New Orleans banks on its reputation as a food city the way other places rely on their beaches or mountains. 

But what gives that reputation any legs, what keeps the food scene vital, what makes it fascinating and worthwhile for us as New Orleanians and not just a pitch for tourist dollars, comes down to people.

It’s the New Orleans people who safeguard our food heritage and also step up for its future. It’s the people who bring fresh energy from their own traditions, whether transplanted or gradually evolved. It's those who innovate to meet changing needs and grasp new opportunities.

Most of all, it’s the people who pour their personality and character into the story of New Orleans food.

We’re lucky we get to experience the results. Personally, I feel extremely fortunate that I get to write about it.

Today’s column goes out to those who in 2018 helped me better understand why food is so important in New Orleans, who shared their stories with me and allowed me to share them with you.

This is a story of gratitude for what New Orleans food people give you that goes beyond the plate. Let’s hear from some of them.

Barrow’s Catfish, brought back by love

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Barrow's Catfish is run by two generations, including Destyn Johnson (far left) and Kenneth Johnson III (far right) and their parents Kenneth Johnson Jr. and Deirdre Barrow Johnson.

Before Hurricane Katrina shut it down, the name Barrow’s Shady Inn meant one thing: fried catfish.

To Deirdre Barrow Johnson, though, the old Hollygrove restaurant meant much more. It was part of her family heritage, one that reached back for generations. In 2018, she and her own family brought it back.

Their new Barrow’s Catfish opened this summer a few blocks away from the one Deirdre’s grandfather founded in 1943, and which became one of the city’s longest-running black-owned restaurants.

“It comes from knowing you’re part of a family, a family of black business owners who came out of that era,” Barrow Johnson. “We need to bring it back. It’s in my bloodline, it’s who I am, it’s what I know.”

“We want people to feel welcome, we want people to know this is not just about us, it’s about them,” she said. “Their love brought us back.”

Since opening, Barrow’s Catfish has been feeling the love flow back.

A century and counting 

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Jane Casbarian, center, and her children, Katy Casbarian and Archie Casbarian Jr., at Arnaud's Restaurant in the French Quarter. Their restaurant is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Arnaud’s Restaurant celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2018, an impressive run for any business, never mind a restaurant.

Its story, however, is one of different chapters, from grandeur to decline and near collapse, then on to revival and modern evolution today. On its centennial, the Casbarian family, owners since 1978, looked back on how those different chapters inform their stewardship.

“In a way it doesn’t matter that this place is 100 years old, what matters is the good times that happened here, and the hard times it’s endured,” said Archie Casbarian Jr., who runs Arnaud’s with his sister Katy and their mother Jane. “It’s the memories that go along with a restaurant through it all. When you experience that you can’t help but feel a connection with a place.”

Anchored to the French Creole flavors New Orleans itself created, massive but still family run, the restaurant today also feels in sync with the modern interest in roots and heritage cuisine.

“How do you make people feel that sense of ownership to a restaurant, that it’s something they’re part of?” said Katy Casbarian. “One thing we learned is you never take anyone who walks through your door for granted, and you look for these ways to connect with them.”

Fusion with heart

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Minh Bui and Cynthia Vu Tran run Café Minh in New Orleans, serving a blend of Creole and Vietnamese cuisines.

Amid fusion trends and debates over cultural appropriation in food, the low-key Mid-City restaurant Café Minh has been quietly showing what a blend of culinary experiences can mean when done with heart and smarts.

For many years, chefs Minh Bui and Cynthia Vu Tran have threaded a path between their native Vietnam and their adopted New Orleans home.

It starts by absorbing what makes a place distinctive and what matters to their clientele, and adding their own lens. The result: a restaurant that is unique and still feels like it could not have come about anywhere else but New Orleans.

“It’s our region and our tastes, it’s what we inherit from our families,” said Bui about he and his wife’s shared approach. “But it’s also about what I learned here. I learned how Louisiana people like their food, and what a restaurant should feel like. That is what we try to give people here.”

Family, community in two Bywater kitchens

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Kirk Frady (left) and Theresa Chatterton work behind the counter at Frady's One Stop while Chatterton's son Jay Monfort (third from left) and customer Dave Clement stop by. In the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans on Thursday, October 4, 2018.

In the Bywater, a neighborhood changing as much and as fast as any in New Orleans, a connection between family and community persists through a pair of otherwise unrelated kitchens.

Theresa Chatteron is the longtime cook at Frady’s One Stop, a corner store known for plate lunches and po-boys. Her son Jay Monfort has for the past year run the kitchen at Markey’s Bar two blocks away, giving bar food a timely upgrade.

They share a clientele – some neighbors say Monfort feeds them “drunk food” at night while Chatteron cures the ensuing hangovers at breakfast. The mother and son shared with me how it all plays out, and some feelings that go right to the heart of the New Orleans food obsession.

“I’m a pretty introverted person; I’m not looking for a lot of attention for what I do,” Monfort said. “But here, I can cook and I’m part of a community. I like serving that role. I feel like people know me and appreciate what I do here.”

“I’ve had other jobs that people would consider more important than this, but I’ve never felt so loved in my life,” Chatterton said. “People love you when you cook for them.”

