The Silver Lining in New Orleans
Every city has its creative culinary challenges: for Vegas it’s volume; for Miami it’s seasonality; for New York it’s costs and competition. But, not to put it too lightly, New Orleans has a few more challenges than the average U.S. city. The devastation from Katrina, ensuing population loss, and multi-year recovery are the most obvious and greatest challenges. Immediately after the storms and flooding, chefs were faced with damaged properties and an immediate halt to tourism – the very heart of the city’s economy. Three years later, chefs are still burdened with a labor shortage and a recuperating economy.
Despite the havoc wrought by Katrina and Rita, there’s a silver lining to the clouds. The revitalization of The Big Easy has opened the door for more culinary creativity and entrepreneurship. Neighborhood restaurants are re-opened and new ones are opening at a fairly rapid pace. What’s noteworthy is that these businesses are being supported by locals who are more involved in their community than ever before. And these customers are interested in flavors and ingredients beyond the standard fare. A few notable examples include Foie Gras with House-Made Togarishi Crust, Sticky Black Rice, and Blood Orange Pepper Jelly Sauce from Chris DeBarr of The Delachaise; Aaron Burgau of Patois with his Sauteed Sweetbreads with Beluga Lentils and Spinach and Country Ham Reduction; Edgar Caro’s Colombian-inspired Grilled Corn and Potato Sticks with Pink Sauce and Salao at Baru Bistro. Even mainstream tourist destinations like Emeril’s are showing a break from traditional New Orleans cuisine with some of Executive Chef David Slater’s uncommon ingredient combinations, like his Crudo of Maine Day Boat Scallops with Beets, Raw Yukon Gold Potatoes, Toasted Pine Nuts, Guanciale, and Citrus-Horseradish Gastrique.
Restaurants like Cuvee with Bob Iacovone at the helm, Scott Boswell’s Stella!, Susan Spicer's Bayona, and Thomas Wolfe’s Peristyle, continue to bring a sophisticated, internationally-influenced edge to the culinary scene as well. Iacovone payed hoDebarrmage to his Italian heritage with a dish aptly named “The Duck” with Steen's-cured and smoked breast with a confit leg, a walnut-bleu risotto, foie gras, and pear glace. Boswell continues his eternal quest for exotic serving dishes and presentations. He showed off his recently acquired Japanese Konro Hida grill that he will use to keep warm the wagyu beef served along with a selection of housemade vintage kimchee. Spicer impressed us with her range of dishes – from a simple yet luxurious goat cheese toast with mushrooms and a madiera cream sauce to a Southeast Asian-influence scallop dish with black rice, coconut milk sauce, and spicy herb salad. Wolfe mixes foie with fruit – savory and sweet – in his first course dish Foie Gras with Brioche Toast, Blackberries, and Black Pepper-Balsamic Reduction. In fact, our tasting at Peristyle was one of the best we had in the city.
But Cajun and Creole cuisines are still given their rightful dues by traditional landmarks, as well as newer establishments – just with a bit of tweaking and interpretation. The 31-year-old Executive Chef of Galatoire’s, Brian Landry, is reinvigorating the culinary program of this historic restaurant. The menu is certainly still catering to the more traditional culinary mores of the city (and the less adventurous palates of tourists), but it’s just a matter of time before Landry’s youthful energy and more creative special events menu items start to creep into the restaurant menu. We hope to see his Foie Gras on Pain Perdu with Cane Syrup Gastrique, Apricot Chutney, and Red Wine Reduction make the move. John Besh’s Luke, with Jared Tees running the kitchen, makes a rich and creamy shrimp and grits for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Other chefs are sticking to southern roots but in an updated format. Justin Devillier of La Petite Grocery blends continental European dishes with southern ingredients, like smoked pork cheeks ragu with papardelle. Anton Schulte of Bistro Daisy stuffs ravioli with Louisiana crawfish and serves it with a mascarpone sauce and wilted leeks. At MiLa in the Pere Marquette Hotel, co-executive chefs Allison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing serve Hazelnut-Dusted Soft Shell Crab.
It’s not just the local community that is showing support for New Orleans chefs with their buying power – chefs are supporting each other and encouraging the creative vibe. Matt Murphy of Mélange at The Ritz-Carlton (who stayed through the storms and helped rebuild the hotel) features dishes from local restaurants (some are open for business and others have permanently shut their doors) on his menu in an effort to not only showcase what other chefs are doing or have done, but also to get hotel guests to venture out to those restaurants that are open. Chefs are also working together more to build relationships with local producers that didn’t exist before. In fact, when asked chefs about current culinary trends in New Orleans, the majority of chefs cited an effort to use an increasing amount of locally grown and produced items in their menus.
It’s not all roses though. New Orleans and the chefs who stayed, returned, or decided to move there post-Katrina, still feel the ups and downs of the city’s recovery. A labor shortage is an on-going issue for chefs looking to staff their kitchens with skilled cooks. Some chefs are actively recruiting from other cities, like New York. Pastry Chef Kristyne Bouley was initially wooed to New Orleans from New York by chef/restaurateur John Besh. She now makes her simple and perfectly executed desserts (like her Green Tomato Pie with Tomato Sorbet) for Donald Link’s Herbsaint. Other chefs are looking to local culinary schools to fill the voids.
While some are drawn to the city by tantalizing job offers, others are recruited by the city’s relatively low rent and cost of living. Another silver lining to New Orleans’ revitalization: a level playing field for entrepreneurs who are itching to start their own businesses. Chef/owner Tariq Hanna of Sucre left a solid position in Detroit to open his high-end pastry shop in the up-and-coming Uptown neighborhood. Hanna’s beautiful desserts can be packed up to-go or plated and eaten in the café, along with other Hanna inventions like his Malted Strawberry Shortcake Shake. Mixologist Neil Bodenheimer, currently tending bar at The Delachaise, came home to New Orleans from New York to start his own bar Cure, anticipated to open its doors this fall and introduce New Orleaneans to a new breed of cocktail bar. Established chefs like Donald Link of Herbsaint and Cochon are also taking advantage. Link will be opening several new branches to his growing enterprise: plans are underway for a private event space, a butcher/charcuterie, and a bakery.
The week we spent in New Orleans assured us that its revitalization is well underway. Tourists are filling the French Quarter; Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras are drawing in crowds; conventions are returning – this year’s IACP conference (one of the reasons we were there) was held at the Hilton. Most of the tourist destination neighborhoods, like the French Quarter, Garden District, Warehouse District, and Central Business District, are back in full swing or nearly-so with flood and storm damage virtually unnoticeable to untrained tourist eyes. In fact, New Orleans now boasts more restaurants post-Katrina than “pre-K”, and chefs are quick to say that business is good (but usually with the qualifier that it could still be better). A strong sense of camaraderie between chefs and the community at large is helping bring life back into New Orleans culinary scene with such a gusto and drive that can only take it to even greater heights than before the storm clouds.
Check out the photo galleries from our New Orleans tastings, as well as galleries from our recent New York tastings. A New Orleans travel feature (part one) will be coming soon, and more trips to New Orleans are on the horizon. Are you (or do you know) a chef, pastry chef, mixologist or sommelier we should check out? Tell us who and why here.