New Orleans restaurant news unfolded in 2015 at what’s become its normal pace, which is to say relentless.
But between all the restaurant openings and closures, the chef changes and expansions, the New Orleans food world also produced some stories that marked departures from the script, and each spoke to something bigger.
These stories showed new perspectives on familiar facets of both the business and pleasure of dining, and in a city often portrayed as being in thrall to tried and true tradition they were examples of the innovation and changes that go into keeping our food culture vital.
All are nascent, and none have yet become sweeping game-changers. But they each show promise for the future. And so, among all the recaps, best-of lists and countdowns that are customary this time of year, they deserve another look too.
Chefs as mentors
As more restaurants keep opening, training more staff and helping promising talent rise through the ranks has become a pressing issue. This year, the Dickie Brennan & Co. restaurant group cooked up its own program to address it that essentially makes the age-old idea of in-house apprenticeships part of career path again, now framed for a busy, modern hospitality company. It started by assembling a team of veteran chefs specifically to serve in training and mentoring roles.
“These guys are elder statesmen, and we’re investing in them to help bring up the younger generation,” said Dickie Brennan.
The chefs in residence, as they’re known, include Rene Bajeux, who is among only a handful of chefs in the U.S. with the title of French Master Chef; Gunter Preuss, who was formally trained in Germany and was chef/owner of Broussard’s Restaurant for nearly 20 years; and Robert Gurvich, who worked with Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten before returning to home to New Orleans this year. They joined Darin Nesbit and Gus Martin, two longtime members of the company’s culinary staff.
They’re guiding cooks and younger chefs at Brennan’s four restaurants through specialized training programs, from butchering to receiving.
“Very often you end up with some very young people leading kitchens, and that’s accelerating as more chefs leave to open their own restaurants,” said Brennan. “Then you come across someone like Rene, like Robert, like Gunter, who tell you they don’t want to run a kitchen, they want to mentor and teach. We think it’s a great opportunity.”
From a food court, a step up
Contemporary food courts are a national trend, collecting many different eateries for a one-stop tour of casual eats. On the surface, the Roux Carré (2000 O.C. Haley Blvd.) seems to follow suit. But this new food court in Central City is also aimed at diversifying the ranks of entrepreneurs now building businesses in New Orleans’ booming food sector.
“You have folks out there with talent and a lot of drive but they don’t have access to capital or don’t have a wealthy uncle to get them started in the business,” said Phyllis Cassidy, founder of Good Work Network, the local nonprofit that developed Roux Carré . “This space is meant to overcome that.”
Good Work Network helps minorities and women develop their own businesses, with the goal of building a more equitable economy. Roux Carré is an extension of that mission banking on the appeal of street food.
The food court is a colorful, open-air cluster of individual stands around a central courtyard. The first class of vendors here are serving flavors from Jamaica and Honduras, from the down home local Creole tradition and in the style of modern, market-fresh, chef-designed dishes, along with fresh fruit sno-balls and juices.
Roux Carré offers vendors’ their own stands at below-market-rate leases, and they get coaching from the nonprofit on business skills. The hope is that they will outgrow the space, opening their stand for the next entrepreneur to get a start.
“In a very concrete way, Roux Carré is an expression of our mission, because we’re actually creating a space here that is its own opportunity,” said Cassidy.
Hauling in the “bountiful catch”
Momentum has been building for years to expand the type of seafood available to New Orleans diners. Getting there requires more chefs willing to serve it, more consumers interested in trying it and fishermen seeing more incentive to bring it to market.
In 2015, the push shifted gears with more tastings, more awareness-building events and more chefs getting involved.
The focal point was often Carmo, the small, casual downtown café that seems to be ahead of the curve on most restaurant trends. It hosted a series of happy hours this year, inviting guest chefs from across the city to serve their own recipes using what is alternately called bycatch, trash fish or underutilized seafood from the Gulf.
Gary Granata, head of the local chapter of the food advocacy group Slow Food, championed a new name for the stuff: “the bountiful catch.”
“The bountiful catch is all the delicious stuff we could be eating but that now gets thrown back,” Granata explained. “The handful (of fish) that you see all the time, that’s the limited catch.”
Advocates for the Gulf say casting a wider net for local seafood types can reduce pressure on the most popular fish stocks, supports local fishermen by monetizing more of their catch and bring different flavors to the table.
These are core issues for Slow Fish, an offshoot of Slow Food that supports local fisheries around the world as they grapple with sustainability, habitat loss and industrialization. You’ll be hearing a lot more about Slow Fish, and “the bountiful catch” in 2015, becayse the group’s biannual fair, normally held in Genoa, Italy, will meet in New Orleans for the first time, planned for March 10-13 (during Lent, naturally).
New on the half shell
New Orleans knows oysters. Specifically, New Orleans knows Gulf oysters as being abundant, usually inexpensive and with a taste as familiar as home. How would the city take to a different type of local oyster?
The answer came this year as off-bottom cultivated oysters made their debut in the marketplace, and it arrived as the sound of diners slurping them up and chefs singing their praises.
Sometimes pitched as premium oysters or specialty oysters, they are often listed on menus and blackboards by their geographic names. They share a full and rich flavor, with greater minerality than familiar Gulf oysters and, most of all, robust saltiness. They’re also usually several times the price.
These off-bottom oysters are grown in floating cages or mesh bags, tumbling around in the current. They thrive in saltier conditions, and farmers can take a more direct role in their cultivation, moving them to different depths as they grow and as water conditions shift.
The idea is to provide optimum growing conditions and create Gulf oysters that aren’t just by-the-sack commodities but that get the same kind of billing as the vaunted Wellfleets of Cape Cod or Beausoleil oysters of New Brunswick.
Though commonplace in other oyster-growing areas, the technique marks a sharp change from the traditional Gulf harvest. But a growing number of New Orleans restaurants now use them, and at some it’s become possible to sample your way across a range of different Gulf oysters on the same platter.
They’re also bringing something beyond new flavors, as chef Brian Landry explained when introducing them at his seafood restaurant Borgne.
“There’s a very delicate balance out there that gets oysters into restaurants. This is going to give family-owned oyster businesses and restaurants an alternative and more flexibility,” he said. “I think we used to take oysters for granted here, but hurricanes, oil spills and coastal erosion have shown that we can’t.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.