It's a few minutes before 11 a.m. Thursday -- the opening day of Jazz Fest -- and Wayne Baquet isn't sweating despite the 400-degree oven warming up the crawfish pies inside Zachary's booth at the Fair Grounds. The show is about to begin for Zachary's, but it's not music -- that's about to come from June Gardner & the Fellows inside the nearby Economy Hall Tent.
No, Zachary's show is all about food; the Creole soul food restaurant is in its 16th year at the Fair Grounds, the last decade of which has included what some believe is the best fried chicken in town. Put it this way: Zachary's fried chicken is the only fried chicken served at Jazz Fest, along with its stellar crawfish pie, crawfish bisque and potato salad.
The sheer numbers of such a production are almost as mind-boggling as Jazz Fest itself. By the end of the event, Fest-goers will have filled their stomachs with more than three tons of fried chicken, 10,000 crawfish pies, 3,000 bowls of crawfish bisque and 160 gallons of potato salad.
When they arrived at the Fair Grounds at 8 a.m., Baquet's on-site staff of nine already had learned that two of the fryers wouldn't start -- a common problem he'd foreseen days earlier. Yet, as he conducts a mini-tour of his operation, Baquet appears as calm as when he greets customers at his Oak Street restaurant. When the fryers wouldn't fire up, Baquet didn't worry; he called on a repairman who's out at the Fair Grounds -- and with whom he has a "tight" relationship -- and they were operating before the crowds started forming at the gate.
After more than a decade, Baquet has developed a system that makes this look like a snap. Of his 10,000 crawfish pies, 8,000 are pre-made and placed in cold storage. In order to get ready for each weekend, Baquet has his staff season and ice down about 20 90-lb. cases of chicken and keep them in cold storage two days before the trek out to the Fair Grounds.
"Early on, people would come back and say, 'Wayne, your fried chicken is good here (at Zachary's), but it's even better at Jazz Fest,'" says the 56-year-old Baquet.
"When you put the chicken into the fryer from it being iced down, it provides a shock to the system," says Baquet.
The difference, he says, prevents the chicken from being too greasy. Thursday's trip to the Fair Grounds (and a trip to the restaurant the previous week) bears him out; Zachary's chicken, with its five spices and shock to the system, along with more than a hint of garlic, seems about as low on grease as fried chicken can be. Even the white meat tastes moist, and the crust snaps on every bite.
There's a well-documented debate between Baquet and another New Orleans frying legend, Austin Leslie, the fry chef at Jacques-Imo's Cafe, located a stone's throw from Zachary's. Leslie is a proponent of the traditional process of frying chicken from room temperature.
What is less known is that Baquet's crawfish pies match his fried chicken in sales. "Combined, they account for 80 percent of our Jazz Fest sales," he says. What also gets overlooked is his more traditional approach to crawfish bisque, for which he has his crew stuff and re-stuff the crawfish heads before cooking in his trademark gravy. (He favors Louisiana Hot Sauce over the similarly mild Crystal, he says, "because it's more consistent." Instead of Tabasco, he gets most of the heat in the crawfish from cayenne pepper.)
The unsung hero might just be the potato salad, which is fitting considering that it's prepared up in the Grandstand kitchen by semi-retired chef Deborah Demesme -- who also makes the crawfish pie -- and her daughter, Chantell Thomas. Eight hours each Fest day, the pair shaves, chops and cooks up the potatoes using a recipe that Baquet insists is the epitome of simplicity. "How many breaks do you take?" I ask Demesme, who's been with Baquet for 23 years. She laughs. "Breaks?," she says. "I don't take any breaks!" Baquet shakes his head, smiling.
Baquet has a team of seven people working the front and back of his booth -- two front cashiers, two in the middle taking the orders, two handling the fryers and oven, and brother-in-law Wayne Jourdain serving as a "quarterback," or troubleshooter. This family affair also includes cousin Genet Gibson helping out up front. Meanwhile, executive chef Tina Cockerham, another longtime employee, is keeping things running smoothly back at Zachary's.
At the end of every day, Baquet will have the entire staff over for a mini-picnic ("with NO fried chicken, but some beer"), and go over the day's events to re-tool for the next. "I could gross as much as $60,000," he says about the event. "When the smoke clears, if I clear $10,000, I'm tight.
"Lemme put it to you this way," he says earlier in the week, gearing up for Easter Sunday -- one of his biggest days of the year. "This is like 10 Easter Sundays." .
Restaurant critic Sara Roahen is on vacation. Her column will return next week.