New Orleans: you've got to eat it to save it
If you’ve got a cultural, creative and
culinary appetite or a passionate thirst for intrigue and history,
then pull up a chair, grab a plate and take a big ol’ bite out of
New Orleans. This soulful southern city will sate any craving and
ﬁll needs you didn’t even know you had. The best way to consume
it and save it is to eat it. So come hungry! by Karen
photographed by the author and Elyse Glickman
IN MY YEARS OF TRAVEL, I always thought
I would go to New Orleans, yet surprisingly never made any plans,
or any effort to do so. That fateful weekend in August ’05 as I
watched the surreal ordeal unfold before me in my Miami hotel I
sadly thought I’d never see that jewel of a city that I oddly overlooked.
Almost two years, several emails and a few conversations
later, I was finally on my way to New Orleans. I was more interested
now than ever, truly intrigued and like most people wanting to do
something, anything to help. They wanted people to see their city,
talk about it and tell others. We were being brought in to cover
NOWFE, the New Orleans Wine and Food
Experience, with a few days prior to take in the city.
The quick ride in from the airport, the first
recognizable site you see is the Dome. We’re told that the Saints,
not the best team in the league, has always had a devout following
regardless of their record. Apparently, the place has been revamped;
yet, I couldn’t help but feel the heaviness as we drove by.
Speaking of Saints, Jon Deveney of Deveney Communications
was handling our details for the first few days in town, prior to
NOWFE. He and his firm rep the city
and the state and were the point people for the city and the visiting
media immediately following Katrina. He is beaming and awaiting
our arrival as we pulled up to the B&W
Courtyards, a charming B&B in
the Fauburg Marigny District, one of 13 historic districts, right
off the French Quarter, simply called the Marigny by locals.
Ready to roll, he asks, ‘Do you want to go to
the Marigny Home and Garden Tour? It’s almost over but we can hit
at least one home.’ Feeling so dodgy after two flights and an all-nighter
of packing and scrambling to finish stories, I said, ‘I am so
not cute.’ With no one to counter my comment, yet no one I knew
to see me, I thought, Why not?
Rob Boyd and Kevin Wu, the lovely proprietors
at B&W, met us with all their
southern charm. Kevin, a rock-solid Chinese bodybuilder struggled
to carry my oversized bags up the stairs. My friend Elyse got the
lovely premier garden room with a fountain outside, while I was
tucked away upstairs in an ambient space that inspired me to write.
Within minutes we were on our way with quick tidbits
of info tossed out by John, ‘Disney loved New Orleans. That’s why
all of his parks have a New Orleans theme. New Orleans great strength
is its authenticity.’ Our first new friend in town was a diva of
a dog, authentically dressed as one would expect from a Mardi Gras
parade. For her, it was just another southern Sunday.
The high-ceiling homes with exposed brick were
beautiful. Every home I saw since we arrived in the city seemed
to be expressing itself. The French, Spanish, Caribbean styles were
intoxicating. Deceiving to the outside eye were the seeming simplicity
or size and scale. It’s a Creole thing to not overtly show your
wares. Once in, most homes were deceptively large and grand and
went on for days with lovely back gardens, guests or servants quarters
and pools. That seemed to be a theme in NOLA,
be it the people or a place: look closer as there is so much more
than the initial eye or ear catches.
The Americans, on the other hand, moved in to
what is now known as the historic Garden District. The Creoles were
horrified at how ostentatious and overt the Americans were, with
their enormous homes. They were huge and grand and left nothing
to the imagination. Their wealth was hanging out for all to see.
As I arrived on the sidewalk, that stress and
my complete lack of sleep finally caught up with me. I admitted,
‘I’m so frazzled.’ Jon, from Florida originally, a true southerner
calmly said, ‘You’re in the Big Easy now. Frazzled doesn’t work
here.’ His words were an immediate elixir of truth. It really doesn’t
work anywhere. I let it go and off we went.
