New Orleans: Learning About Culture Through Food
The origin of the word “restaurant” is French and dates back to the middle ages. It was used to describe any variety of rich bouillons made with meats, roots, vegetables, herbs and other exotic ingredients that were brewed to “restaurer” or “restore” your health. The best restaurant experiences have a magical restoring quality of bolstering a weary soul to liveliness or shoring up serenity with their comforts and indulgences. Such was the conversation a truly stellar hostess and passionate long-time restaurateur, JoAnn Clevenger of Upperline Restaurant in New Orleans shared with me. While enjoying a week in New Orleans this past January, I experienced several of these kinds of enchanting, restorative experiences. I returned with renewed energy to endure the remainder of this Ontario winter and share NOLA recipes, techniques, stories and music with students.
White, blond, caramel, golden-brown, deep golden-brown and mahogany-brown stages of cooked “roux” depicted in the spoons above illustrate a classic and simple two-ingredient fat and flour partnership from French cuisine that is a flavourful and thickening base for many varieties of soups, stews and sauces. You may not know it, but you make your own “roux” if you stir flour onto turkey drippings to make gravy at Christmas. Every early winter season, I teach a “How to Make Christmas Dinner” class. Please watch for it on my class schedule.*
The darkest spoonful above illustrates when the cooking time of the roux is taken to the max carefully. The colour and subsequent nutty, tannic, dense and richly flavourful qualities that this cooking creates permeate a traditional Southern Louisiana soup/stew called a “Gumbo.” Gumbo is hard to pin down in words, but listening to a Louisiana local describing all that is gumbo is a treat as it has mystical, historical and cross-cultural qualities that combine in a one-pot, crowd-pleasing blend of very full-flavoured, delicious, local ingredients – each gumbo being as different as the cook who creates it. This one recipe has origins in several cultures including West African, French, Spanish, German and Choctaw (Native American). Tasting a well-made gumbo (try to avoid the tourist traps) is a symphony of comfort and liveliness. Restorative? For sure! I am pretty excited to try making my own filé powder (also called gumbo filé), which is used as a secondary thickening agent in the gumbo-making process. Filé is made from ground sassafras tree leaves. Tree House Kitchen sits perched above a swath of Carolinian forest that incidentally supports more of the endangered and rare species than any other life zone in Canada, and the sassafras tree can be found here! (Ontario is two-thirds forest!)
“All praise for cooks and storytellers.” JoAnn Clevenger has written this inscription into one of her favourite New Orleans cookbooks and handed it to me as a generous gift – and it is so true!!! Learning about New Orleans history, present and future through the storytelling of locals (and they are fantastic storytellers) and reading the stories of a place that good restaurant menus hint at (by describing seasonal ingredient availability, styles and eras of cooking, ingredient lists and complexities/simplicities of recipes) is purely good fun! Then making these experiences become sensory ones by taste-testing is pure happiness! It steeps you in more of an insider’s knowledge – off the beaten tourist-trap path. There are so many good restaurants, fantastic owners and talented chefs in New Orleans. The food history is so deep, the fresh seafood and other ingredients are absolutely fantastic. It is no surprise being a chef that my best traveling experiences revolve around eating and studying food. What raised the bar for me in New Orleans was the passionate interest in all things food that I encountered in almost every person I met. My personal experience is that everybody in New Orleans, whether they were in the food industry or not, is invested in their next meal and how they make it – and of course I can relate to that!!! Food conversations are long and interesting and so telling in their segues and meanderings. I will always keep them in my heart and will be going back again and again to New Orleans.
It is best to do your own homework to get a sense of a restaurant as everyone’s tastes vary. When traveling and weary, approach food experiences that are out of your usual comfort zone with an open mind as caring people in the food business are working diligently behind the scenes (and right in front of you!) to make your experience a restoring one. Good restaurants are keeping a watchful eye on you, and are more than happy to engage with you about your meal whether it is good or bad. I do find being peaceful, enjoying people-watching, taking in the whole ambience of a place and letting the meal/evening flow opens you up to better experiences. I’m most successful at selecting restaurants when I combine conducting Internet research, reading Fodor’s 2014 travel Intelligence (New Orleans), listening to my own whims and speaking with chefs/restaurant owners and other locals about their favourites. As I said, there are many many many to choose from. I enjoyed balancing a variety of dishes with walks in City Park. It’s a healing combination. Try some of the more decadent local dishes with much more of the lightly treated grilled fish and shellfish dishes (from their coastal waters) with dark leafy greens on the side (which the southerners do really well). While visiting City Park, be sure to enjoy the wonderful outdoor sculptures and the largest collection of Oak trees in the world covering 1,300 acres! You can even throw in an odd Sazerac cocktail (I describe this later) and glass of wine. Try a lemon gelato on your way to the park at Angelo Brocato’s 214 N. Carrollton Avenue.
