Sunny Gerhart shares a feast with Louisiana roots in celebration of Fat Tuesday.
by Addie Ladner | photography by Eamon Queeney
This time of year in New Orleans, parades fill the streets with larger-than-life floats, while hordes of people vie for showers of tiny plastic beads, doubloons, and Moon Pies. It’s another world. It’s Mardi Gras. For Raleigh chef Sunny Gerhart of St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar, it’s also part of his tradition — but not exactly as the tourists encounter it.
“My memories for that are more family-oriented,” says Sunny. He loved watching Rex — a grand parade known for its elaborate floats — with his mom on St. Charles Street, where they’d get “the good seats” thanks to an aunt who worked nearby. One of his mom’s most treasured pictures is of a young Sunny proudly wearing a pair of underwear he caught at a parade… on his head. “Everyone knows the folks on floats are throwing beads, but they throw other stuff, too, including underwear,” laughs Shawn Gerhart, Sunny’s mother.
Though Mardi Gras translates to “Fat Tuesday,” it’s actually a nearly two-month celebration that kicks off on Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6, and runs until the night before Ash Wednesday. With roots in Catholicism and particularly practiced along the Gulf Coast, it’s a time to celebrate and indulge before fasting for Lent.
In some ways, Sunny brings the experience of Mardis Gras in New Orleans to his S. Wilmington Street bistro all year long. Here, the walls are papered in a muted blue toile, designed by local artist Luke Buchanan. It features the wrought-iron gates of the historic St. Roch Cemetery, which is across the street from where Sunny’s late father grew up, along with voices of New Orleans like jazz legend Louis Armstrong, soul singer Irma Thomas, and rapper Big Freedia, plus oysters, river boats, a boom box, and a cocker spaniel. “These things are home for me,” Sunny says. “Some things make sense to others, some things don’t.”
He opened St. Roch in May 2017 after working under Ashley Christensen for years; before that he finished L’Academie de Cuisine culinary school in Maryland. “You know, as a kid he was interested in reading and playing sports — he never cooked for me!” laughs Shawn. “But that type of food — the beans, the crawfish, the gumbo — it was always around, he absorbed and does it well. I’m so proud.” The restaurant’s menu conjures Louisiana cooking, but that fare has roots in France, Spain, Vietnam, and South Africa. Sunny tries to keep those influences in mind as he plans his recipes. “I look at it from a broader scope. I’m not interested in just cooking étouffée and jambalaya,” he says. “There’s a lot of history in this food, and maybe it can inspire a conversation.”
As Fat Tuesday approaches each year, Sunny adds two of Louisiana’s delicacies to the menu: crawfish and King Cake. Crawfish, the edible jewels of late winter and early spring, coincide conveniently with carnival season. “You can only have those things for a short time, so they taste extra precious,” he says. These dark-red, hard-shelled crustaceans are smaller than shrimp, but pack a punch of flavor, each crevice absorbing the spices from the cooking liquid. Neither silverware nor plates are needed when eating these — but the smell of Zatarain’s seasoning will linger on your fingers for days after enjoying them. (You may be prompted to suck the head to get the tasty liquor out, before pinching the tail directly into your mouth.)
Similarly, King Cake — an elaborate, pillowy-soft yeast roll traditionally braided and shaped into a crown — is meant to be consumed only during Mardi Gras. It’s filled with brown sugar, cinnamon, butter, sometimes cream cheese or jam, and a tiny plastic baby. By tradition, the lucky eater who gets the baby is the unofficial king or queen for the day; they’re also responsible for bringing next year’s King Cake.
Alongside his Mardi Gras specialties, Sunny plates Louisiana staples like gumbo with buttery popcorn rice and trout roe. This iconic dish was challenging to replicate for a restaurant setting, particularly because the dish’s foundation, the roux, requires time and precision. “We get a lot of people from New Orleans who’ll say, This isn’t my mama’s gumbo — but it’s damn good,” says Sarah Edens, a St. Roch employee (and also Sunny’s girlfriend). “It’s not what they were expecting, but the familiar is there.” Sunny serves the gumbo with a scoop of potato salad, a classic New Orleans food pairing. “The temperature combination of the hot gumbo with the cold potato salad is pretty amazing,” Sunny says.
Though Mardi Gras may be about abundance, that’s not been Sunny’s experience the last few years. At the height of the pandemic, he found himself making and packing take-out orders alone. “I didn’t know what to do. I had to lay off my entire staff, I had no money,” says Sunny. “But I wanted to do something.” He got connected with the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle and started cooking large family-style meals for those who needed them: chicken and vegetables, pasta, red beans and rice. “Sunny was my go-to, I could call him on a Sunday and say, I need 500 meals on Tuesday, and he’d do it,” says Kara Guido, food sourcing manager at the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. “At one point, he was feeding 9,000 people a week. And the kids loved his meals.” For Sunny, it was both eye-opening and fulfilling. “For example, I made these frozen casseroles, but then I learned that some of the people getting them didn’t even have electricity,” he says. “It gave me a new perspective on food insecurity.”
So it’s with gratitude that Sunny will dish up this year’s Mardi Gras celebrations for St. Roch guests, including his petite King Cakes, crawfish, and more. And in the spirit of sharing, you can recreate some classic Louisiana dishes at home with the recipes Sunny’s shared here.
This article originally appeared in the February, 2022 issue of Walter Magazine.