King’s Gallery in the French Quarter on Royal Street was the
perfect official start to the week. The space itself was as much
a work of art, carefully crafted by Angela and her crew as the art
it showcased. In the face of Katrina she, like many, left for what
she thought would be three days. Returning to an abandoned city,
many, including her business partner at the time, left the city
and her business. Angela, a small woman with a strong presence decided
to not only stay, but to take over a bigger space, on her own up
the street. She, with the help of friends, colleagues and her partner
transported her art one dolly at a time. She remortgaged all but
her own shoes to make it happen. With a half a million dollars in
debt, relying largely on tourists, she didn’t have much of an income
The space she took over was in need of a great
deal of work. She took off the pink walls to showcase exposed brick,
pulled up flooring to show marble floors and peeled the bricks off
the large bay windows outside to showcase the stunning space. It
was a brave move, one that after 30 years in NOLA
got her respect and acceptance in an otherwise old-school southern
institution on Royal Street. She infused faith and built morale
in the local and creative community. Twenty months later she opened
her new gallery. With artists from around the country and the world
donating works, like Charlie Tysall who donated five pieces, or
artists Patterson and Barnes who offered theirs at half price, she
humbly says, ‘Adversity doesn’t build character, it exposes it.’
Jon arranged for two of his friends, Eric and
Jason, to take us out for the night on a fake date. We ate at Ralph
Brennan’s Red Fish Grill. With a stop at one of Ralph’s other spots,
Bacco at the W Hotel on Chartres Street in the Quarter, which according
to Haley Gabel, the executive chef of Ralph Brennan’s Restaurant
Group (Bacco’s, Red Fish & Ralph’s on the Park) ‘is Italian
with a New Orleans Creole twist, using all locally sourced ingredients,
but preparing them in an Italian style.’ It was true fusion, which
is what New Orleans is all about.
We had the truffled egg, creole calamari and melt
in our mouth carpaccio with truffle oil. That with a glass of pinot
was the perfect bite and night out. But it was New Orleans, so that
was just the beginning. Boyd says, ‘We’re obsessed with food. It’s
all we talk about.’ Locals talk about where they are going to eat
next, right in the middle of their meal out. It’s the New Orleans
Red Fish Grill was the first restaurant reopened
in the Quarter after Katrina. No kitchens were open, so their primal
responsibility was to provide food for the community. More than
a restaurant, it was a meeting place for everyone to check in with
each other, locals and employees alike, to share Katrina stories.
This is a community that cares. Cheques were sent to employees for
missed work. Calls were made to locate and get now-out-of-state
employees placed in restaurants in between. Haley says that typically,
you have to allow for a half-hour of time when you arrive at work,
as it’s the Southern and the New Orleans way. Everyone says hi.
After Katrina, it took a lot of time to check in and start
There were a few themes repeated throughout the
week. Everyone is obsessed with food—that would never happen in
the low-cal, low-carb, fat-free, no cheese please, LA.
Most people evacuated for the first time ever for Katrina.
Those returning were incredibly committed to being there. As Jon
says, ‘If they weren’t committed, they didn’t come back. This once-cosmopolitan
city is now a pioneer town.’ It was interesting, exciting and awe-inspiring.
Eric and Jason were hit and more or less lost
everything. They had opportunities to relocate elsewhere, but they,
too, wanted to be a part of the recovery. Jason, who watched cooking
shows over cartoons as a kid, coupled with personal trainer Eric’s
access to the best bods in the city, led to their business, Tantric
Travel. They wanted to start a business that would encourage people
to come back to the city. It’s for guys coming to town, who have
a great appetite for the good life, from babes and booze to cigars,
cards and, of course, the best food imaginable. Serious celebs have
called upon the boys to set up bachelor parties or a big night out.
After our night out, with the delicious blackened
red fish at Red Fish Grill and a waiter that sounded like he came
straight off the set of Gone with the Wind, the next day,
aside from our witty breakfast with Rob and Kevin, was all about
the ladies. We met at Jon Deveney’s office in the Marigny, which
has won all kinds of architectural awards.
