When Brandon Trowbridge arrived in Beijing, China in August 2008 during the Olympic Games, he didn't speak a word of Mandarin, knew no one and wasn't sure where he'd be sleeping. But the city was flush with energy, and so was the 25-year-old Trowbridge, a native of Slidell.
Six months earlier, he'd received a call in the kitchen of the wine house in Napa Valley, Calif., where he was working. A headhunter asked him if he'd like to fly to Beijing and work as the chef de cuisine at the Beijing Hilton. After a second call convinced him his leg wasn't being pulled, Trowbridge, then 25, packed his bags. Today, not even four years later, he's running his own eatery, NOLA: a Louisiana-themed restaurant in China, bringing the taste of the bayou to Beijing.
Trowbridge says his mother, who was transplanted to Louisiana from New York when Trowbridge was young, cooked mostly Italian dishes throughout his childhood. But his Arabi-born father, an Entergy employee, wanted red beans and rice on Mondays and the occasional etouffee. It didn't take long for his mom to learn how to brown a roux and put together decent jambalaya. "Growing up, my mom made inside meals and my dad [made] outside meals," Trowbridge says. "I definitely grew up eating the stuff I make now all the time at my house."
Through high school, he worked in the kitchen of the Windsor Court Hotel, which exposed him to the rhythm and quirks of fine dining. After stints at Southeastern Louisiana University, Delgado College and Nicholls State University, he headed to California wine country to look for a job. "I didn't know exactly what I was doing," Trowbridge says. "I just get a little uneasy sometimes. Restless. I wanted a change."
Mesmerized by the Chinese characters everywhere but unable to read even the simplest street signs, Trowbridge relied on a guide to help him deal with necessities. He remembers his first three dining experiences in China. "First, there was the buffet in the Hilton. It was great, everything very well done," he says. "Then there was the cafe for the restaurant workers — like thin corn gruel. Basic. Then, out back, in an alleyway, I remember going after work with another chef who led me to a group of guys drinking baijiu (rice liquor). They had a Crock-Pot going and they reached in it and gave me a duck head," Trowbridge says, laughing. "I had a cup of baijiu in one hand and a duck head in the other. I looked at one hand and then the other. Which was worse? I don't know."
Soon the Olympics ended, management changed and the global economic crunch meant Beijing restaurants weren't hiring. Trowbridge had been in China less than a year and resorted to drastic measures. He taught English. "I hated it," he says.
"I'd worked in kitchens since I was 16 or 17. I'd never had to watch my language. The normal work hours were 'til midnight or later, and the only place you could go after was straight to the bar. Here I was, getting off at three or four in the afternoon. I had to watch my words. I didn't know what to do with myself." That job lasted a week and a half.
Then Trowbridge heard of a man who was opening a Western restaurant — a pizza joint — and looking for a consultant. Trowbridge helped the Beijing native write the menu for Hutong Pizza, which served big, square pizzas from a traditional courtyard home. By then, Trowbridge was beginning to pick up simple Chinese. When writing the menu, he listened as every item was translated into Chinese. He learned the words for bread, cheese, tomatoes and sausage.
"To this day, 80 percent of the Chinese I can speak is food," Trowbridge says. "Food is my Chinese."
With Hutong Pizza running smoothly, Trowbridge grew restless again, and decided it was time to try something new. With the backing of a group of investors that included the owner of Hutong Pizza, a television sitcom writer, a Google employee and a venture capitalist, Trowbridge secured backing for a new restaurant — and this one was going to be New Orleans-themed.
"I wasn't going to lose anything," he says. "I was slightly homesick anyway. I thought I might as well try to attract some New Orleans people."
There was some precedent. Beijing once had a live music and light food venue, The Big Easy, that introduced the locals to some simple Louisiana food and music. KFC had also just launched a successful campaign to introduce chicken wings to the Chinese. "It's weird, they automatically think Louisiana when they think KFC chicken wings," Trowbridge says. "I kind of hate it, because coming from Louisiana I'm a Popeye's guy, but the association was there."
Finding the ideal location was the next trick. Trowbridge knew he needed to be near expats, but also a place frequented by Chinese diners. He found a shipping warehouse in the Ritan embassy district, an area crowded with diplomats, foreign businessmen and expatriate families.
While his investors took care of the politicking and licensing, Trowbridge worked on the refurbishment nearly every day. The transformation began in February 2009, and by September, the place was unrecognizable. A second floor and balcony were added. The interior was designed with big, sunny windows that opened to the breeze in the daytime and soft lighting that reflected off the dark wood tables and hardwood flooring at night. An intricate brick and wood bar anchored the first floor. And the sound system streamed Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino.
