Clearly, a job covering restaurants in New Orleans brings its own particular pleasures. The longer I pursue this work though, the better I understand how these pleasures go beyond the delicious food.
Working this beat means talking with New Orleanians about their ideas and their ambitions, their cravings and obsessions, their discoveries, their memories and their family stories, all through the lens of food.
It means spending time with people who contribute to the character and personality of a living, changing food culture. It means learning from people who makes New Orleans a truly great food city, not just a city with many great restaurants.
In 2015 I was fortunate to make many new acquaintances, and I had the chance to get to know others better. Some are new to town or just beginning their careers; others are New Orleans to the core and have distilled their perpsective over generations.
Each deepened my appreciation for the many subcultures in this city’s famous food scene, for the new ideas and energy invigorating it, for the tenacity required make it on the business side and for the rewards that this calling can bring beyond the bottom line.
Their stories filled my notebooks, and they fueled my columns and features and reviews. Today, they fill my memories of another fulfilling, enlightening year.
This is a column of gratitude, so let’s hear from them directly.
The pace of Commerce
You could see Majoria’s Commerce Restaurant (300 Camp St., 504-561-9239) as a time capsule in the middle of the rapidly-changing CBD, with its well-worn sandwich board, swivel stools at the diner counter and mechanical cash register loudly ringing up every po-boy and red beans plate.
But proprietor Brett Majoria sees the story of his family, and to him the vintage fixtures are fully-functional tributes to his father, the late John “Chance” Majoria, who never replaced anything at his little diner when he could fix it instead.
“That’s history, that’s part of my father’s history and the history of this place,” said Brett Majoria, working that register during a typically busy weekday lunch. “When I see it, I see him standing behind it. I can’t change that.”
The Commerce quietly marked its 50th anniversary this year. Longevity extends to the staff too, and the cooks and counter staff contribute to the character of the place with their easy efficiency and quick familiarity with daily regulars or the tourists wandering in.
“We’re pleasurable people, and this is a pleasurable place,” said Jean Robinson, who’s worked here for 24 years. “We don’t care where you’re from or what you’re doing, we’re here to make sure you get a good meal and people like that.”
Under Ella’s watch
Ella Brennan celebrated her 90th birthday this year, which provided the opportunity to talk at length with this legend of New Orleans dining about her career and her approach to the restaurant business.
She shared some tips (one fundamental: “You have to know your locals. No one should feel like a stranger in their own hometown;” and a more personal one: “The easiest thing in the world is to make a customer. You come up and say, let’s go to the bar. I’m having a Sazerac, what’ll you have?”).
Her exacting standards and high expectations are well known, though during our interview she also shared some of her love for the business and the people it attracts. She talked about her old habit of setting up a bar stool in the kitchen at Commander’s Palace to watch the chefs closely during a dinner rush. It could be seen as micro-management, but Brennan herself compared that perch to having box seats to her favorite show.
“People asked us why we’d sit in the kitchen,” she said. “Well, don’t you think I get an absolute charge from out of watching professionals do what they do at that level? It’s like going to the ballet. I love watching a kitchen like that in action.”
The proof on the plate
Nina Compton came to town this year riding a wave of fame from her star turn in “Top Chef: New Orleans.” But from the start, she and her husband Larry Miller have developed their first restaurant Compère Lapin (535 Tchoupitoulas St., 504-599-2119) with their feet firmly planted on the ground.
“It’s so much work to build this, and being a woman in the kitchen, I learned you have to work 10 times harder, because if you show one weakness or a shred of doubt, you’re dead meat,” she said before Compère Lapin’s debut in the spring. “I know the buzz will only last so long, so it’s about building a culture with your staff, not just saying things but following through.”
The performance of Compère Lapin, easily among the most exciting new restaurants in town, has put the proof on the plate.
“A come back business”
In April the long time restaurateur and host extraordinaire Joe Segreto closed his restaurant Eleven 79. During a long talk about his life in food he expressed hope that he would be back soon with another project.
He died in October at age 75. But the thoughts he shared about his chosen profession during that interview still resonate.
“This is a come back business,” said Segreto. “In other words, once you’re in this business, it’s something you always come back to. You have to. What’s more wonderful than pleasing your guests? What’s better than seeing that people want to come back because of what you provided? It’s like show business. Once you get a taste of that, you’re always coming back.”