In no particular order, I did very much enjoy the establishments listed below:
Peche Seafood Grill 800 Magazine Street (Warehouse District)
Donald Link chef/owner, Stephen Stryjewski chef/owner, Ryan Prewitt chef/partner, Rhonda Ruckman executive pastry chef
Sitting at the oyster bar was a great way to chat with the chefs, meet my stool-mates and view the open kitchen. The restaurant features a very special wood-burning grill wall which was fashioned after inspiring trips the owners made to Uruguay to view cliff-side asado (barbecues) or “walls of fire” as chef/partner Ryan Prewitt describes. Their treatment of all things fresh, coastal and whole with respect to seafood was very very good. The team has won a bunch of awards – here is one of them: “Top 50 New (U.S.) Restaurants 2013,” Bon Appetit.
Café Noma at New Orleans Museum of Modern Art City Park 1 Collins Diboll Circle (Mid-City)
Ralph Brennan owner, Chef Chris Montero
This is very nice and convenient for its lively colours and quick bistro dishes/fresh salads while viewing all the indoor and outdoor art and walking the park. This is one of “America’s Best Museum Restaurants” award winners as voted by Travel and Leisure Magazine 2013. I loved the large and multi-coloured muffalletta salad (a healthy way to enjoy this famous, original French Quarter NOLA sandwich.)
Upperline Restaurant 1413 Upperline Street (Uptown)
JoAnn Clevenger Owner, Chef Dave Bridges
This uniquely caring owner is celebrating 30+ plus years at this location. As a bachelor of commerce hotel and food administration grad myself I will never forget watching JoAnn, this sprightly 70-something-year-old, running to engage and say goodbye to every patron that had wound up their evening – that is GOOD business! Her mesmerizing collection of artwork and NOLA history stacked on the walls and her attention to detail in respect to service was excellent. I had quite a view from my corner niche of all patrons, activity and art. The place was full and hopping on a Sunday night, and every customer looked very well taken care of and deeply satisfied. They serve a famous gumbo and a much-copied (within the local restaurant industry, which is always a compliment) fried green tomatoes dish with shrimp rémoulade. They dust their crispy local oysters in corn flour, which is so much nicer than too much cornmeal, and I loved the side sauce for my drumfish piquant being made from a roasted shrimp shell reduction. (I can tell you how to do this – sign up on my contact page and request my stock recipes or take a hands-on knife skills class where we discuss healthful, restorative stocks and delicious Thai stir-fry and Chinese hot pot soups.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House 2401 Saint Ann Street (Tremé neighbourhood 7th ward, open during daytime only)
Willie Mae Seaton, 97 years old, and her granddaughter Kerry Seaton, who is the head chef, run the place.
Willie Mae’s restaurant was rebuilt after being devastated by hurricane Katrina by a team of food-loving volunteers, the Heritage Conservation Network and Southern Foodways Alliance. This establishment is very very low-key, but a NOLA institution, family-owned, multi-generational and a locals’ favourite. If you are on a traveling quest for tasting the best fried chicken and other simple southern fare (collard greens, red beans and rice, etc.) this is a place to taste-test. It is off the beaten track and service can be patchy, but practice patience as your chicken will be cooked fresh to order and, wow, it is scrumptious and in that secret fried chicken recipe is quite a story. I had lots left over, which my taxi driver was scandalized to hear. I did not wrap it and carry it back on the plane with me to Buffalo/Ontario – 12 hours of traveling salmonella was a concern to me, but apparently not to him. He was willing to risk it to savour every morsel of Willie Mae’s chicken – 2005 “American Classic” James Beard Award Winner.
