Over the past 35 years, New Orleans' fine-dining establishments have increasingly made way for more casual eateries, and the influx of newcomers following Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods has resulted in a restaurant boom of epic proportions: There now are more restaurants in the city than ever before.
Gambit spoke with three culinary fixtures in New Orleans about the changes they observed over the years and how those have redefined the way New Orleanians think about food and dining, for better or worse.
"Life has a way of presenting us with change in ways that we don't expect. I think Hurricane Katrina did that; even in adversity and disaster, there's opportunity. In our case, the main difference is the shift in demographics. The population in the city of New Orleans is a lot more diverse than it used to be ... and the restaurant landscape has changed in a very similar way.
"We now have hundreds more restaurants than we did before, and that's a good thing. The diversity of our restaurant landscape has exploded, but in all of these restaurants, it would be hard to say that any of these fit what we know as Creole cuisine. Creole cuisine and culture has always been multicultural ... and I think we need to realize now that Creole is a very expandable concept.
"I personally have a tremendous love for classic Creole cuisine — if I could make gumbo all day and go home, I'd be a very happy guy. If there's one thing that rubs me the wrong way, it's that it's become easier to find a taco in New Orleans than it is a po-boy, and I say that only half-joking. Even in my own cooking life, I'm always embracing diversity and letting it evolve. We (now) have this diverse restaurant landscape, and it's really a cause for celebration."
Wayne Baquet Sr.
Lil' Dizzy's Cafe
"Creole soul food is sort of a lost art. I think some of the things that I still do, not a lot of people are doing. But I think people are still eating down-home real New Orleans food: gumbo, fried chicken, smothered pork chops.
"I do see a lot more restaurants — more than we've ever had. I see a lot of people coming to New Orleans from the North with new ideas. What would not have been accepted a while back is accepted now. It's a new generation.
"I've also noticed that the mortality rate for a lot of smaller restaurants has gone up. It was a lot easier to run restaurants back then. I know a lot of people who tried opening up restaurants that didn't make it. There (are) just so many restaurants (now). If you have deep pockets ... you can survive it. A lot of the minority vendors at (the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival) aren't there any more because they can't afford to be there, because the price of the booths has gone up so high. A lot of small businesses just can't afford to do that.
"I think it's much, much harder for minorities in every aspect, even just living here. A lot of people don't like to hear the word gentrification ... but when I opened (Lil' Dizzy's Cafe) in Treme about 12 years ago, this was a black neighborhood. Now, this is a 90 percent white neighborhood, and I'm not mad about that, but can everyone survive that? No."
Ti Adelaide Martin
"I remember when it was front-page news that Antoine's put English on their menu and that Galatoire's started taking credit cards; these were all big things that happened. The truth is, we couldn't (hire) girl cooks in any quantity until the last couple of years, and now there will be many a night when there are more girls than guys in the kitchen. We've finally gotten there, but it really took a long time. It doesn't feel that long ago for me — maybe 15 years — but we (used) to have certain guests call and make a reservation and say, 'And we do not want a female server.' All that has changed, and those are some great changes.
"New Orleans always had a great depth of history in cooking, but I don't know that we had really capitalized on it yet (in 1981). The shift (for us) came ... when Paul Prudhomme was the chef at Commander's (Palace). New Orleans has always served Creole food, but not Cajun. But then Cajun and Creole crashed in the kitchen, with Paul pushing Cajun and my mom (Ella Brennan) pushing haute Creole at Commander's (Palace) and fantastic things have been happening ever since. Paul really pushed to highlight our cuisine and for us to be proud of our cuisine.
"Even before (Hurricane) Katrina, there was absolutely no reasonable explanation for the number of restaurants in New Orleans. If we look at the number of restaurants (now) and the number of restaurants in general and the number of types of restaurants that are just so good ... it's just been very, very good for New Orleans and for cooking, because we're all pushing each other."