Jason Huguet never dreamed he’d end up as a prize-winning chef and restaurateur. But the Opelousas native did just that, working his way up from busboy to owner of Steamboat Warehouse Restaurant.
Located in an historic warehouse along the banks of Bayou Courtableau, the building was constructed from 1819 through 1823 in Washington, the third-oldest settlement in Louisiana. After being vacant and overgrown with weeds for years, Jack Womack bought the building in 1977 and renovated it into a restaurant.
In 1994, after graduating from high school, 18-year-old Jason Huguet began working as a busboy at Steamboat Warehouse. Huguet always loved watching his grandparents and parents cook, and enjoyed helping out in the kitchen, but he never thought about becoming a chef himself. “For some reason, I never had a point where I said I really wanted to be a chef one day,” he shares. “It just never crossed my mind.”
But at Steamboat Warehouse, young Huguet’s work ethic caught the attention of Chef Frankie Elder. The chef told Huguet that he would give him a raise, but only if he agreed to start working in the kitchen. Huguet agreed, so Chef Frankie trained him on the line – and gave him that raise. “I did it because I enjoyed the aspects of the Cajun food we were cooking,” Huguet recalls. “Cajun food always did inspire me – just the rich history of the food of this area.”
While Huguet was working for Steamboat, he was also studying business at LSU-Eunice, but he was doing so well at the restaurant that Chef Frankie made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: to send him to culinary school – all expenses paid. “That’s when I realized this is the red carpet just given to me,” he confides.“ It all just fell in my lap, somehow, some way.”
Huguet attended the John Folse Culinary Institute in Thibodaux. During school his goal was to do an internship at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans, led by legendary Chef Paul Prudhomme and Executive Chef Paul Miller. “Growing up I would watch Paul Prudhomme on his cooking shows on LPB every week,” he recalls.
While Huguet was working one Sunday, a man came to see him. It was Marty Cosgrove, Chef Prudhomme’s right hand. As Huguet recalls, Cosgrove said, “‘So I hear you want to come do your internship at Paul’s? You know we have a long list of people on the waiting list, wanting to come do their internship. If you want to go, tell me right now. I’ll make it happen.’” Cosgrove did make it happen, becoming Huguet’s mentor in the process. “I learned more there in two months than over here in six months,” Huguet shares. “It was a great experience. I met a lot of great people, learned a lot of good techniques and
a lot of information on Creole dishes. I never really had to ask or beg for anything. It really just all happened. It’s almost like I was just meant to do this.”
After graduating cum laude with a B.S. in culinary arts in 2000, Huguet returned to Steamboat Warehouse full time. For a short while, he ventured out to work on the Kemah Boardwalk in Galveston Bay, but quickly realized it just wasn’t home. He returned to Aca- diana and became the sous chef, then executive chef, at the former Lafayette’s Restaurant.
After serving as Lafayette’s executive chef for three months, Chef Frankie called Huguet and made him another offer that he couldn’t refuse: to become owner of Steamboat Warehouse. Following a few months of negotiations, Huguet officially purchased the restaurant in 2006, when he was 30 years old. “It was like a gift,” Huguet shares. “I owe Frankie so much gratitude for the opportunities he’s given me from the very beginning. It’s kind of like a fairytale story – like a movie, but it was real.”
As exciting an opportunity as it was, Huguet admits that being a restaurant owner is not easy. “It’s very tough,” he reveals. “Delegation is probably the only thing that makes it doable. Even on your off days, you come in and don’t get home until six or six-thirty. It doesn’t stop. When you leave here, it’s not over. If you don’t love the business, then it’s not for you.”
When Huguet took over, customers were reluctant for him to change the menu. “That is probably the hardest part of my job,” he confides. “No one likes change, especially when it’s to a menu as big as it was. So I would take one or two little things off of it, and
I add my own two. It was real subtle changes, like slowly over time.”
Huguet decided to add new dishes through daily specials, including a soup of the day, appetizers, and two or three entrées that were not on the regular menu. “Those are things that are just new and exciting, and that is where I can take my imagination and creativeness and use the specials to do that,” Huguet explains. “Or [sometimes] I want to do some new items, like things that are trending. So specials are really where I use my creative juices, just to keep it different for those regulars who come here. Your regulars are the ones that keep the lights on, so you’ve got to take care of them.”
Since taking over Steamboat Warehouse, Huguet has won over 30 culinary awards – so many that the restaurant’s trophy wall is jam-packed. Among his most prized trophies are the four he won at the Soirée Royale in his hometown. At the Soirée, Huguet collected four trophies, including Best Soup, Best Seafood entrée and Best in Show.
What made those awards extra-special was that they were presented by Huguet’s former boss, Chef Paul Miller. “It just so happened that he was the guest chef to actually do the ceremony and hand out the awards,” Huguet recalls. “So I got to have him hand me all those awards that night. I got four awards that night because I had a second dish which won first place in the soups. After the fourth time going up there and shaking his hand, we’re taking a picture and he said, ‘Is this rigged or something?’ He made sure to tell me how proud he was, and that was just a blessing. It just so happened that he was there on the night I got a chance to win all those awards. It was awesome, something I’ll never forget.”
Huguet also co-hosts “What’s Cooking” with Piggly Wiggly Manager Joey Quebedeaux. Filmed in Steamboat Warehouse’s bar area, the show features Huguet, along with guests chefs. The show films on Tuesdays and airs on Wednesdays and Thursdays on KDCG television network. If you miss an episode, you can watch it on Steamboat’s website or on Facebook. “We like to have guests. If you’d like to be a guest on the show, you can contact me,” Huguet says. “You don’t have to be a real chef.”
Huguet’s plans for the future have not changed: “Continue to try to put out the best product you can, using the freshest local ingredients you can get, and then striving to give good customer service and come up with new and exciting things."
One of Steamboat Warehouse’s most popular dishes is the Steak Lafitte – an 8-ounce ribeye with Gulf shrimp and blue crab stuffing, topped with Florentine cream sauce and crabmeat. It’s no surprise this delicious dish is a bestseller!
SOFT SHELL SENSATION
Served seasonally (never frozen), the award-winning soft shell crab is one of Steamboat’s most sought-after dishes. Stuffed with crabmeat and shrimp, the soft shell crab is lightly coated in a “secret breading,” then deep fried. Next it’s placed on top of angel hair pasta and drizzled with a light herb cream and Parmesan cheese. No wonder this dish won several foodie awards!
CRÈME DE LA CRÈME
Huguet makes his own crème brulée and flan from scratch. Occasionally, he’ll also make a tres leches (three milk) cake, as well. Be sure to check Steamboat Warehouse’s Facebook page to see the daily specials and available desserts.