Not long ago, with its onslaught of Creole and Cajun offerings, New Orleans’ food scene was flirting with self-parody. But a new guard of chefs is making the city a hotbed of culinary creativity once again.Destination 2017: NashvilleDestination 2017: New York
It’s a sultry summer night, but the crowd at Shaya, comfortable in the restaurant’s air-conditioned coolness, is ordering hot pitas at a breakneck clip. Charred and puffed up like blowfish in a wood-fired oven, the bread is the perfect foil for Shaya’s baba ganoush, hummus and labneh. A waitress places a bowl of matzah ball soup—made with Yemenite curry, short ribs and English peas—in front of me, and I listen to a young couple nearby move from Spanish to English to Hebrew, while a family a few tables away argues happily in Haitian patois.
“Where y’at?” says a man who stopped by to say hello in the local vernacular, and I remember I’m not in Tel Aviv or New York, but, improbably, New Orleans. Forged from a mix of early-18th-century French settlers, enslaved Africans, Cajuns, Irish and Italian immigrants and others, the port city has long been one of the country’s most diverse. But by the early 2000s, a sameness had come over New Orleans. Thanks in large part to the desire for easy tourist dollars, everywhere you went, New Orleans restaurants were serving the same clichés: blackened fish, gumbo and other Creole and Cajun staples. Food that had once been critically revered was now being uncritically reproduced, and New Orleans had become perhaps the most overrated food town in the country.
Cooper Manning, a New Orleans native who is the older brother of former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning and current Giants quarterback Eli Manning—and, as a senior managing director of Chicago-based AJ Capital Partners last year helped restore and reopen the city’s Pontchartrain Hotel—remembers the time well. “We had 300 great restaurants,” he says, “but they all had the same menu.”
Today, Shaya’s modern Israeli offerings are just one example of a new culinary dynamism sweeping New Orleans. The city has almost doubled the number of restaurants it had pre-Hurricane Katrina to about 800, according to deputy mayor Ryan Berni, and they represent an astonishing breadth of tastes from African to Vietnamese to new takes on French and Italian. Even Emeril Lagasse, whose catchphrase, “Bam!”, was a one-word embodiment of the city’s one-note approach, opened his first new spot in nearly 20 years in late 2016. Meril serves Asian barbecue and Jamaican jerk, handmade pastas and small-plate surprises. “It’s great to see so many talented chefs exploring different cuisines and flavor profiles,” says Lagasse now. “While the Creole and Cajun influences are still pronounced, we have really embraced the influence of different types of cuisines.”
The praise is rolling in. At this year’s James Beard Awards, New Orleans won Rising Star Chef of the Year (Zachary Engel of Shaya), Best Chef: South (Rebecca Wilcomb of Herbsaint) and Outstanding Bar Program (Arnaud’s French 75 Bar). “We’re not just about sautéed fish and crabmeat anymore,” says Donald Link, executive chef and CEO of Link Restaurant Group, which includes Herbsaint, Cochon and Pêche. “The scene is hipper, looser—really creative.”
Link and John Besh—whose Besh Restaurant Group includes Shaya as well as August, Domenica and Lüke, among other popular spots—are leaders of New Orleans’ new culinary guard. Born and raised in the area, with the talent, good looks and charm to make them both food TV stars, the two are fierce proponents of local farms and fishermen, as well as NOLA’s culinary heritage. Besh’s John Besh Foundation provides microloans to area farmers, for example. “If we don’t support these amazing resources,” he says, “we become Anytown USA. And then why would people come?”
It’s what’s being done with those resources today that’s really new. At Trinity Restaurant in the French Quarter, for example, the city’s famous oysters can be had five ways, including baked in a kind of briny soufflé. Silver Whistle, a breakfast café at the Pontchartrain that is part of Besh’s empire, offers eggs Benedict, but instead of the typical English muffin it comes on a crumbly, rich Southern biscuit with sriracha sauce providing a nice New Orleans kick.