For the first month, NOLA only served po-boys — andouille sausage, roast beef and shredded pork — on baguettes they sourced from a bakery a few doors down. Business was sparse, almost entirely expats who wandered in from nearby embassies. The difficulty, Trowbridge says, was training the inexperienced crew to cook nuanced New Orleans dishes: "They were car mechanics, air conditioning repairmen and guys who didn't feel like finishing high school," he says. "We just had a really shady crew. They rolled into Beijing from the countryside; probably hadn't seen a foreigner before. They spoke their own dialect and couldn't understand what I said in Chinese."
Trowbridge says he struggled to teach the first batch of Chinese cooks to slow-cook a roux — "we burned gallons of the stuff at first" — but experimentation taught him that the best way to make a roux in China is to cook a whole roasting pan batch in the oven at a steady temperature for four hours; it's nearly impossible not to scorch a roux on the intensely hot Chinese stoves.
Surprisingly, he never had a big problem finding New Orleans ingredients. Trowbridge was able to blend most of his own spices (with the exception of file, which he still can't find), make boudin and andouille sausage in house, and piece together a storehouse of staples like grits, red beans and hot peppers. The major exception, he says, is seafood. "No one does seafood like in New Orleans. You just can't replace that quality," Trowbridge says. "I'd love to be able to buy oysters and crab, but it's just too expensive." Ask Trowbridge about Chinese crab, and he'll fume about the exorbitantly priced, bad-tasting, hairy crabs that Chinese connoisseurs pay big money to eat. "Trash," he says. He refuses to serve it.
Soon Trowbridge fired the original cooks and started adding main courses to the menu. He tried to strike a balance between favorites like chicken and andouille gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, barbecued shrimp, macaroni and cheese and fried chicken, along with more localized dishes like braised short ribs and a catfish courtbouillon served whole and bone-in, the way Chinese consumers preferred. He added a weekend brunch complete with beignets and Bloody Marys, which was a hit, and offered a lunch buffet for the embassy crowd that poured in at noon.
The Chinese diners were eager to try New Orleans food and devoured everything, especially the braised lamb and lunchtime po-boys, Trowbridge says. The expats and embassy crowd favored po-boys, pork tenderloins and a behemoth four-cheese grilled sandwich. Today, Trowbridge will get a table of New Orleans visitors, and inevitably get an earful if the food is not spot on, he says.
Trying to develop regulars is one of his favorite parts of the job. But with the transitory expat population in Beijing, he says nearly every one of his regulars has moved on. "Once I get to know someone so well that every time they come in here I'm gonna buy them a drink and go have one with them, too, it seems they leave Beijing," Trowbridge says. "People are always changing. That's the hard part."
So Trowbridge has made a point of courting Chinese regulars. On a typical weeknight, he bounces from kitchen to bar to table, ensuring that the cooks are on their marks, the barbacks are quick and the customers are happy. His Chinese has improved significantly. He can spout a steady stream of directives and his food vocabulary is extensive. When a table of Chinese customers complains about a dish, he is quick to shrug his shoulders and offer an apology. Outside the restaurant, though, he admits his communication skills are limited.
With Chinese natives giving NOLA good reviews on the Internet, and the menus and kitchen tasks becoming more streamlined and efficient, Trowbridge is branching out again. In the fall of 2011, he and an American business partner started "Beijing's only granola delivery service," which he calls Greatwall Granola. Once a month, he uses the ovens at NOLA to toast a huge batch of granola studded with pecans and coated in maple syrup. Customers, nearly all expats, order online, and Trowbridge delivers them just over two pounds of granola for about $15. "There was a demand for fresh granola out there," Trowbridge explains. "It's tough to get in China, and I had the ovens already, so I figured I should put them to use."
Using that same logic, Trowbridge recently started a cookie delivery service using vacant space and ovens at Hutong Pizza. He calls them Cookie's Cookies, and the list at the new shop is long and eclectic. Customers can order standards, like snickerdoodles and oatmeal raisin, or they can opt for the "Elvis," chunky peanut butter with banana and bacon, or the "bonfire," spicy double-chocolate chip. Trowbridge says the customer base is about one-quarter Chinese, with the remainder being expats. The most popular cookies so far are the ginger-molasses, followed by espresso-chocolate.
Trowbridge admits he doesn't know what his future will bring — and doesn't like to sit still long enough to contemplate it. But on Mardi Gras night, with his corner of Beijing decked out in beads, a long buffet anchored by homemade king cake stretching the length of NOLA's ground-floor wall and nearly every table in the house filled (with at least three spots claimed by Louisiana natives), he paused a moment. The Randy Able Stable, a fiddle band, was playing upstairs. Though the band members were Westerners, Trowbridge had called them just the night before, and none of them were Louisiana natives. They'd rushed to learn a little Professor Longhair and Dr. John before the gig.
As they tore through "Iko Iko," a group of young Tulane grads danced and sang along. Trowbridge watched, and a smile slowly washed over his face.
"Might as well make home come to us, right?" he said.
— Nick Compton is bio TKTKTKTKTKTKTK.