleans all the way up here in Brooklyn? Well, yes indeed.
Pace knows his way around creole cuisine: gumbo, jambalaya, shrimp-and-grits, po’ boy sandwiches–and of course there must be beignets. Along with deeply flavorful ingredients including pralined bacon and creole vanilla sauce, each menu item contains, in its name, a tidbit of creole lore. The Calliope Salad refers to the pipe organs found on steamboats, while the Versai sandwich (Booqoo’s riff on the bánh mì) pays tribute to the eponymous neighborhood in New Orleans, the home of the city’s Vietnamese community. A handy cheat sheet (actually a chalkboard) hanging next to the menu explains the terms in more detail.
Authentic creole restaurants are rare enough in New York City that Booqoo’s recent arrival, in a corner of Carroll Gardens tucked right under the city’s highest subway viaduct, even drew the attention of the New York Times. The writer swooned over the sweets: “a pecan pie muffin, which tastes like a psychological trick, as dense and lush inside as pecan pie–too rich to take more than one bite, yet you do.”
While Pace has clearly hit his groove, the path to Booqoo was anything but linear. He came to New York with a degree in fine arts, aiming for a career as a painter. His romanticized ideal of New York as a haven for artistic souls, however, was short-lived. Working really hard wasn’t enough, he realized, growing frustrated with “having to kiss a lot of ass and praying that somebody who has already made it will give you a shot.”
Pace decided he could express himself through food instead, and took a restaurant-management class at the International Culinary Center in Soho. When he presented his business plan, one of his advisors suggested he start small to get his name and brand out there before investing a lot of capital in a full-fledged restaurant.
Beignets were the answer. Who can resist? In 2014, he started parading his fledgling business, Booqoo Beignets, in several pop-up food festivals in New York and Washington, D.C. Having sampled beignets from the gamut of New Orleans establishments, he knew the sweet spot he wanted to hit. “I was looking for soft and airy on the inside, a little buttery, not too sweet,” he says. “My main goal was to have the dough taste good before you put any sugar on it.” It took six months, with a daily consumption of beignets, to perfect the recipe.
The response from customers was heartening, but the business of pop-up markets was unreliable, he found. Markets tended to advertise only for their opening weekend, which made the following installments rather slow. “I wanna make it from my own hard work, not from markets,” he recalls thinking. “I would rather do my own homework. If it succeeds or it fails, it’s all on my shoulders.”
For his brick-and-mortar location, he liked the Carroll Gardens-Gowanus area, which has its own flavor and attractions but without the hipster overdrive of, say, Williamsburg. He didn’t love the layout of the Smith and 9th location at first sight, but when the advertised rent was reduced, he signed the lease. Proximity to the subway as well as other restaurants like the two-star Ugly Baby will help draw customers from other neighborhoods, Pace feels, not to mention his own growing reputation. “To some extent, if I get the word out and the food is good, that makes it a destination spot,” he says. “There are places that are out in the middle of nowhere, and people travel just to go to that one place.”
What helps is his lack of sanctimoniousness when it comes to traditional cuisine. Pace is keen on customer feedback. For example, he swapped his rice-and-beans dish–a family recipe–for gumbo because customers kept asking for it. He made his crayfish mac-n-cheese more cheesy despite having a preference for a drier version.
Among other adjustments, he decided to import the bread for his sandwiches from Leidenheimer Baking Co. in New Orleans. “Once I tried to make it myself. It just did not turn out as good,” Pace said. He added salads too. “A lot of people asked for them. They wanted something less fattening.”
There are still things that present a learning curve, from managing staff in an industry where people work multiple jobs to teaching his employees how to master recipes that come naturally to him. In making jambalaya himself, he would add spices “to taste,” but realized that he had to give employees more specific measurements. “Every time somebody else would do it, it would come out a little too spicy, or a little too bland,” he said.
Managing inventory is another restaurant skill to be learned. “Finding the balance of having enough and staying in a budget is hard, especially when one weekend you’re gonna be slammed, and then the week is gonna be slow. Should I amp up what I have, and have waste, or be sold out?” he explained. For now, Pace would rather keep his supplies tight and have some scarcity, which he calls it “the cronut effect.”
In the case of Booqoo, it’s not the beignets that sell out, it’s the catfish po’ boy, the Versai. “Provided you have all the ingredients, 9/10 it’s what people order.”