There is a wealth of incredible Cajun cuisine in the Lafayette area — that is news to exactly no one. But, on occasion, you’ll find a hidden gem that incorporates all the local culinary delights we’ve come to expect while adding an outside perspective.
This is the magic of Chez Jacqueline in Breaux Bridge, a small eatery on Bridge Street where you’ll find poboys and crawfish étouffée, but also lapin chasseur (rabbit stew) and escargots a la Bourguignonne (a buttery, flavorful snail appetizer).
Jacqueline Salser was raised about 20 miles from Paris in Fourqueux, Saint Germain-en-Laye, where her parents owned a restaurant in a forest. She herself was cooking with them as early as age three.
“They had a very small cafe with four tables, but outside there were 100 tables,” Salser recalls. “So this was my dream: I want to do like my mom and dad. But you cannot do it in Louisiana because of the bugs and everything.”
There are a couple of tables outside of Chez Jacqueline, and the inside dining room is an intimate space, but that is decidedly part of the charm. Salser makes her rounds to all the patrons, chatting them up and sharing little tidbits about her life, which has been a storied one.
When Salser was 18 years old, she began studying at Le Cordon Bleu, a valuable addition to her already extensive knowledge from her restaurateur parents. She moved to Colorado with her first husband, whom she met in Italy. She then found herself bouncing all over the country as food and beverage director for Hilton Hotels.
“I was a little bit everywhere — Key West, Alaska, Georgia, Colorado, Wyoming,” she says. When asked what her favorite part of the country has been, she says, “I cannot say; I love everything. Different cultures, different people every day. It didn’t matter to me where I go.”
She was living in Texas when her then husband suggested she open a Chinese restaurant in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, called The Dragon. She had two cooks who were experienced in making Chinese food, and she herself cooked much of the food. The Dragon opened in 1997, operating for five years on Main Street, and it was a massive hit with customers.
“We were in Tyler, Texas. And [my husband] said, ‘Let’s go to Louisiana.’ And we want to open a Chinese restaurant because at the time it was barely known in Lafayette. It was fabulous. People loved it.” After five years, Salser saw that there was increasing competition with Chinese restaurants on every corner, so she decided to close up shop to follow her original love — French cooking. That’s when she opened Chez Jacqueline in 2002.
There is plenty of Cajun food on Jaqueline’s menu, but she has very strong opinions about certain Cajun cooking practices.
“I love Cajun [cooking], but I learned myself to do Cajun,” she says. “When someone says they know how to cook French, I say, ‘Where are you from?’ and they say, ‘Here,’ I say, ‘You don’t know how to cook French.’”
If you studied French cooking in culinary school, she’ll buy it, but there are certain things she can’t abide by. Frying rabbit and frog’s legs? Not in her restaurant. And then there is the matter of seafood gumbo with an unacceptable roux, or “dishwasher juice” as she calls it. A European French roux is light brown rather than the dark roux you often find in Louisiana. She applies this practice to her seafood gumbo, a favorite menu item that is filled with shrimp, scallops and crab.
Still, there is a whole category devoted to Cajun specialties on the Chez Jacqueline menu (with plenty of fried seafood). Along with the seafood platters and étouffée found at most Cajun restaurants, she also includes the less obligatory alligator sauce piquant and turtle soup. You’ll also find Chinese-inspired dishes like her honey orange tenderloin, a call-back to her Dragon days.
“I love to cook, even at my age,” says Salser, who recently celebrated her 79th birthday. “And I cook with love, not because I have to. A lot of people come to work because they have to. I come because I want to.”
Chez Jacqueline is located at 114 E. Bridge Street in Breaux Bridge.