Lisa, an employee and stand-up comedian brought
in food from Go Go Gourmet, her partner’s restaurant that evolved
after the storm. That was another theme. Out of the disaster came
a quiet gratitude and an unexpected pot of gold after the rain.
More than one person said to me, ‘I know it sounds odd, but the
storm was a blessing.’ Haley, Bacco’s exec chef, was trying for
months to have a baby. Assuming chemical sickness after Katrina,
she was wildly surprised to find out she was pregnant. Her Katrina
baby just celebrated his first birthday.
I had to be peeled away from the Go Go Gourmet
ravioli with sausage. Elyse and I headed to NOMA
(New Orleans Museum of Art) for an unprecedented showing of Femme
Femme Femme. The French have long felt affection towards New
Orleans. The French Consul-General, who arrived just three weeks
prior to the storm, had to evacuate with the rest of the city. He
lobbied to work with the French Ambassador to the US,
the Director of the Louvre and the French Minister of Culture to
do an inspection of the city and museum just two months after Katrina
to see what they could do to develop programmes to revive the city’s
culture. Aside from bringing local New Orleans musicians over to
Paris for two- to three-month fellowships to perform in France,
they wanted to come up with a programme to revive the museum’s audience
and the cultural pulse in the city. What would typically take four
years to put on was a mere 15 months.
John Bullard came up with the angle of an all-female exhibition.
The 83 works from the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and 43 other
legendary museums throughout France, include those by Renoir, Manet,
Picasso, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, focusing on 19th-century paintings,
reflecting the changing roles of women, from traditional roles of
wife and mother to workplace to leisure time activity, which leads
to self-expression, breaking rules and roles and sexual exploration.
It was riveting! Another Katrina baby is born.
Ruth’s Chris, a traditional New Orleans steakhouse,
opened its doors in 1965. With over 100 steakhouses worldwide including
China and Hong Kong with their highest volume in San Diego, Ruth’s
specializes in aged USDA prime steaks
prepared in a custom-made 1,800°F broiler. True to its roots, Ruth’s
New Orleans inspired barbecue shrimp, shrimp ramoulade and seafood
gumbo. According to Russell Umbircht, Executive Chef of the Gulf
Region, they try to evolve their recipes and rework existing ones
to keep current as was done with their newly added sweet potato
casserole (decadent and sweet enough for dessert) and an old standard
Ruth developed, veal osso bucco ravioli.
Their extensive wine list was impressive as is
the in-depth sommelier programme. We stuck with Grenache to pair
with our heavy meal and meats. We hit Ruth’s in the suburbs in Metarie,
as the city spot has not reopened. Ruth is no longer with us but,
in true NOLA spirit, had a party when
she bought her tomb and another one after she put it to use, arranging
for her staff to be bussed to the gravesite, so they could party.
That’s a good boss and very New Orleans, bringing us to the end
of another day.
After several local bites, we were ready to take
in a few more sites before the NOWFE
activity got under way the following day. As per Rob’s urging we
were set to go on the Katrina tour. We first met with Scott Hutchenson,
a Texan originally and the head of Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation,
a private non-profit. The cultural umbrella includes a tangible
artistic community in Louisiana from the musicians, visual artists,
entertainment industry, culinary industry, literature writers, and
filmmakers. They are so committed to their culture, the second biggest
industry in the state, second to health care and the third largest
film community in the US, behind LA
and NY. Who knew?
With a city that is very European in look, feel
and style, it came as no surprise that this cultural foundation
is run in a European, almost socialist manner with tax incentives
for artists who don’t get taxed on their first $20,000 earned and
a supportive health care system. They are incredibly committed to
keeping their artists, especially the indigenous people, parades
and arts in place. It was an enviable system.
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Angela King of the Angela King Gallery
Ralph Brennans Red Fish Grill, the first restaurant opened
in the French Quarter since Katrina
Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA)
Ginny, our tour de force of a guide from Tours
by Isabelle, starts talking at Canal Street and literally does not
stop for three-and-a-half hours and 70 miles of devastation. She
does an amazing job, presenting, with a dense, non-partisan, yet
highly politicized presentation of the many neighbourhoods that