Great Food Cities - Why is NOLA One?
A recent discussion on restaurants in various cities got me thinking. Here’s the gist of that discussion. We were dining in an East Coast city, when one of the guests at the table posed a question to me. She’s from San Francisco and is very heavily into food. She’s never posted to CH, and barely knew of it. Her question went like this, “you are always touting the food in New Orleans. Which restaurant do you think ‘defines’ that city’s food best?” I thought for a moment and then decided that for me, it was probably Galatoire’s. This was not to diminish any other restaurant, and I realized that on the last trip, it wasn’t even on my list, but there was so little time, and several new places that we just had to try.
I repeated her question to her, regarding San Francisco, another food town. Her answer was Restaurant Gary Danko, with a nod to Chez Panisse and Alice Waters (Berkeley, CA). We then talked about why we had chosen each restaurant to represent, in our minds, these two great food cities. She extolled the virtues of Chef Danko, (and Chef Waters) and made good points. I kept talking about the cuisine, and not a chef. This was not intended to diminish the great chefs, who have developed in the City, or been developed by it. This was not to diminish any of the great restaurants now, or previously, in the City. It just seemed to me, that there was a much broader concept at work in New Orleans, than about any other place in the US.
It was then that I realized how differently these two cities are looked upon by diners, at least the two of us. San Francisco has long been known for its great food, it’s restaurants, but neither of us could define the cuisine of San Francisco. Great food, great restaurants, great chefs, but no one cuisine. New Orleans, on the other hand, definitely has cuisine (my belief), which I feel is displayed well by Galatoire’s (I chose it as the best, but that is really too broad a statement to make, especially because I get to New Orleans so infrequently nowadays and have not lived there in thirty years). To me, Galatoire’s exemplifies the sense of place, the spirit of New Orleans, it’s history, it’s people and the food of the region. San Francisco has its chefs and its restaurants, and while New Orleans has these, it also has a much broader sense of “cuisine.”
Now this “cuisine” is as varied as is the history of New Orleans, drawing on the influences of so very many – different points of origin, culture, history, ingredients... the list goes on. I became aware that with these two cities, we were defining them on very different terms. Great, though they both are, I think that this difference gives New Orleans the edge – makes it unique amongst great food destinations throughout the country.
As the evening progressed, we discussed other food cities. Los Angeles and New York were mentioned and we both felt that the ethnic diversity was the biggest draw, regarding food. Few other places can boast maybe 30 different cultures, represented by restaurants in a 4 sq. block area – virtually the United Nations of dining, both of them. LA (or its environs) also has a claim to California Cuisine, which is being exported to the rest of the world.
Now for the pop-quiz. Do you also feel that New Orleans displays its sense of cuisine, as I do? If so, how do you define the cuisine of New Orleans? Last, do you feel that any one restaurant defines this cuisine best?
1) New Orleans food is based in a cuisine (or a handful of cuisines) that have been developing in the city for a couple hundred years. That cuisine is still the dominant one in the city, not just in restaurants but in the home. NOLA doesn't compare to those other cities in variety, but hey, it has its own food. Also, it is a food that has yet to be successfully exported, if my experience eating it in other places has been any indication. If you want to taste it, you gotta go to New Orleans. (And stay off Bourbon Street!)
2) People cook at home. Well. New Orleans cuisine is alive in the homes of New Orleans, where people are keeping old food traditions fresh for new generations. It is, for instance, a badge of shame to not know how to cook a pot of beans, or to do a crawfish boil.
3) Food has a historical significance. Each dish is a reference point to the past. Our restaurants have been accused of lacking innovation, and trotting out the old standards too often, but I think that view is somewhat unfair because it is based on an American paradigm of cuisine as ever-changing. Our paradigm is much more old-world and European. It gives us comfort to eat things the way they've always been served. We have respect for the ancient rituals. In New York, where I now live, that's definitely not the case. I go to ethnic restaurants when I want to taste something that feels grounded in tradition.
4) Despite our reverence for tradition, our cuisine is alive, and we DO shake things up. Some of the most popular restaurants in the city are about taking our cuisine in new directions. John Besh's August is a good example. Commander's Palace, when it wasn't a tourist mecca, was perhaps the best ever argument for the flexibility and relevance of Creole cuisine. We've also got better ethnic food--Vietnamese and Japanese are the best, IMO--than people would think.
