Sunday, January 1, 2006: “Cabbage is for money. Pork, believe it or not, is for health. And black-eyed peas are for luck.” My friend Kristen Remeza describes the traditional New Year’s meal. “I’m going to Slidell tonight to have my mother make lots of those peas. We need a luckier year than the last.” This blog ends where the new year begins. I’ve been visiting chefs’ start-ups this week to glimpse a year that everyone hopes will be luckier than the last.
“The Convention Center is a block away. The conventions start again in October. One convention can bring 400,000 eaters to the city.” David English, the chef from Cobalt, is standing in what will be his kitchen inside Vicky Bayley’s new restaurant in an upcoming boutique hotel by Loews and Roger Ogden of the Warehouse District’s nearby Ogden Museum. “Harrah’s is building a jazz club up the block. The street here will be walking-only.” It’s a smart venture for an ambitious chef in a great location in a developing area. “We’re calling it Contemporary New Orleans, whatever that means.” It means David brings the low, slow heat he learned in France, the refined technique he picked up in Spain and his native Californian focus on diverse, seasonal ingredients to the “approachability” of Creole cuisine. The traditional “grandma-type stew”, artichokes and oysters, is usually “overcooked with tons of cream.” David braises fresh baby ‘chokes in a olive oil and white wine, poaches the oysters minimally and tops the dish with a bacon-infused “cappucino” foam made with non-fat milk. The restaurant is slated for February 13, which couldn’t be soon enough. Says David, “I’m dying to get back in the kitchen.”
A few blocks away, Donald Link sends out chicken-liver salad, cucumber salad, whole-roast shrimp with garlic and chilis, catfish with chilis and tomatoes, housemade andouille with grits and grilled peppers, house-cured boudin with house-pickled beans and housemade mustard, greens with his “grandaddy’s cornbread”, Cajun meat pie. What’s in the meat pie? “Meat,” he says. What’s in the grits? “Marscapone.” We’re tasting the food for Donald’s second Warehouse District restaurant, Cochon, which is Cajun for pig. We check out its progress inside a former electrical supply house near the I-10. Architect Brook Graham runs down its features: picture windows, front banquette, a bar with standing room for after-work small plates, a communal table for a dozen diners, a private booth in back, an open kitchen with a centerpiece wood-burning oven with zinc-topped counter seating, exposed brick, handcrafted furnishings, poplar slat walls, polished concrete floor. “It’s raw and modern at the same time. It supports Donald’s cooking, which is bottom-line cooking, which is what Cajun is.” Donald will buy his animals whole, use every part and cure his own meats. “A wild boar had its way with the farm pigs, so we’ll have a pig-and-wild boar mix,” he says.
When does Cochon open? “He’s saying February, he’s saying March, which probably means April,” says press rep Liz Goliwas. Again, it’s not a moment too soon. Before August 29, Donald says, “Herbsaint was staffed beautifully. I didn’t have to be there all the time. Cochon’s staff was all set to go. I had managers, cooks, a pastry chef.” Then there was Katrina, Herbsaint closed for six weeks, construction ground to a halt on Cochon, his staff was gone, his investors were nagging him, a pig’s head was rotting in his walk-in. “And the whole losing-the-house thing kinda stinks,” says the Lakeview “refugee.” “It was really not part of the plan.” He shows me a 1949 photograph of his enormous Acadian family, the Zaunbrechers. “I gotta find some peace somehow. I’m excited about this new restaurant. It’s growth.”
And all the little joints that Katrina froze in time? “Those are what will be lost,” Tenney Flynn said last week, as we drove past yet another gritty po’boy or crawfish or gumbo or fried-chicken place torn from its bearings, windows smashed, door yawning open but not for business. Is there hope for New Orleans’ hurt joints? On New Year’s Day, I take a drive through Lakeview and Mid-City and the Tremé and the Bywater and the Upper Ninth Ward, past Bud’s Broiler, Billy K’s Seafood, Joe’s Hot Fish, Kings and Queens Soul Food, all closed. Samko Grocery seems to scream. “Help!” is scrawled across its front. In the trashed yard of the Saturn Bar, behind a fence tacked with a shreded Army Corps of Engineers asbestos removal notice, an infestation of rust-colored roosters cock-a-doodle-do like it’s sunrise. Mike’s Food Store down the street is marked with orange day-glo paint that reads “Coming Back.”
The New Orleans Hospitality Disaster Relief Fund, the Crescent City Restaurant Re-Birth Project, the Louisiana Restaurant Association Employee Relief Fund, the Louisiana Oyster Community Relief Fund, the Louisiana Small Farm Survival Fund -- this list doesn’t begin to cover the area food community’s homegrown recovery efforts. From the Marriott Corporation that continues to house innumerable staff members’ families to Kenny LaCour who put up Larry Nguyen in his private apartment, everyone’s helping everyone else get back to the work of food.
Now it’s our turn to get back to the work of good eating, because New Orleans needs our appetites. “Laissez les bons temps roulez,” as they say down here. Let the good times roll. And the other thing New Orleans chefs always say when you walk out their doors, belly full? They say, “Don’t be a stranger.”