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Nov 13, 2007 06:58 AM

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?


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    1. Some thoughts:

      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.

      1. Bill,

        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?

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        1. re: jeffchow

          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.)

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