Foodies are rushing to the city for these kinds of tastes, fueling development that has added 5,000 hotel rooms in the past decade. The Pontchartrain was a legendary hotel—fans included Frank Sinatra and Tennessee Williams, who wrote A Streetcar Named Desire while staying there—that fell on hard times before AJ Capital reopened it in June 2016. Virginia-based Salamander Hotels & Resorts opened NOPSI Hotel in a renovated 1920s landmark in July of this year. The city’s first Four Seasons is now under construction downtown, and luxury high-rises and residential renovations of historic buildings are underway in all the hot neighborhoods: the Warehouse District, downtown, the South Market District.
“Like in a lot of cities, people are moving back into the city center,” says Scott Hutcheson, the mayor’s senior advisor on cultural economy, who notes that there has been $6 billion in multifamily private residential investments in NOLA since 2010. Earlier this year, direct transatlantic flights returned to New Orleans for the first time since Katrina. “We have flights coming in from London, Frankfurt, Panama again,” says Hutcheson. “Travelers are coming for our food and culture.”
New Orleans now feels strong enough to tackle even the hardest of subjects. Mayor Mitch Landrieu raised his national profile earlier this year with an eloquent speech at the removal of the last of four Confederate statues, a painful and controversial process. Urging listeners not to “marinate in historical denial,” he made a powerful argument for racial and ethnic unity, noting what it had done for the city: “We gave the world this funky thing called jazz, the most uniquely American art form,” he said. “Think about Mardi Gras, think about muffuletta, think about the Saints, gumbo, red beans and rice. By God, just think.”
New Orleans’ culinary renaissance came just in time. The city’s legendary old restaurants have struggled: Brennan’s went bankrupt in 2014 before changing hands and reopening with a more modern menu. Arnaud’s (founded in 1918), Broussard’s (1920), Galatoire’s (1905) and Antoine’s (established in 1840, the city’s oldest) and others have all updated their offerings.
Katrina was a massive blow for many restaurants, but in a bittersweet irony, the devastating 2005 flood also helped usher in today’s excitement. “The new dynamism wouldn’t have existed without the storm,” says Besh. “We were given artistic freedom to use what we have differently, and that was tremendously freeing.” Says Cooper Manning, “I don’t want to be misunderstood, but as much horror as Katrina caused, there’s a lot of good that came out of it.”
Young new faces flocked to New Orleans after the storm, reminded of the city’s importance by what was almost lost and hoping to help. Look at any major New Orleans street, and you’re likely to see license plates from New York, Illinois, California. There’s been some real debate among locals about whether or not so many newcomers will change the city’s essence.
But most embrace today’s vibrant new influences and feel confident that they won’t destroy the city’s unique traditions and sensibility. “New Orleans has opened up a lot,” says Link. You can feel that confidence at Commander’s Palace, opened in 1880, where the live jazz brunch makes you feel like you’re in a Woody Allen movie and can get into your soul so profoundly you tear up over your turtle soup. It’s alive at Café Du Monde, where it seems like representatives from every corner of the world have crowded in to sample its iconic deep-fried and sugar-dusted beignets and chicory coffee. And you can see it at newer spots like Herbsaint.
On a recent evening, dinner at Herbsaint was a study in how to use local ingredients to reinterpret, not reject, traditional tastes. Jumbo lump crabmeat and watermelon gazpacho had an undercurrent of fresh mint and chili peppers, served with bread fried in olive oil. A thinly layered lamb-and-mushroom lasagna combined earthy freshness with a sense of history. And an amuse-bouche of tempura squash blossoms stuffed with house-made mozzarella evoked nearby farms, Japanese technique and Italian flavors all at once.
Looking out the window, the view was purely, uniquely New Orleans. Dressed to the nines, a couple at one of the outdoor tables pulled back the top on their baby carriage to reveal a perfectly behaved puppy. A packed streetcar rolled by, full of what looked like Tulane students, singing as they headed in the direction of the university. Suddenly a ragtag group of teenagers carrying brass instruments came into view. Led by a young man carrying a massive tuba, they played a medley of New Orleans jazz. As I enjoyed my cashew brittle and strawberry ice cream, they wound their way down the street and out of view, apropos of nothing and riffing for the sheer joy of musical release.