Cochon 930 Tchoupitoulas Street (Warehouse District)
Donald Link Chef/CEO, Stephen Stryjewski chef/owner, Matt Woodall chef, Rhonda Ruckman executive pastry chef, Brian Kaderavek sous chef
Oh my goodness, the Gulf coast wood-fired oysters are THE BEST I have ever eaten. They are not raw and not fully cooked like a classic Oysters Rockefeller treatment (another New Orleans’ original created in 1899 at Antoine’s Restaurant), but served plump and medium rare, having been cooked briefly in a 1,200-degree F wood-burning oven. Served with a combination Vietnamese/New Orleans-influenced drizzle with a French Pinot Noir – died and gone to heaven! These are upscale Cajun dishes served with global flare and classic training. I also especially loved my side dish that came with the Louisiana cochon (a specialized pulled pork dish) of rendered cabbage. I wanted more of it – a side of cabbage and turnip sounds very boring, yet it was masterfully executed and reminiscent of the heart and soul of the very best Swiss/German/French dishes I have eaten in Europe and Canada. Their buttermilk sherbet (sorbet) was a nice light, yet comforting finish – oh yeah! Cochon had a great buzz at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night. This restaurant has received many awards. Here are two: Chef Donald Link was a finalist in the “Outstanding Chef U.S.” category by the James Beard Foundation 2012. Stephen Stryjewski James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef South 2011.”
1896 O’Malley House Bed & Breakfast 120 South Pierce Street (Mid-City)
Owner Larry Watts, Manager Brent D. Baer
This is an elegant Colonial Revival style B&B located seconds from the streetcar line within three miles of the French Quarter in central mid-city, and close to City Park. The owner and manager were very gracious and hospitable and extremely helpful with local knowledge and colour. I was well taken care of as far as comfort and service went – they had a Canadian flag flying outside as I arrived! I also felt very safe there, coming and going with their tips as I was traveling alone. The full breakfasts were decadent and healthy, freshly made and delicious! Winner of a certificate of excellence from Trip Advisor 2013.
Clancy’s 6100 Annunciation Street (Uptown)
Eating dinner at the bar chatting with the regulars and the fine artist/bartender was fantastic and a great way to find out what to order from the menu. Definitely try the expertly mixed Sazerac cocktail, which is the official cocktail of New Orleans, originally dating back to the 1850s and now being made with rye whiskey, lemon peel, Peychaud’s Bitters, simple syrup and a splash of an anise liqueur, such as Pernod or Herbsaint. Conversations ranged from dissecting the elements of good food, art and drink to Carl Von Clausewitz (German general 1780-1831) and Farley Mowat and their philosophy of war. Go for the suggested specialties.
Dos Jefes Uptown Cigar Bar 5535 Tchoupitoulas Street (Mid City)
The name sounds much fancier than the look of the bar, but the juxtaposition of the quality of the live jazz players with the low-key surroundings blew my mind. I guess this must happen a lot in NOLA – what a city! I caught the Tom Hook and Wendell Brunious duo playing on a Tuesday night. Wendell Brunious is a second-generation acclaimed trumpeter, his father being “Picket” Brunious one of the founding fathers of jazz trumpeters in NOLA. The next day, I immediately bought their CDs at Louisiana Music Factory, 421 Frenchman Street (French Quarter), which is an award-winning indie music store specializing in local music, traditional jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, zydeco and Cajun music. You will not be able to leave their store without buying! It is allowed to leave without purchasing, but sampling with earphones the dozens of CDs for your listening pleasure will hook you!
The New Orleans School of Cooking 524 St. Louis Street (French Quarter)
For “Fun, Food & Folklore” as their website describes, is true. I had a fun and informative experience at a morning demonstration-style class and they have hands-on classes as well. Spoons of roux from the class are pictured above. (Warning: You might want to eat lightly at breakfast before a morning class; they serve very full plates!)
United Cab, Inc. was reliable. 504 522-9771
Appreciation of food as I mention above is very subjective and that is true for fine art, but I must mention that Fine Artist Gina Phillips is masterful. I hope you can see some of her work, especially her stupendously good fabric work. I was mesmerized by an exhibition of hers at Ogden Museum of Southern Art. She is represented at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery 400a Julia Street. Fine Artist Martin LaBorde’s folk art pieces made me very happy. You can find his work displayed at Upperline Restaurant and represented at Bee Galleries 319 Chartres Street.
These are my own opinions garnered when visiting on my own expense mid-January 2014. National Geographic named NOLA as one of their “New Year’s must-see places Best Trips 2014” and is the only city in the U.S. to be chosen. Hope you can go!
Update: We’re so proud of the work we’ve done in our hands-on teaching and dinner party classes. Working with you, our clients has played such an important part in the new direction of Tree House Kitchen as a food literacy company, specializing in problem-solving skills and resources for busy families, and community members – like you! We hope you enjoy reading about our past classes, and also where we’re headed in 2017, and beyond.
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