I agree with much of your post. I am a local, and I recently made the comment to a friend that, if a visitor could have on and only one meal in New Orleans, I'd make it Friday lunch at Galatoire's. To your point, if I were to free-associate the emlematice NOLA restaurants, few of them would be chef-centric. I think places like Mandina's and Casamento's and Domelise's are essential parts of the dining fabric in the city. Is it true that the overall chef-centric view is to a degree a recent phenomenon? Is it somply NOLA's long history that produces such a different vibe? Are we seeing even New Orleans gradually changing with names like Frank Brigsten and Donald Link?
In France, what New Orleans is all about would be defined as "terroir" -- cooking and eating within the traditions of your own place. There is plenty of innovation, but the best restaurants and chefs balance tradition and innovation, feeding off the tension. Brigtsen and Link are prime examples of this, although both of them cook with Cajun influences that are latecomers to the city. They are "name" chefs, but are so enmeshed in Louisiana that their restaurants are more than about their own vision.
And beyond the fine dining scene, there's a whole other level of traditional cooking, not innovative or exciting, but strong and relevant. And that cultural engine continues to assimilate immigrant groups and fold parts of their cooking into the whole, in the same way that Italian influences are now widespread in homestyle New Orleans cooking. Consider the Vietnamese restaurants that describe Banh Mi as po boys, or the Thai place that serves shellfish over noodles or rice in an Asian mirror of shrimp creole of crawfish etouffee.
My one New Orleans meal would take place in a restaurant that no longer exists -- Alonzo's on Central Avenue in Jefferson. For my childhood self, it was the archetype of the neighborhood "bar and rest." You went for seafood, and I would pick a Friday night during Lent, with the TV blaring over the bar, the middle-aged waitresses who'd been there forever, and the little half-glasses for your beer or Coke. (Liuzza's on Bienville is a "discovered" example of this archetype, though yet to be entirely overrun by tourists, if only because you have to know where you're going to find it.)
I'd be hard pressed indeed to define a New Orleans "cuisine"--and I think I like "cooking" as a better term. "Cuisine " sounds a little high falutin' to me. As is the case in any port city, there are multitudinous influences (there is nothing new about "fusion" cooking...its been going on the whole time). What distinguishes New Orleans is that the Ordinary Person eats better than a counterpart anywhere else. I'm not talking about The Great Places (or "First Platoon" as Liebling would say): I'm talkin about Martin's Bar (gone) and the Bright Star (also gone) and Domilisse's and Casamento's and Liuzza's and Jeager's and on and on. It is true that Everyone cooks..that is why it is a tough town in which to open a place: the people know what they are talking about and are not prone to fads or being told that something is really good. A freind told me he was crossing Poydras and Magazine when two men, strangers to him, encountered each other by chance and one said "that was great mirliton you did last week. gotta show me how. I'll give you my grillades in return." Response "thanks, cap"...another friend says that his whole life the conversation inevitably comes down to food, no matter what the starting point. It is true. It is not just part of the culture it may BE the culture.
There was a Canada Dry truck driver who used to go into the old Ye Olde College Inn bar and bring stuffed artichokes for the regulars, or maybe a casserole. And this was in a place selling food--Good Food as the sign said, truthfully. Regular customers take fresh tomatoes into well-known restaurants for the kitchen to play with or the waiters to eat. there is a dynamic between teh restaurants and the customers that cannot be manufactured and is very hard to find elsewhere although it does exist. the restaurants of Yorkville, on Manhattan, had it forty years ago. A waiter in Locke-Ober in Boston told me he could usually spot a New Orleanian in the place by the way he ate and acted.
A poster was correct in asserting that this food has not been exported well. Ingredients? Skill? It could be the same thing that applies to martinis--real ones--in that they vary in flavor according to where you are. two chemically identical drinks will taste different in a college bar versus Galatoire's. You need not ask which one is the better.