“You Can’t Beat…”
The 24-hour Eighth Ward eatery and washateria Melba’s (1525 Elysian Fields Ave., 504-267-7765) is relatively new. But it’s actually the continuation of a local brand that was a household name in pre-Katrina New Orleans, the Wagner’s Meat grocery chain of “You Can’t Beat Wagner’s Meat” fame (or infamy, depending on your sense of humor), as well as the Chicken Box, known for its 1,000-piece fried chicken promotions. Both were created by Jane and Scott Wolfe.
Pursuing their story led to the unlikely tale of how the Wolfes made their place in New Orleans food lore, starting when they married as teenagers and took over a bankrupt grocery called Wagner’s in the poverty-stricken Desire neighborhood to make a go of it on their own.
“It was the only opportunity I could afford and it turned out it was a sleeping giant,” Scott Wolfe said. “We had our backs against the wall. We had to make it work or it was back to minimum wage.”
For their new venture Melba’s, they even tracked down their longtime cook from the Wagner’s days, Lois Thomas, whose gumbo and baked macaroni are again in rotation after her long post-Katrina exodus. A huge photo of Thomas in her apron now adorns the Melba’s façade, and it’s been proving how durable New Orleans food memories can be.
“People say they noticed the pictures, then they’ll make the block and stop in,” said Thomas. “They come in saying, ‘look, she’s back.’”
The fishmonger of Hollygrove
Valdrie Collins used to sell seafood from his pick up. Now he has his own shop, From the Boat to You (3206 S. Carrollton Ave., 504-914-4509), a tiny, somewhat ramshackle spot on a busy stretch of Hollgrove that is bringing back a small piece of the old neighborhood’s food culture.
The shop is filled not just with boiled seafood and fresh shrimp and whole fish, but also with Collins’ own booming personality and zealous pride of place. I spent the better part of a torrentially rainy summer afternoon with Collins, watching him cut redfish for customers who arrived by SUV, by bicycle or by foot.
“I’m just trying to make something real, something that’s from here. We sell what a New Orleans guy goes fishing for when he gets a chance to go fishing,” he said. “Salmon? You won’t even see a picture of it here. It’s good fish, but it’s not our fish, and this is all us here.”
Parenton’s beating heart
At the garage-sized Parenton’s Po-Boys (4304 Ellen St., Jefferson, 504-846-3545), well hidden in Old Jefferson, I met the lady who I now can’t help but think of as “the calendar girl.”
That’s Brenda Castillo, co-owner of this backstreet po-boy shop. Between taking orders for chicken fried steak po-boys (Thursday’s special) and Italian sausage po-boys, she hands out candy to kids, keeps a comment book just for children to leave their feedback in pen or crayon, and each year she works on a new calendar showing photos of her regulars and newcomers on each page.
Food is her second career. She came to Parenton’s after losing many of her loved ones in quick succession. Today, she pours herself into the shop.
“It’s a small place but every inch of it tells a story,” Castillo said. “This place keeps my heart beating.”
Mixing up the melting pot
Last winter, the only sign of something stirring at the strange yellow box of a building in Gert Town that would become Kin (4600 Washington Ave., 504-304-8557) was the light in the windows, shining late into the night. That was from Hieu Than and his family and friends, burning the midnight oil for a restaurant plenty of people thought they had pegged even before it opened.
“Everyone who saw this place and saw us working on it, they’d asked if it’s going to be, you know, insert-Asian-restaurant-concept-here,” said Than. “I’m Vietnamese, that’s my heritage, but that’s not where my culinary outlook ends.”
His outlook stems from that next generation of Vietnamese-New Orleanians, young people who were raised between two food-obsessed cultures and who are now bringing their own ideas to the scene.
At Kin, it adds up to an often-exhilarating rejuvenation of fusion cuisine, melding East and West with modern American foodie bravado, and it’s made this out-of-the-way spot a go-to for adventurous eaters.
Taking it from the streets
Some food entrepreneurs learn the ropes at big restaurant groups, others at culinary school or in business incubators. Demietriek Scott, who goes by Chef Scott, started with New Orleans street food, the realm of ad hoc vendors who follow second line parades, and the flavors associated with local celebrations.
He recently opened his stand Whoo Doo BBQ (2660 St. Philip St., 504-821-0978), and he has retail barbecue sauces on the shelves at Whole Foods Market. He has barbecue trailers to work festivals and sells cakes and pralines at corner stores.
“This is our food, and we’re giving people some different ways to get it,” he said.
