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New Orleans: you've got to eat it to save it
New Orleans: you've got to eat it to save it

New Orleans, Louisiana

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 Loftus
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.
   Angela 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 coming in.
   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 way.
   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 your day.
   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.
   NOMA’s director 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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Jackson Square

Local colour

Angela King of the Angela King Gallery

Ralph Brennan’s Red Fish Grill, the first restaurant opened in the French Quarter since Katrina

The Sculpture 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 were affected

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