“It’s a big family out there,” says chef Pat Gallagher of his longtime experience serving food at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell. “There’s a lot of camaraderie between the vendors, a lot of fellowship.”
This year, festivalgoers can expect to find Gallagher’s booth serving up a trio of perennial hits: pecan catfish meunière, seafood mirliton casserole and fried crab cakes with smoked tomato and jalapeño tartar. The fest continues this weekend, Thursday through Sunday, at the New Orleans Fair Grounds.
The highly lauded Gallagher is best known for his upscale Covington restaurant, Gallagher’s Grill. Though foremost a steakhouse, Gallagher’s remains true to the chef’s Louisiana roots with numerous seafood appetizers; in 2015 Gallagher’s was awarded an Open Table Diner’s Choice Award. Recently, Gallagher has added a second location, Pat Gallagher’s 527 Restaurant and Bar, at the foot of the Causeway in Mandeville.
But even for a seasoned Jazz Fest vendor like Gallagher, it takes “weeks and weeks” to prepare for the onslaught of crowds.
This year, Gallagher stockpiled his booth with 1,600 pounds of catfish, and he and his team expect to make about 8,000 crab cakes.
Gallagher’s relationship with the fest stretches back decades. Twenty years ago, he began cooking demonstrations on the Zatarain’s stage. This year marks his 16th year as a vendor at the fest.
It was several years before he got a chance to go before the festival’s food department tasting judges. As Gallagher explained, since most vendors return year after year, openings for new vendors are rare and the slots highly coveted.
“It’s a very competitive process. The Food Department sets the bar very high,” Gallagher said, “and with good reason. It’s one of the greatest food festivals in the world. Even if the music wasn’t there, people would still come for the food.”
The chef said that unlike most festivals, Jazz Fest offers takeaway dishes that are close to fine dining, and that his approach to cooking, whether for his restaurant or his booth, is focused on “simple preparations and fresh, good ingredients.”
Because of strict food standards, Gallagher said, fest visitors find no duplication of recipes, and there’s an emphasis on ingredients linked to Louisiana’s culinary heritage.
“The food needs to be special to New Orleans and Louisiana,” he said. “This is what the people are coming for.”