The organization’s projects include Chefs Move, a scholarship program to increase minority
leadership in city kitchens, and Milk Money, which supports local farmers with microloans and business strategy. 426 Gravier St., Lola Thomas, programming director, lola@johnbesh foundation.org, 504.475.4709, johnbeshfoundation.org
Founded in 2000, this nonprofit holds networking events, offers mentors and organizes a cycle of activity that culminates each March in New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, when startups meet with venture capital leaders and win cash and other resources. 643 Magazine St., Suite 301, email@example.com, 504.410.7386, ideavillage.org
This startup incubator helps small businesses and nonprofits take on social and environmental issues with a focus on food security, water management, healthcare and educational equity. Resources include coworking space and access to equity investments. 4035 Washington Ave., Andrea Chen, executive director, firstname.lastname@example.org, 504.345.9836, gopropeller.org
The Pontchartrain became a celebrity hangout in the 1940s, but it fell on hard times. Last year, it reopened to its former glory following a massive renovation that includes several restaurants and a rooftop bar with sweeping city views. 2031 St. Charles Ave., email@example.com, 800.708.6652, thepontchartrainhotel.com
Virginia-based Salamander Hotels & Resorts opened its NOPSI Hotel in July after completely renovating the 1920s landmark. The space includes dramatic vaulted ceilings, classic NOLA cast-iron railings and terrazzo flooring. 317 Baronne St., 844.439.1463, nopsihotel.com
Southern charm meets English style at this 316-room hotel featuring artwork by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and Jacob Huysmans. There’s a rooftop pool, boutique spa and afternoon tea service. 300 Gravier St., David Teich, GM, firstname.lastname@example.org, 504.596.4780, windsorcourthotel.com
Shaya brings Southern flavors and modern techniques to Israeli cuisine with a hybrid menu that’s raking in culinary prizes. Set in a light-filled space with a wood-burning oven churning out puffy pitas, Shaya feels as unique as New Orleans itself. 4213 Magazine St., 504.891.4213, shayarestaurant.com
Established in 2000, Herbsaint is the flagship of chef/restaurateur Donald Link’s empire. He won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: South in 2007, and the chef de cuisine Rebecca Wilcomb won the prize this year. The French-Southern menu is wonderfully fresh and deeply creative. 701 St. Charles Ave., email@example.com, 504.524.4114, herbsaint.com
In the heart of the rowdy French Quarter, Trinity is an oasis of culinary cool. The cultural dissonance is almost jarring, but go with it. You can start with oysters, available raw, broiled, baked, smoked or fried, then sample crispy pork belly with creole caramel and end with a peach financier. 1117 Decatur St., 504.325.5789, trinityrestaurantneworleans.com
New Orleans is as much of a jazz city as it ever was and renowned favorites like Preservation Hall continue to please. But it’s worth visiting intimate locals’ picks, like “the Cat,” where there’s live jazz every night with no reservations and no cover charge. Cash only. 623 Frenchmen St., spottedcatmusicclub.com
A 1,300-acre wonderment, City Park includes a stand of nearly 800-year-old oaks, dripping in Spanish moss and with branches that drop down to kiss the ground. Hints of the city’s swampy past can be seen in several bayous and lakes on the property, and the Botanical Garden allows for curated study of native flora. 1 Palm Drive, firstname.lastname@example.org, 504.482.4888, neworleanscitypark.com
Native historian Glenn DeVillier’s walking tours of the city are among the best. Besides the usual, his repertoire includes everything from a cemetery and voodoo tour to a dog-friendly French Quarter stroll to a gay heritage and drinks tour. Glenn Louis DeVillier, 225.819.7535, glfdevilliers.com