An honest discussion with Theaudric Davis about his brush with the law, and the way he “fell into” cooking to impress the ladies and turn his life around. The former actor has discussed the thinking behind some of his signature dishes and creole influences.

New Orleans native and self-taught Creole chef Theaudric Davis may be a former comedian, but when it comes to food that looks as good as it tastes, this is a serious business.

A gift for food innovation and preparation rescued Davis from his wilderness years.

His “Real Clever Cuisine” encapsulates both his vivid imagination and his intent focus on ingredients that are as healthy as possible. For this reason, he prides himself on using green tea and turmeric long before their current upsurge in popularity. In fact, he uses them in combination to create one of his signature flavours.

Another great example of his devotion to making food taste good but also beneficial, is the way he avoids using heavy cream, even in his sauces.

“I don’t use rue in my gumbo. It’s gluten free. I use carrots, cauliflower and broccoli. Those three colours create a brown. Green and orange makes brown.”

This attention to detail seems a million miles away from his early days working in the fast food industry, his time as a car salesman, and of course his spell behind bars, as well as careers in acting and comedy.

Kreol caught up with Chef Davis to explore this multi-faceted path to culinary fame.

Early ingredients of today’s chef

Davis was born in 1976, part of a family with both Haitian and Indian creole roots. Naturally, food was a big part of family life: “I’ve been cooking since I was about five.”

Having four sisters meant Davis was usually relegated to the menial kitchen tasks. “I had to do all the grunt work, like peel potatoes and peel the shrimp, cut the peppers. All the pepper for the holidays. I was pretty much in training the whole time.”

The seeds of his trade were sown and aged 15 he started work at a Wendy’s diner. “I was a grill man. I was probably one of the youngest grill men at the company. I was working on a work permit, though, so I couldn’t work full time.”

As a youngster, Davis also benefited from support and guidance from the “Each One Save One” children’s charity, which his aunt co-founded. Davis appeared to be building a solid future for himself.

“They have a mentor programme, which I was the first kid back in the 80s. When they started the cook off, we created a team that was the administrative team, so I was doing all the barbecuing, but going through Applebee’s (a grill and bar restaurant chain). Learning how to do their ribs and just doing other stuff along the way, I came up with a fool proof, mistake-free way to do barbecue.”

Davis also spent time working in The Landings, an iconic gothic-looking New Orleans restaurant that all-but collapsed into the river. He also gained formative experience in Applebee’s and catering for a Jazz festival.

“I learned a lot about safety, food control and portion control, all that stuff, and how to run a kitchen and how to order. That gave me the real foundation of how to run a restaurant.”

So how did prison fit into all this promise?

Wrong direction

In his early teen years, Davis had ambitions to be a professional comedian. In his own words, after a severe “wake up call” when he was 17, Davis learnt life isn’t always fun.

Part of a group of youths (including a family member who has since been murdered), Davis was caught acting as look-out for train carriage robberies. Fortunately, an official in the system saw his potential, and sent Davis back into the mainstream with a “second chance”.

Davis said: “I turned my life around after that. I just basically started cooking.”

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Cookbook to casting couch

One of his motivators for exploring more of his culinary heritage was a desire to be a hit with the ladies. Davis explained: “As a bachelor, I started cooking for girls. I was trying to be sweet on the girls.”

He added: “The first thing I ever started to cook was collard greens. I was calling my aunt. I don’t know if you remember Dell Shamps on the west bank? We lived on the west bank, so I had to walk to Dell Shamps. It was before cellphones and all that. I was asking everybody along the way, ’Hey, you ever cook greens?’ By the time I got to the store and back, I had five different versions in my head on what to do and how to clean them because they’re really tough to clean.”

Apart from learning such culinary staples as collard greens, two significant things appear to have been pivotal in making Davis the chef he is today; a book and movie sets.

A young Davis discovered a New Orleans Culinary Institute cook book left in his house by his best friend. Davis began to work his way through it, experimenting and learning his craft. “When I was inviting people over, I’m cooking straight out of the book. Like I told you, I’m like a Rainman, so I absorb everything. I pretty much taught myself how to be a chef from his book. I did about four years straight, just experiencing and just perusing the book.”

Davis was married at 25. To pay the bills he sold cars for a while and pursued a career as an actor. If his face looks familiar, you may have spotted him in films such as The Dukes of Hazzard (2005) and Big Momma’s House 2 (2006).

The second defining moment – following the discovery of the cook book – was a decision to provide catering services when his acting career ran into dry spells.

“I catered a couple of movies. I didn’t start out in that. I started in casting and the work was a little bit scarce. I knew I could cook. I’d done Jazz Fest and did a lot of high volume, so I talked my way into doing some stuff with Hannah Brothers, which was one of the premier caterers in the film industry here.”

From this, via a food cart and unit, he grew his Real Clever Cuisine business and his stellar reputation as a chef.

Focusing on his food

Though Davis still classes himself as a producer, film maker and writer, he is now more likely to be in the kitchen than on the movie set.

“I just started leaving the movies alone. I tried out for Masterchef. I got picked for season six and season eight and noticed that it was a talent. So since 2010, I’ve been backing away from film. I do stuff for ESPN and some stuff when it comes to town, Super Bowl, All Star, but I don’t do day to day working behind the camera like I used to or working in the office because it was just taking up all my time.”

This released time enabled Davis to continue to experiment with flavours and create more healthy versions of creole classics.

He tells a story from his early years. “I did a green tea turkey for Thanksgiving. I was doing it without gloves and my hand, with the turmeric, started to heat up, like I had chemicals on my hand.”

From this early willingness to try something new, comes a potential new venture: “I want to do a spice club, so you would get the green tea spice maybe twice a year, but you would get maybe the rub too. I don’t want to be so traditional and get a pumpkin spice because they go crazy for pumpkin spice. Maybe a sweet potato spice or something, and just maybe have four quarters where I give you signature spices, like the dry rub that’s instant barbecue sauce, or the green tea spice.”

As you would expect, Davis is “hands on” developing this new concept, right down to the packaging. It’s clear he is still the man determined to change minds too.

“When I did Masterchef season eight, I did an interview and I told them that I do like astronomy. I guess they thought I was pulling their leg. They told me to do a video showing that I did it. I did a five course meal and I Sous-vide everything. I did Sous-vide baby carrots. I did Sous-vide spinach. I did Sous-vide lamb and a Sous-vide Chilean salmon with green tea.”