It has not been easy. Chef Scott grew up with nothing, made mistakes, paid dearly and has faced more setbacks to his business dreams along the way. But the man has been able to draw on the renewable energy of his own optimism to keep on track, and he’s building something unique.
“I know there’s more opportunity for me, and I always believe you have to take that leap of faith to find out what’s on the other side,” he said. “Sometimes it’s meant more money, or better opportunity, and sometimes it was a mistake. But I’m on a mission and I’m not stopping.”
Homecoming, bourbon on the side
Mani Dawes and Sean Josephs each have their own restaurants in New York (Tia Pol and Mayesville, respectively). Kenton’s (5757 Magazine St., 504-891-1177) is the couple’s shared project, and it’s a homecomig of sorts. The restaurant opened in the same Uptown neighborhood where Dawes grew up.
The restaurant has a modern Southern sensibility on the menu, a seductively handsome design and an encyclopedic range of bourbon. It’s also a demonstration of the magnetic power that New Orleans has over its natives, particularly those in thrall to food.
“It’s thrilling, exciting and a little terrifying all at once,” Dawes said as Kenton’s opened in October. “I always knew we would come home, and this has been a fantasy for a long time, something we always wondered how we would make work. Now, just opening the doors and being able to tell people ‘welcome’ feels really great.”
The big picture
As a chef instructor at the New Orleans School of Cooking, Kevin Belton said he relishes the chance to dismantle common clichés about Creole cooking.
“I like pulling that curtain back and letting people see the process that gets them to that flavor,” said Belton, a former football player who stands about six-foot-nine.
With “New Orleans Cooking with Kevin Belton,” his forthcoming cooking series from WYES-TV, the chef may have a chance to show people something bigger.
The show, which is scheduled to debut in April, is the latest in a long line of cooking shows from the local public television station, dating to the 1970s when Cajun chef Justin Wilson brought his famous “I gar-on-tee” catch phrase to the nation. The same productions have featured Paul Prudhomme and John Besh. Belton is the first black chef to host a WYES cooking show.
A self-taught chef with family roots in both the French Caribbean and Louisiana bayou country, he’s eager to share a fuller perspective on New Orleans flavor.
“All people hear about is Cajun and Creole, Cajun and Creole,” he said. “But when they hear about the influence the Italians had, when they hear about the influence the Germans had, when they see the Vietnamese influence in later years, they see a bigger picture of what we have here.”
For the first time with a production of this sort, WYES opened its studio up to groups of students from local high schools and culinary programs for a behind the scenes look at a cooking show.
“Time has a purpose,” Belton told one group last spring, welling up visibly with emotion. “You have to be always learning and working toward what you want, even if you decided to go outside culinary. It’s always about learning and striving. When you have setbacks, that doesn’t mean you give up. That means it might not be your time yet, so you keep working.”
Contemporary country cuisine
With turtle blood boudin, crab roe pasta and duck chaudin (a stuffed pig stomach), Sac-A-Lait (1051 Annunciation St., 504-324-3658) makes some bold statements about rural Louisiana flavors. Coming from newcomers to New Orleans, this upscale and ambitious restaurant might seem provocative too.
But the perspective at work in this kitchen is personal and original. Samantha Carroll is from Gonzales; her husband and co-chef Cody Carroll is from Batchelor, a dot on the map in Pointe Coupee Parish. They grew up with farming and hunting and fishing as part their Louisiana heritage, and Sac-A-Lait is their modern read on the bounty of the countryside.
“It’s what we love and what we know,” said Cody Carroll. “We try to branch out, but it just never satisfies us the same way. In competitions, when we cook different styles, we get our asses kicked. When we cook our style, Louisiana food, we kick ass.”
“The most gratifying thing”
The brothers Calcie and Kelly Fiorella will soon open the Original Fiorellas’ Cafe in Gentilly, the continuation of a family restaurant they once had in the French Quarter (they hope to open early in January). When I met with Kelly Fiorella, I also got to meet his father, C.J. Fiorella, who operated that first Decatur Street restaurant. While we talked about his sons’ plans, we also talked about the past, and the senior Fiorella helped put things in perspective.
“I served in the Army six years, I was in the grocery business, I was even an auto mechanic, and I tell you, the most gratifying thing I ever did was restaurants,” he said. “You put out good food and see people respond to it, their eyes light up, they lick their fingers. You did that. That’s a good feeling.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.