While the Gulf of Mexico region - where Carnival season is in full sway - may seem geographically far away from New Jersey, Cajun staples such as the muffaletta sandwich are not so different from South Jersey fare, says Robert Schoell, executive chef at Showboat Casino Hotel, Atlantic City's Mardi Gras resort.
"Louisiana flavors were heavily influenced by the Italian immigrants who migrated down there," he says, pointing out the people who settled the region - including Spaniards, Portuguese and Acadians from Nova Scotia, Canada - were as diverse as those who chose to put down roots in South Jersey.
The muffaletta, for example, strongly resembles a giant, round Italian sub, with capicola, sopresatta, prosciutto di Parma, salami, aged provolone Auricchio and Parmesan cheeses.
But what really makes this whopping sandwich unique is the olive tepenade, which also features familiar ingredients: pickled cauliflower, carrots, pearl onions and Kalamata olives seasoned with olive oil, oregano, cracked pepper and fresh basil. When he makes it at the French Quarter Buffet at Showboat, Schoell even uses Sicilian bread from Aversa's Bakery in Margate.
Schoell says after he graduated from The Restaurant School in Philadelphia and spent time working in a Center City pizza shop and the now-closed Pelican Club Restaurant in Cape May, he easily adapted to the Cajun flavors of the Showboat's Louisiana-inspired cuisine. For example, the "holy trinity" - an aromatic blend used in dishes such as jambalaya and gumbo - is "some version of onions, celery and bell peppers."
"The French variation of the 'holy trinity,' is onions, carrots and celery, where the Cajun holy trinity is onions, bell peppers and celery," he says, pointing out other subtle differences between Creole and Cajun cooking.
"Cajun food is more rustic, low-country style food from the Acadians. It's a lot more spicy and casual, with sausage, and that's where you'll find the crawfish and shrimp," he says. "Creole food is much more refined, with heavy French influences. It has a lot more tomatoes and less fire."
Of course, not all the restaurants at Showboat serve Cajun food. As executive chef, Schoell has a finger in the mixed cuisine at Crossroads in House of Blues, Scarduzio's steak and sushi concept, Casa di Napoli's Italian fare and Foundation Room's bar menu.
But the French Quarter Buffet is where you'll find his blackened catfish, Gulf seafood boil, and on Fat Tuesday (Feb. 12), shrimp po'boys, shrimp etouffe, ratatouille, a whole roast pig and a muffaletta sandwich you can actually fit in your mouth.
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Hours: Noon to 9 p.m. Saturdays through Wednesdays, 4 to 9 p.m Fridays