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One man makes all of Arnaud’s souffle potatoes

December 16, 2018

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Norris Sam Jr. can control most of his day.

After more than 15 years making soufflé potatoes at Arnaud’s in the French Quarter, he knows how to trim the potatoes by hand into precise blocks. When he stacks the rectangles of spuds on the cutting board, each is exactly the same height and width as if they had been measured by a machine.

He slides each potato across the mandolin, like a casino dealer tossing out cards. Flip, flip, flip. When he started, Sam sometimes cut himself when the potatoes’ moisture made the mandolin slippery. Now he stops each time -- his hand millimeters above the blade.

He keeps the oil in his two, wide, blackened pots at the right temperature without needing a thermometer. One pot hovers around 350 degrees. He can tell if the temperature is right by watching potatoes as they fry. After seven minutes, they begin to brown. A few puff. Then he grabs the handle and gives the pot a few shakes, rocking the oil up to the lip without it ever spilling out.

The second pot is as hot as he can make it, around 450 or 475 degrees. He’ll dip a spider skimmer into the 350-degree oil, lift out a dozen or so potatoes, and then toss them into the hotter oil. After no more than four seconds, he’ll pull them out, quickly sorting out ones that puffed. Those are ready to be plated and sent to Arnaud’s dining room with béarnaise sauce on the side. The others go into the trash.

On a recent day, about half the potatoes weren’t puffing. That was a problem. It was late November, and the holiday season with its parties had begun. Carnival would be coming soon. Those are the months when Arnaud’s, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, gets the most orders for soufflé potatoes, the addictive snack that is like an angelic offspring of a french fry and a potato chip.

It wasn’t Sam’s fault. Burbank Russet potatoes puff the best. But right when Arnaud’s needs the most soufflé potatoes, the Burbank supply dries up and they have to make do with inferior Norkotah potatoes.

“Norkotah is a bad potato day. Burbanks is a good potato day,” Sam said. “If I’ve got some good potatoes, I probably have two that don’t puff.”

Sam, who grew up in Mid-City and still lives there, came to Arnaud’s in 1997. He washed dishes at first, next worked in housekeeping and then finally made his way back to the kitchen. At that time, a man named Norman Henry had been making the soufflé potatoes for 16 years. Sam learned to make them from Henry.

“I used to hang out here by it, and by hanging over here I was looking at it,” he said. “He didn’t tell me much. I pretty much picked it up on my own.”

What was the hardest part of learning to make soufflé potatoes?

“The cutting,” Sam said, “because you can get cut. Dropping them in there and shaking that pot, you can get burnt. I did get cut and burnt for a while.”

In beginning, he also had nightmares about potatoes. But now he doesn’t get cut, he doesn’t get burnt. He sleeps easy.

He starts his day at 7 a.m., making breakfast for the staff. He spends the rest of his hours, usually until 4 p.m., slicing and frying potatoes.

Between the soufflé potatoes that Sam makes and the brabant potatoes the restaurant also serves, Arnaud’s goes through 1,300 pounds of potatoes a week.

If he goes on vacation, Sam first has to slice extra trays of potatoes, which are frozen and then dropped into the hot oil to puff when an order comes in.

When he started, he used to enjoy eating soufflé potatoes, but not anymore.

“I don’t eat potatoes at home,” he said.

“At the end of the day, I don’t want to see a potato.”

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Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com

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