The caterers, restaurant operators and nonprofit organizations that sell food at the festival each year know better. Getting a berth is a highly competitive proposition, not something to be given up lightly, and preparing for the six-day orgy of Louisiana cooking is a huge undertaking.
Wayne Baquet knows all this as well as anyone. That's why weeks out from the festival he already had 2,000 crawfish heads crammed with stuffing and hundreds more being filled each day. The heads are labor-intensive but crucial ingredients in crawfish bisque, one of the dishes Baquet is bringing back to Jazz Fest after a reluctant hiatus last year induced by Hurricane Katrina.
Baquet operates the Creole soul food restaurant Lil' Dizzy's on Esplanade Avenue in Treme. The effort to get the flood-damaged and looter-ravaged place back open last spring precluded his participation in Jazz Fest beyond a guest appearance cooking crawfish omelets at the festival's demonstration kitchen in the Grandstand. But Jazz Fest managers essentially held Baquet's spot open for him last year, along with other food vendors who wanted to return but were unable to mount a Fest-sized operation because of the disaster.
Baquet used to make fried chicken at Jazz Fest -- thousands of servings of it -- but that torch was passed last year to Catering Unlimited, which will serve it again this year along with a country-style Cajun jambalaya. Instead, Baquet is bringing two dishes that are new to Jazz Fest but run very deep in his family's culinary history. In addition to the crawfish bisque, which Baquet has served at the festival for many years, his booth will feature Creole fil gumbo and trout Baquet. The gumbo recipe comes from Baquet's father, Eddie, who began the Baquet family's restaurant legacy in the 1940s as a partner in the fried chicken joint Paul Gross Chicken Coop. By 1966, he opened his own place, called Eddie's, on Law Street, which grew into a Creole soul food legend before closing in the 1990s. It spawned a string of Baquet family restaurants over the years, of which Lil' Dizzy's is the latest.
The Creole fil gumbo will be familiar to Lil' Dizzy's patrons who regularly slurp down its brown, thin, brothlike roux with its homemade hot sausage and smoked sausage, crab, shrimp and chicken. Trout Baquet, first served at Eddie's, is a fillet of fish grilled crispy around the edges and topped with a lemon butter sauce and a few ounces of lump crabmeat.
Trout Baquet is joining a parade of great fish dishes served at Jazz Fest, preparations that seem elaborate even by the festival's high standards. There is also a pecan catfish meuniere from Mandeville's C.P.G. Catering and catfish amandine from Stuf Hapn Event Catering. And making its own post-Katrina return to the Fair Grounds this year is the paper-plate masterpiece that is fried fish Ferdinand from chef Ferdinand Johnson and his Creole Chef Catering of Harvey. Johnson is a protg of chef Paul Prudhomme and for his namesake dish uses redfish, the species Prudhomme made so famous in the 1980s with his blackening recipe. Johnson fries his and tops it with a mildly spicy Creole mustard sauce studded with crawfish tails and shrimp.
Also returning from a post-Katrina hiatus this year is Cajun Nights Catering of Metairie, which serves excellent alligator pies in flaky pastry, shrimp stuffed with crabmeat and fried green tomatoes. A Slidell company called Electro-Reps Inc., which fries crawfish tails and popcorn shrimp, makes a fried seafood salad with both and has spicy boiled potatoes. Caterers Sharon and Guilherme Wegner of Metairie who serve the unique soft-shell crawfish po-boy -- which has whole, fried crawfish in the manner of soft-shell crabs -- plus the fried alligator po-boy and alligator with fried jalapenos.
Another festival food making a come back this year is perhaps the festival's least known offering. Tucked away in the Grandstand and almost hidden beside the Lagniappe Stage, shuckers from Smitty's Seafood Restaurant in Kenner pry open Louisiana oysters. This is pure goodness, served raw and cold with no preparation besides an optional squeeze of lemon or shot of cocktail sauce. There is also beer on tap here and the combination of shade, local bands playing a few yards away at the small stage and the proximity of restrooms with running water all make this an underappreciated Jazz Fest oasis, whether you care for oysters or not.
Top Food Picks
The ideal way to sample Jazz Fest food would be to work through the stands with a boundless appetite and an unlimited cash supply. If you can only try a few, however, here are recommendations for don't-miss dishes:
Cochon de lait po-boy, Love at First Bite (Food Area I) Ñ mouth-watering pork with coleslaw on French bread.
Pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo, PrejeanÕs Restaurant (Food Area II) Ñ country-style, with a deep, dark roux and smoky meats.
Trout Baquet, BacquetÕs LilÕ DizzyÕs Cafe (Heritage Square) Ñ a generous amount of crab and good blend of seasoning.
Alligator pie, Cajun Nights Catering (Food Area I) Ñ a creamy, spicy mix inside a puff pastry shell.
Crawfish and zucchini bisque, JamilaÕs Cafe (Food Area II) Ñ full-flavored and surprisingly refreshing with a blend of familiar ingredients and exotic seasoning.
Fried fish Ferdinand, Creole Chef Catering (Food Area II) Ñ perfection on a paper plate.
Cajun chicken and tasso with Creole rice, Food for Thought (Food Area II) Ñ a bargain by volume and loaded with smoky, spicy flavor.