It's too late now, of course, but years ago I'd have split up the Representative Restaurant into a group that would include Maylie's, Kolb's, DH Holmes, Galatoire's, maybe Arnaud's before Germaine let it go, and a few others. On the high end, though, (and this surprises no one) I vote Galatoire's as the standard becuase it is simply about Food and Fun and Friends and that's it (although I did see a plate with--gasp--sqiggles on it earlier this year. Don't like that. It was some sort of foie gras dish. Well, they can make glacial changes I suppose).
It is interesting to see crawfish associated with New Orleans cooking. It was virtually unheard of in the restuarants prior to the 1960's except for crawfish imperial or crawfish cardinale. By the 1970's (and here I mean in town, not the camps outside) crawfish boils were becoming popular and are now routine but you will be a long time finding many people who boiled them in the 40's and 50's
Thank you for the insights. You make some very good points, and they are appreciated. Yes, I recall the beginning of crawfish, as well. Same could be said for the "deep fried turkey," or the turducken, or for "blackened" anything. In very general terms, change is "glacial." (I like that discription).
As for the translations, I am in agreement. I'm a fan of Emeril Lagasse. We came to know his cooking at Commanders, and, while I am not a fan of his current TV show (the old studio one was better, before "Bam"), do find that I enjoy his restaurants, in NOLA. I've tried both his, and Commander's in LV, and they were both, just OK. It's like finding good New Olreans fare in PHX. We have at least one good spot with the family from Lafayette. The food is good, but cannot compare with what I get almost every meal in New Orleans. Even my wife, a New Orleans native and a great cook, has to really work to bring the tastes together and we get "Care Packages," fresh off the boat and shipped overnight from New Orleans. It is a cuisine that just doesn't seem to travel well, but that's OK, as we can always fly down and get our food fix.
Again, thanks for the comments. This is mirrors some of the thoughts that flooded my mind, during and shortly after my discussion.
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading every one of these beautifully written (typos aside) posts. Poetic almost. I Live on SF Bay, & must agree with the chef centric theory of SF restaurants. It's almost impossible to eat in a top tier SF restaurant without being aware of who the chef is. But I have eaten at top tier NOLA restaurants with no clue to the chef's identity. I honestly feel that an over-emphasis on the chef eventually leads to hubris & a decline in the - not necessarily quality - but, maybe, honesty of the food. The constant pressure to innovate can be disastrous, if not downright rediculous.
The aspect of the great restaurants in SF being chef-driven was what I kept going back to. I do not have any problem with that situation, as I have greatly enjoyed nearly every meal in SF and its environs. I've even followed a few of its chefs to other venues, hoping that they would be doing some of the excellent food elsewhere, too.
We've got a similar dining environment, here in Phoenix, except for the history, and the tradition. Phoenix does not have a cuisine. It is an amalgam of several cultures, Native American, Sonoran Mexican, New Mexican (a blend of several cultures) and a few others, to a lesser degree - nothing to call their own. However, one of our favorite restaurants is owned by a chef, who is "classical" French, but he's embraced some definitely Southwest aspects to create his own cuisine. Still, it's Chef Vincent, who brings us into his restaurant. Same for Robert McGrath and all of the rest.
I understand your comment on not even knowing the chef at many top New Orleans restaurants. Were it not for the autographed cookbooks from Commander's Palace (a traditional b'day trip for my wife), I might not even know who they were and in what order.
Some very astute observations, though I would not expect less from CHounders.
re: Bill Hunt
I have enjoyed & continue to enjoy many meals in SF & environs & there are chef's I follow. What bothers me are the idiotic constructions & combinations that result from the drive to be "cutting edge". I've reached the point of avoiding restaurants that are described as "cutting edge" until i get a review from someone I trust. I don't have a problem with innovation (I'm certainly not hide bound), but I find trends such as the recent fad for foams & the like to be nothing short of stupid. Sometime I'll tell you how I really feel.
re: Bill Hunt
One thing I held back from the earlier post was a wonderfu story from the 1980's. A then well-known food critic wrote a New Orleans review and missed the point. james Beard allegedly took the miscreant aside and explained that he (I use the indefinite object old fashioned style--might have been a woman y'know) had missed the point. A new trip was fashioned and the reporter learned to appreciate the old Galatoire's ice (which we no longer have) and asked who the chef was. "Chef? We don't have a chef...we have three cooks, though."
