New Orleans lost many people from its restaurant community in 2015.
Some died at a ripe old age, closing the book on long, rich legacies in the business; others died far too young, with much more potentially ahead of them.
In the latter category, for instance, were Chris Rudge, founder of the wine shop, eatery and music venue Bacchanal, dead at 40; Jason Baas, proprietor of the Marigny restaurant The Franklin, at 44; Lisa Sins, longtime sales director at Arnaud’s Restaurant and a tourism industry dynamo, at 59; and Josh Laskay, chef de cuisine of NOLA Restaurant, at 38.
For their families and friends, for their colleagues and regular customers, every loss this year was grievous.
Among the toll were some of the most famous names of the city’s food world, and the news of their passing affected many others, too, which speaks to New Orleanians’ special relationship with restaurants and restaurant people.
Asking some of those who knew them well for their remembrances revealed more about the community and the generosity of spirit running through our food culture.
Paul Prudhomme was world famous, and his death at age 75 brought an outpouring of stories.
One from Terry Landry, the producer of his many TV cooking shows with New Orleans public television station WYES, showed how Prudhomme’s unique character both propelled his fame and helped ferment an interest in Louisiana flavors among a huge audience.
“I worked with a lot of celebrity chefs who were known for their food, but chef Paul was this incredible combination of his food, his personality and just his accessibility,” Landry said. “People were drawn to him, and he never shied away from them. They all felt like he was a member of their family, someone who came into their home so often over the years on TV to show them how to cook.”
Among the many accounts of Prudhomme’s achievements, there also was the recognition that we will never know everything the great chef did away from the spotlight.
Frank Brigtsen, who started his career working with Prudhomme, said the chef took extraordinary steps to help his protégé pursue his own dreams. He said Prudhomme loaned him the money to buy his own restaurant, gave his blessing as he hired away some of Prudhomme’s staff, and connected him with an attorney, an accountant and a real estate agent to help him make the leap.
“A few months later, we were open, and it was because of him,” Brigtsen said. “There are countless stories of his generosity to others that will go untold because he didn’t want to take any credit.”
Before Willie Mae’s Scotch House won culinary acclaim, before it drew food TV productions and before its post-Katrina rebuild became a community rallying point, proprietress Willie Mae Seaton herself had achieved a different kind of prominence.
She died this year at age 99, but for decades, she had been both respected as a businesswoman and lauded as an inspiration among regulars at her St. Ann Street restaurant.
“It all flowed from Ms. Willie Mae’s character and personality,” said Kern Reese, the Civil District Court judge who began frequenting Willie Mae’s as a young law school graduate in the 1970s. “She was a very strong-willed lady. She wanted to run her own business, she was devoted to her family and she had a gift in the kitchen for making people happy. That’s what people responded to.”
Wherever Joe Segreto went, it seemed that people followed. They wanted to be around the guy, and when he opened another restaurant, he soon drew a crowd of regulars.
When he died this year at 75, his longtime friend and onetime business partner, Eddie Sapir, the local politico, put the appeal like this:
“People gravitated to Joe. He had a great personality. He was intelligent, he was funny and he paid a great deal of attention to detail. He made sure everyone who came through his door felt important. He made every gentleman feel like a king and every lady feel like a queen.”
Richard J. ‘Dick’ Brennan Sr.
As a patriarch of the highly influential Brennan restaurant family, Dick Brennan Sr. was best known for his part in creating some of the city’s most famous restaurants. With his siblings, he developed the modern Commander’s Palace and Mr. B’s Bistro. He would later help his children Dickie Brennan Jr. and Lauren Brennan Bower and their partners open Palace Cafe and Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse.
But Brennan, who died at his New Orleans home at age 83, had a hand in many other facets of New Orleans life, showing the contributions that a successful restaurateur can make in this food-obsessed city beyond the dining room. He was instrumental, for instance, in creating the Krewe of Bacchus, which ushered in a new era for “superkrewes” as part of Carnival, and he helped form the organization that is today the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“His mark is felt throughout the city of New Orleans, a testament to a life well lived,” said Brigtsen, who worked for Dick Brennan early in his career.
How to explain the zeal that Tony Angello put into the art of hospitality, his decision to rebuild Tony Angello’s Ristorante after Hurricane Katrina, when he was 79, and his continued passion for the work up to his death this fall?
Dale Messina, longtime manager of his Lakeview restaurant, found the words.
“He had a passion for what he did,” Messina said. “The celebrations, the events, the anniversaries, the christenings — he touched the lives of generations of people in a very deep way, and it gave him such pleasure to do it. There’s no doubt that’s what kept him motivated.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.