Bread in good hands

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John Gendusa Bakery proprietor Jason Gendusa on September 19, 2018. Jason Gendusa is the fourth generation Gendusa to run the bakery, which first opened in 1922.

The closing of Alois J. Binder Bakery brought New Orleans the sobering realization that production of the classic po-boy loaf was left in the hands of just a few traditional bakeries.

One of them is John Gendusa Bakery, which dates to 1922. Jason Gendusa, fourth-generation owner, showed me what it takes to make this only-in-New Orleans bread, including some intangibles.

“If I took a year, I still don’t think I could teach someone, even a younger version of me, everything you need to know to run this place,” said Gendusa said. “So much of it you learn along the way.”

He learned from his father, John Gendusa, grandson of the bakery's founder, who is technically retired but remains a constant presence around the ovens and racks.

"When baking is in your blood, you can’t help it,” John Gendusa said.

Po-boys are not the same on any other type of bread. The prospects of new bakeries jumping into the old-school po-boy bread market seem slim.

Fortunately for New Orleans, the family bonds that run through the remaining producers is strong. That goes for the Leidenheimer Baking Co. across town in Central City as well.

“These aren’t businesses that can continue unless there’s another generation coming in that wants to take it on, and the fact is there are a lot easier ways to make money out there,” said Leideneheimer president Sandy Whann.

“The opportunity to be part of the real culinary culture and heritage of this city, that’s what gets us out of bed in the morning,” Whann said.

A taco truck, a touchstone

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Iris Cardona serves a baleada at her taco truck Taqueria el Paraiso in Mid-City. Unknown in New Orleans before Hurricane Kartina, these trucks have changed the city's street food scene.

Once unknown around New Orleans, taco trucks arrived immediately after Hurricane Katrina, feeding the work crews that carried the city’s recovery on their backs. Since then, the trucks have helped redefine the city’s street food culture – quick, cheap, and, at their best, an authentic taste of the city’s growing Latino influence.

Iris Cardona gave me a glimpse of how they work today at Taqueria el Paraiso, the truck in which she makes baleadas and shrimp tacos and burritos outside a gas station at North Broad and Toulouse streets.

Cardona left her home in Honduras because of its dire economy and rampant violence. In New Orleans, she joined a community that is growing more diverse, with food like hers adding to the equation.

“I cook for the people,” said Cardona, while forming masa into fresh tortillas by hand. “And when they tell me they love it, it makes me feel so happy.”

At Charlie’s, keeping a classic an original

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Matthew Dwyer, proprietor of Charlie's Steakhouse since reopening the New Orleans classic in 2008, shows a photo of its founders, Charlie and Naomi Petrossi.

The classic, scruffy Uptown institution Charlie’s Steak House dates back to 1932, but after Hurricane Katrina it was done. The restaurant was too fragile to snap back from the disaster, its family owners too far along for what proved to be an enormous task.

The job fell to Matthew Dwyer, then 37, a bartender who happened to live down the block and sometimes pulled shifts mixing drinks here.

He took on a restaurant that everyone wanted to see return, and nobody wanted to see change. This year marked 10 years since he pulled it off, and it was an opportunity to see how it’s fared.

“It’s Charlie’s with our twists to it, the tradition continues,” Dwyer said.

Dwyer has succeeded in keeping this wonderfully strange restaurant vibrant, not by forbidding change but by curating it, tailoring the needed adjustments to the spirit of the place. Sometimes that means quietly nodding along to regulars’ old stories about the place, even when he’s certain they’re not true.

“I used to try to correct people, but it’s pointless," said Dwyer. "It’s their story."

It’s still their Charlie’s Steak House too.

A foothold, maybe a springboard

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Charles "PeeWee" Armstrong (left) and Sergio Scott display their respective specialties in seafood and doughnuts at On Faith Donut Shop, which is also home to PeeWee Crabcakes on the Go, on Martin Luther King Blvd. in New Orleans on Monday, November 11, 2018.

On Faith Donut Shop is a small, ramshackle joint in Central City that serves hot donuts every morning and, from lunchtime on, some outrageously feasts of Creole style seafood, big enough to fill catering pans.

Sergio Scott runs the donut shop. Under the same roof, his brother Charles “PeeWee” Armstrong runs his own PeeWee’s Crabcake on the Go, a take-out operation for Creole gumbo, his signature crabcakes and bodacious combo platters like the “seafood tornado,” with crabcakes, stuffed crabs, stuffed fish and seafood pasta.

It's roots are still close to home.

“My mom and dad were both chefs at the Marriott, so growing up, it was always about who makes the best gumbo, who cooks better,” said Armstrong. “Coming up around that flavor, you just grab it.”

What I like about this cooking is how it feels intuitively at home in New Orleans, tied to a long tradition of black Creole cooking but also exuberantly personal. There’s a lot of flavor in these dishes, a lot of pride too, and the format means its accessible to more people.

From this foothold, PeeWee's has started a downtown pop-up series and hopes he can expand.

“When I cook for you, I’m giving you me,” Armstrong said. “When you taste my food, you’re tasting me.”

 


Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.