In the modern era they promoted the head cook to Chef. People expect it. Phooey, sez I. That's why I always liked Mig Tsai on his TV show--he's a cook. You can keep your "chefs" unless they are real chefs de cuisine.
How many times did you use the word "define" in your OP? That's the problem. San Francisco allows Danko, Waters and others who come and go with tides to "define" San Francisco. Frankly, my dear, New Orleans doesn't give a damn, because it knows who and what it is. Take it or leave it.
For more than 300 years, the French and Spanish backbone of the cuisine has been enriched, rather than diluted, by other cultural influences. These were aristocrats and refugees, nuns and pirates, farmers and bankers, carpetbaggers and gamblers, colorful politicians, FEMA and God-only-knows-what-else. They all ate the same food because it's what they had from the same rivers, lakes, bayous, fields and woods. They shared the same cooks. You are likely to find the same foods in the homes of the rich and poor - a little plainer or fancier, but the same basic recipes.
The current top chefs of New Orleans interpret the classics, putting elegant, modern spins on them. The great Haute Creole restaurants preserve them. Everybody still cooks red beans and rice on Monday. Home cooks are skilled at Creole and Cajun specialties. Everyone waits for the first Creole tomatoes, the beginning of crawfish season, or Pontchatoula strawberries. While the food writers are extolling local foods, New Orleans never moved away from theirs and never saw a need to. They always knew what they had.
The cuisine of New Orleans grounds the city. They know intuitively who they are, what their history is and their strengths are through that food. Every bit of their cultural heritage is reflected on their plates or between two pieces of French bread.
Some things don't belong in a pot of gumbo - can't tell you why, they just don't.
I don't live in NOLA now but I still cook like my grandmothers did. How I cook and eat is who I am. The cuisine defines me because it tells my story.
I do not live in NOLA, but I have visited there one time a few years back. I was given a few places to try from a NOLA native, and the food was spectacular. We ate at Mother's and had some good old home cooking, Napoleon House for Muffalettes, and other local places that I can't remember the names of. We stayed close to Harrah's, at the Ambassador, so we walked to our destinations. One semi upscale place close to the french quarters was really good, but don't know the name. Mr. B's comes to mind, but I'm not sure. And, of course, Cafe du Monde! All I can say is that red beans and rice are not the same, and neither are the muffalettas, now that I have tasted it in NOLA! We never once even thought about going to a chain. We would just walk, and look at menus, so that we could experience the local food. Oh, there was a great Po-Boys hole in the wall place we really liked, too. Now when I think of NOLA, I think of the food.
The astonishing thing is that the food was in private homes too. Rich, poor, black and white, of all ethnic groups. Daddy was in sales and when I was young, I always loved to ride with him around the city from Chalmette to Harahan to the Lakefront. He seemed to know everybody.
People would call from a porch, "Hey, Mr. Will, want some lunch?" and we'd go sit in somebody's kitchen for a meal as enjoyable as you'd find in any of the restaurants. He knew every hole in the wall in that city as well as the best restaurants.
Everybody in NOLA is a "cook," some just work at restaurants.
I totally agree. My dad relocated to New Orleans some 20 years ago and married a native. When I would come down to visit, he would make a point of taking me to the finer restaurants such as Galatoire's. But I soon discovered that, on the "off" nights, his wife was an amazing cook. As the years passed, we ate at home more and more. Thankfully, she taught me how to make a proper roux and has shared her recipes. We still go out for po'boys and that amazing fried catfish joint out in the middle of nowhere...can't remember the name...but for the most part I look forward to her homecooking.
Havng eaten in both cities many times I have to say shame on you if you get a bad meal without doing your research. When a city has great reputation its funny that the locals say...oh, we don't eat there, its too touristy. I eat at those spots for a baseline and guess what...they are usually fantastic. Places like Commanders Palace, Mr Bs etc are all really good. I had the opportunity to eat at CS when Emeril was the up and coming Chef, and yes they did call him Chef....what about Paul Prudhomme who expanded on the cuisine and introduced a lot of variations such as turducken. But essentially I agree, NOLA is a city of a defined cuisine and SF is a city of chefs.