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   Duck Steeped in
   New Orleans Traditions
   By Pableaux Johnson

  Greg Sonnier picked his way through the cramped restaurant kitchen and gingerly flipped the hot oven door toward the floor. "Wanna see 'em?" he asked, then grabbed a kitchen towel from his belt loop.

  Smiling, Mr. Sonnier, the owner and chef of Gabrielle restaurant in New Orleans, reached in and pulled out a deep aluminum roasting pan. Six picture-perfect oversize ducks with taut mahogany skin sloshed in a pool of pan drippings.

  "They've already been in for four hours," he said, "so a lot of the fat's already dripped off." Grabbing another towel, he tipped the pan over a huge white Tupperware bucket. An earthy blast of onion, rosemary and roasting meat filled the tiny room as liquefied fat streamed from the pan.

  With a stainless steel cooking spoon, Mr. Sonnier, 42, scraped at the brittle layer of solidified duck juices, dislodging a few shards. From oversize bottles of sherry, soy sauce and orange juice, he poured in portions by the glug, ran his spoon along the bottom one more time and slammed the oven shut. In another hour or so, the birds would be done.

  The meat is so tender it falls to moist shreds at the touch of a fork. Mr. Sonnier places a half-bird portion on a bed of French fries and sauces it with pan gravy studded with butter-browned cremini mushrooms and roasted red pepper strips. Duck lovers swoon over the chef's crowning garnish — a wafer of skin flash-fried like a Cajun pork crackling. Since Mr. Sonnier and his wife, Mary, opened Gabrielle in 1992 in the Mid-City neighborhood (home of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival) the duck has had such a fierce following he could not take if off the menu if he tried.

  The dish reflects the dual nature of New Orleans cookery; it is inspired by haute cuisine and the city's legendary street food tradition. It also highlights personal influences from Mr. Sonnier's 20-year career as a chef. It has its roots at Paul Prudhomme's famed restaurant, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, where Mr. Sonnier got his start.

  "K-Paul's used to have a staff dish called Duck Pasta K," he said. "It was named after Paul's wife, K Prudhomme, and it was my favorite. They took leftover duck from the night before and tossed it with pasta and demi-glace. It wasn't served at the restaurant, and I thought that was a shame. So I modeled this dish after that."

  On yet another level, the dish pays homage to New Orleans's trademark sandwich: the overstuffed po' boy. "I was reading that the original po' boy was just fried potatoes and brown gravy on French bread. The duck gravy is really similar to roast beef gravy, so I started serving it on shoestring fries."

  "Sometimes my tourist customers don't like the dish because the potatoes get soggy. But that's part of the dish — the texture changes from crispy to soft as the fries absorb that good gravy."

  Mr. Sonnier's choice of a citrus accent nods toward the French classics, like duck à l'orange. "I've tried touching it up with different fruit sauces — blood oranges were too bitter, raspberries were O.K.," he shook his head, "But I always went back to orange juice. Duck and orange seem to go together more than anything."

  Mr. Sonnier's roasting technique is time consuming — a 10-minute blast followed by 4 1/2 less intense hours to roast and braise the birds. As the ducks cool, Mr. Sonnier builds his gravy with a reduction of the braising liquid and sautéed vegetables. "It's a double duck glaze," he said. "At the end, I like to add a little butter to marry all the flavors."

  In the restaurant, Mr. Sonnier switches things around occasionally, replacing the fries with angel-hair pasta and returning the dish to its staff meal roots. Home cooks can serve it with crispy hash browns.

  "I've done the potatoes in a skillet before, but you could even serve it on unsalted potato chips," he said. "Just buy a bag instead of doing all that frying."

  • Recipe: Slow Roasted Duck With Orange-Sherry Sauce
  • Recipe: Hash Browns

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