People love to dish about their meals, from the traditions that inspire their favorite flavors to the food finds from their latest vacation. When it comes to Southern food in particular, a gleaming and colorful hub for culinary exploration debuted Monday as the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, or SoFAB, officially opened its new facility in Central City.
Located since 2008 inside the Riverwalk shopping center, SoFAB’s new home is a 16,000-square-foot showcase of the culture and history behind regional food and drink with permanent and changing exhibits, a custom-built demonstration kitchen called the Rouses Culinary Innovation Center by Jenn-Air/Whirlpool, and its own restaurant and bar, called Purloo, which will open in the weeks ahead with an interactive approach to cuisine tailored to its food museum setting.
“It is really very exciting to finally open the doors,” said SoFAB co-founder and director Liz Williams. “It was always our goal to make New Orleans a destination not just to eat but to learn about what you’re eating and drinking.”
The new museum, located at 1504 O.C. Haley Blvd., joins a wave of reinvestment along what has long been a blighted stretch of Central City, including the New Orleans Jazz Market, a performing arts center under development just across the street. And it marks a major expansion for SoFAB with a venue designed from the ground up to make cooking, eating and drinking part of the museum experience.
The nonprofit museum funded the $3.5 million project through corporate grants, private donations and historic tax credits for the conversion of the former Dryades Market building, which dates to 1849 and was once part of the city’s network of public food markets.
One focal point of the museum is an exhibit called “Gallery of the South — States of Taste,” with displays of staple ingredients, kitchen equipment, vintage ads and other artifacts particular to the food culture of 15 Southern states and the District of Columbia.
“It’s like you’re walking from state to state,” Williams said. “It shows you how the geography impacts what people eat and how people cook around the South.”
SoFAB will be open Thursday through Monday, beginning this Thursday. The Museum of the American Cocktail, once a separate entity, is now part of SoFAB, and its exhibits on cocktail history are interspersed throughout the museum, including a wall-sized timeline of cocktail development.
An ‘epicenter of food’
Throngs of New Orleans chefs, bartenders, food growers and local leaders turned out for Monday’s ribbon-cutting. Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne predicted SoFAB would be “the epicenter of food” in New Orleans and a draw for visitors. That was part of the original inspiration for the museum back in 2004, explained museum co-founder Matt Konigsmark. He was working for the Mayor’s Office at that time, and he recalled that the city was then trying to lure new tourist attractions.
“We were trying to get the Grammy Hall of Fame, we were looking at a spy museum,” Konigsmark said. “But people come here from around the world for the food and the culture. So why not showcase what people are already coming for? Let’s celebrate that, educate people about that and protect that.”
Planning began around Williams’ kitchen table and soon developed into a series of introductory exhibits that traveled to venues around the South before SoFAB opened its first full-time location at the Riverwalk. Along the way, SoFAB grew into a center for culinary research, education and events, like the annual Farm to Table symposium it co-hosts each summer and its culinary library and archive, located a block away from the new museum address.
“It’s more than just the exhibits,” Williams said. “There isn’t anything else like this, and that does make it a hub.”
SoFAB leaders see the new facility as a destination for food-related conferences, product launches and events with visiting chefs. This week, for instance, Jeremiah Tower, a pioneering chef of modern California cuisine, will lead a master class for students from local culinary programs and conduct an after-school class for children. Later in October, Harlem-based celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson will be in town for the rededication of the museum’s Leah Chase Gallery, named for the legendary “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” at its new address. And in November, author and TV host Steven Raichlen will visit to open a barbecue exhibit he curated, called “The Trail of Smoke and Fire.”
Meanwhile, Purloo chef Ryan Hughes said the museum’s restaurant would open in late October or early November, with dinner first and lunch service to follow. With an open, demonstration-style kitchen surrounded by a 30-seat dining bar, and room for 30 more customers at tables, the restaurant was conceived as both a stand-alone dining destination and an integral part of a museum visit.
“I wanted it to be all out in the open,” Hughes said. “The restaurant is a show within itself.”
In addition to lunch and dinner menus, he plans to serve a museum menu of small tastes that relate to exhibits.
“So when someone checks out the antique sno-ball machine, they can have a sno-ball,” he said. “It will be things that people can eat with their hands while they’re walking around, to give them a taste of what they’re learning about. It could be things like beignets or callas.”
The museum’s bar is an exhibit and a storied antique in its own right. It was a fixture of the West End seafood restaurant Bruning’s from 1859 until 2005, when Hurricane Katrina reduced the structure to splinters.
While Bruning’s never reopened, the museum painstakingly reassembled the bar and has outfitted it to serve restaurant customers and museum visitors, who can peruse the exhibits while sipping Southern cocktails like sazeracs and mint juleps.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.