Easy Does It
"Restaurants were some of the first responders after the storm," says Louisiana native Dudley Passman, director of food service for longtime New Orleans company Zatarain's. That storm, of course, is Hurricane Katrina, and more than 11 years after it devastated the entire community, the city's food scene is flourishing like never before. Where only 800 restaurants existed in 2005, now there are 1,550. Although more doesn't always mean better, in the Big Easy, more is, well, more.
As chef Alon Shaya, who was handing out red beans and rice immediately after Katrina, puts it, "We sunk so low, we had nowhere to go but up."
Photo: Courtesy of Commander's Palace
"The city is now filled with restaurants representing old and new New Orleans culture," says Emeril Lagasse, who never left the Big Easy after moving there in 1982 to replace chef Paul Prudhomme at Commander's Palace. "We are seeing more and more chefs from different cultural backgrounds bringing their cooking styles to the city." Lagasse himself just opened Meril, a new spot where his travels and prolific career have inspired everything from dishes like shells with crawfish to a tres leches king cake (get the recipe).
Take modern Israeli favorite Shaya, which won the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in 2016. "Fine dining hummus in New Orleans? If you had told me that 10 years ago, I would have said, 'I don't know.' Now, I completely get it," Toups says of the restaurant, which is one of his personal favorites.
Photo: Sara Essex Bradley
Or look at Turkey and the Wolf, the new sandwich shop that just landed a semifinalist spot for Best New Restaurant this year. "They're catering to the millennial crowd, and they're crushing it," Shaya says of this buzzy shop no one can stop talking about—and for good reason.
"[Mason Hereford] really puts the fun into it, and I appreciate that so fucking much," Toups says of Turkey and the Wolf's chef and co-owner. "That's the wonderful thing about cooking, especially in New Orleans, where you can raise your freak flag. You can fly that motherfucker high."
Photo: Jonny Rosenbloom
"Before the storm, people worried about getting too creative, because it wasn't New Orleans enough, and then after the storm, everyone started flexing their creative muscles," Shaya, who did just that, explains.
You're seeing slow-smoked BBQ joints; more South East Asian spots, like the recently opened Maypop; gastropubs like Sylvain; gourmet doughnuts and great pizza, of course. And it's happening everywhere, from the Bywater to Freret Street.
Photo: Denny Culbert
Toups South, for example, is in the middle of up-and-coming food corridor Oretha Castle Haley. "The trees haven't even been planted yet, and the road just got done, so it's on the cusp of becoming something great," Toups says of his new digs.
With Good Work's culinary incubator and the famous Café Reconcile, which provides at-risk youth with job training, nearby, the street is more than just emblematic of the thriving food scenes outside tourist zones like the French Quarter. This street's resurgence also represents what makes New Orleans so special: community.
Photo: Rush Jagoe
"Post Katrina, if you're there, you're a New Orleanian," says Commander's Palace's Ti Martin, who knows better than anyone what being a New Orleanian means. "I think the attitude about that has completely evolved." Though Martin and her family are part of NOLA's old guard when it comes to the culinary scene, she continues to push the city forward. She's currently working on a culinary school in New Orleans, which will only further cement the city's heritage and future.
"We're all rooting for each other," says Molly Friedman, Marketing Director for food hall St. Roch Market, another newcomer that's brining a range of cuisines to the city. "Going out to eat is very much a part of our culture and whether it's a new restaurant or a pop-up, everyone is supporting each other."
Saint Lucia-born Nina Compton and her husband, Larry, who opened Caribbean restaurant Compère Lapin in the summer of 2015, are a prime example. "That's something you would never have seen pre-Katrina. They came into the city, they worked hard and got to know the other chefs. Because they're great people and do great work, everyone supports them, and they've really blossomed," Shaya says. "Katrina really sparked this sense of community awareness. There were a lot of young chefs in particular who made the decision to stay and be a part of rebuilding the city, or come to help be a part of something bigger. Ten years later, you're seeing a lot of the fruits of that labor."
Affordable rent in untapped neighborhoods and a post-Katrina entrepreneurial resurgence are major contributing factors to this movement. Meanwhile, food tourism is picking up steam across the nation. Where better to go if you're looking to plan a trip around eating than NOLA? Sure, people have always come to New Orleans for the food and the music, but now they're not just coming for po'boys and muffalettas, but hummus and hamachi, too.
Photo: Denny Culbert
With all the growth, what's miraculous is that the city hasn't lost its soul. And that's because the culinary tradition is inseparable from the culture. "You don't need to have gumbo on the menu anymore, but you can still get great gumbo," Shaya says. "If that local culture of food disappeared, I wouldn't want to be here."
As Lagasse puts it, "The dining scene in New Orleans is unique, because it’s not just a 'scene.' It’s really a way of life."
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