In a Victorian house turned Cajun-Creole restaurant, stuffed alligators gape at patrons eating morsels of gator sausage in hot mustard or slurping water after a taste of surprisingly spicy Caesar salad.
Tracie Orsi, owner of Ragin' Cajun in Belmar, is in the kitchen preparing Caribbean and Louisiana seafood and chicken dishes as she awaits customers. The blond, blue-eyed Orsi has been tingling taste buds with her fiery Cajun and Creole food for 16 years.
Though she makes both Creole and Cajun dishes, the foods are not one and the same.
Cajun food is "rustic, like back country,'' and was common in French-Canadian communities that immigrated to Louisiana from Nova Scotia, she said.
"They were from Acadia,'' a then British-occupied territory near Nova Scotia, Orsi said. "They would say "I'm Acadian', but it would come out "I'm a Cajun.'‚''
Creole food is southern "city food,'' Orsi said, a fusion of Caribbean and French flavors that originated from the Spanish settlers who owned Louisiana at the time, incoming French settlers, African slaves and their descendents. Creole food is a mixture of these Spanish, African and French influences, she said.
The common Creole dish jambalaya is an example of this fusion, she said. It takes its name from multiple languages.
"Jambon is the French word for ham, and "ya' is African for rice,'' she said.
There is a commonly held belief that Creole food is spicier than Cajun, but Orsi finds the opposite to be true.
"When I went to New Orleans, they'd have all these Cajun restaurants, and they weren't really Cajun at all. When I went out to Lafayette, to the actual bayou, the food was completely different'' and was spicier, she said.
"I spent a lot of time in the Caribbean (tasting Creole dishes) and the food is only spicy if you want it to be, whereas most Cajun dishes tend to have more seasoning.''
In the kitchen of the River Road restaurant, Orsi adds a thick white roux with chicken stock to a shallow pan over a high blue flame, then adds chunks of zucchini, squash, celery, broccoli and chicken.
"In Cajun and Creole cuisine, there's what they call the Holy Trinity, which is celery, onions and green peppers,'' she said. "My Holy Trinity is cayenne pepper, white pepper and black pepper.''
The sounds of sizzling chicken and vegetables fill her kitchen. She adds a generous sprinkling of "Ragin' Cajun'' signature seasoning.
"We make our own because commercial seasonings tend to be too salty,'' she said.
Her mixture uses paprika, thyme, garlic, onion, rosemary, and black, white and cayenne peppers.
"We put this in almost everything we do,'' she said.
In a minute, the dish is cooked. She pours the Chicken Etouffe, meaning "smothered'' in French, over rice.
"When you go to New Orleans, you're not going to find this kind of food. You're going to find it's more touristy,'' she said. ""But out in the bayou, you're going to get the spice, the flavors,'' she said.
Other Cajun and Creole chefs tend to cook down the food, she said. Orsi prefers her vegetables "al dente'' so she cooks each meal over a high heat in a few minutes.
"I can serve up six dinners in 2 minutes 45 seconds,'' she said.
In Ragin' Cajun, she wants to create a comfortable, homey environment through her food and the live musicians who perform there, Orsi said.
"I want to create happy memories,'' she said. "Anybody who's ever been to New Orleans, even if they got thrown in jail, they still have good memories.''
She pauses, then adds, "Especially if they went to jail.''