You hear that ticking sound? That's the countdown to the 2012 StarChefs.com New Orleans Rising Stars—next Thursday, April 19, in the Crescent City. We can't wait to travel back down to New Orleans next week to celebrate our newest class of Rising Stars and eat (too much) in one of our favorite Southern cities. Life in New Orleans revolves around food and drink, and on our last two trips we were particularly intoxicated by the city's mixology and pastry scenes.
New Orleans' drinking culture is renowned the world over among Girls Gone Wild aficionados, serious mixologists, and everyone in between. And what strikes us about the current cocktail culture of New Orleans (other than the persistent partying outside our windows) is the exciting dynamic between old- and new-school mixology. Holding the banner for tradition, Mixologist Chris McMillian, who honed his trade at Arnaud's French 75 and later the Ritz's Library Room, preserves NOLA drinking history by mixing classic cocktails, mentoring new generations of bartenders, and serving on the board of the Museum of the American Cocktail. Napoleon House, a long-time pit stop for Pimm's Cups, continues to serve the refreshing British concoction as it has for the last century. And Mixologist Paul Gustings, who until recently held court at Tujaque's, not only scours historical manuscripts for cocktail ideas but also holds the archaic view that bartenders' primary responsibility is service, a concept we're slowly seeing come back into fashion.
Even the city's most avant-garde mixos understand history's potent power in cocktails. Neal Bodenheimer, Kirk Estopinal, and their team at Cure built one of the best modern cocktail dens in the country, but they also recently opened Bellocq a loving homage to the cobbler cocktail. Mixologist and official Sazerac Bar historian Russ Bergeron makes the original Ramos Gin Fizz and a strangely delicious Bacon Martini that taste equally authentic. Bar Tonique Owner Ed Diaz pours his efforts into crafting house-made tonic water for classic, sublime Gin and Tonics, along with letting his bartenders build one of the most extensive and wide-ranging menus in town. And 2012 Rising Star Community Mixologist Chris Hannah straddles the divide of cocktails past and present at Arnaud's French 75, with drinks like the Ameritinez, an amaro-laden update on the Martinez.
New Orleans is the United State's Southern hub of mixology, and bartending has long been a respected profession here. NOLA's pastry community isn't nearly as established, and it wasn't until our third visit that we discovered much of the city's pastry talent (and rode on an epic five-day sugar high). Save for veterans like Beth Biundo at Lilette, Kristyne Bouley at Dante's Kitchen, and 2012 Rising Star Pastry Chef Kelly Fields at Restaurant August, the sweets scene here is young and fresh—and poised to grow. At a time when a large number of America's savory chefs rule the hot line and pastry kitchen, New Orleans restaurants are investing in actual, honest-to-goodness pastry chefs.
Big comfort flavors dominate pastry in New Orleans—whether it's updated Italian from Lisa White at Domenica or Southern sweets from Bronwen Wyatt and Lisa Gustafson, who head pastry programs at La Petite Grocery and Patois, respectively. White researches historic Italian recipes and translates them for her contemporary NOLA audience; Wyatt and Gustafson unapologetically exploit New Orleanians' lust for bourbon, coffee, and butter. Fields takes nostalgia to its pastry extremes with otherworldly Banana Pudding and Creamsicles. And Keri Dean makes truck-stop-glam desserts, like Chocolate Churros and Snickers bar riffs, at Bayona. But modern pastry and flavor compositions have also wriggled their way onto menus from fine dining restaurants to ice cream shops. We devoured naturalistic combinations from our Rising Star Pastry Chef Rebecca Cohen at Stella!, and artistically rendered, whimsical desserts from Zak Miller, a recent transplant to Coquette from Blue Hill in New York City. And Mia Calamia spoon fed us some of the smoothest, most creative, and decadent gelatos we've ever tasted—she serves beet salad for dessert, and even the staunchly anti-veggite can't help but massacre the bowl.
For a taste of our favorite desserts and cocktails in NOLA, don't forget to purchase your tickets for the Rising Stars Gala on April 19. Sign up before we sell out! And keep your nominations for chefs, pastry chefs, mixologists, and sommeliers coming. We'll soon travel to Hawaii, South Carolina, Montreal, and Japan. For real-time updates on our whereabouts and meals, follow us on Twitter and Facebook.