Cuisine has always been important in New Orleans and to New Orleanians. And how could it not, in a city with French roots, the convergence of so many other distinct food traditions from Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, and the abundance of local resources all on hand to blend in local kitchens? The big change in the last 25 years, however, is the addition of national media attention and a surge in travelers from around the world hankering for a taste of what had been for so long taken virtually for granted within the southern parishes of the Bayou State.
In the 1980s and '90s, the public's interest in food as not just something delicious to eat but as a lifestyle pursuit, a hobby and even a field of study exploded. New Orleans, with its deeply entrenched and often exotic culinary traditions became a mecca for travelers who find restaurants as interesting as art galleries or scenic vistas, while the charismatic chefs at work in some of its kitchens attained the sort of celebrity erstwhile reserved for movie stars.
The departure of so many big businesses from New Orleans during the same period took a powerful toll on the ranks of locals with the wallets to patronize fine restaurants regularly. But the city's tourism and convention business grew dramatically, bringing in waves of potential restaurant customers with money earned in other cities. Not only did fine dining in New Orleans retain an audience amid a local economic downturn, but it was an audience weighted heavily with people who would return home and travel elsewhere with stories of the grandness of New Orleans cuisine. Galatoire's, Antoine's and the like -- once high-society nature preserves for the city's upper crust -- didn't have to change a thing to become more like public exhibitions of the vaunted New Orleans culinary culture.
The city's other Creole culinary tradition -- often called New Orleans soul food -- had its own elevation to national prominence. Situated in the shadow of a housing project, Dooky Chase's Restaurant nonetheless became a major destination for visitors. Austin Leslie earned national fame for the garlic and parsley-wreathed fried chicken he cooked at the beloved Chez Helene restaurant -- which by 1987 had inspired the CBS sitcom Frank's Place -- and later at Jacques-Imo's Caf and Pampy's Creole Kitchen before his death in September. The prestigious James Beard Foundation even reached out to a down-at-the-heels Sixth Ward chicken joint to award its America's Classic Award to Willie Mae's Scotch House, which is now rebuilding from the flood.
It wasn't so long ago, however, that country crooner Hank Williams was more closely associated with the terms jambalaya, crawfish pie and file gumbo than any cook in New Orleans. But that was before the Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme's ascension to stardom. A native of Opelousas, Prudhomme opened his K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen restaurant in 1979 as a casual Cajun restaurant in the French Quarter. But both the restaurant and its chef would be transformed in the 1980s thanks to the reach of national media. His first cookbook, Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen, achieved best-seller status in 1986 and a series of nationally broadcast cooking shows followed. Prudhomme's reputation as a quintessential New Orleans chef was elevated to the point where tourists often still arrive in the Crescent City for the first time expecting locals to speak with his Cajun twang.
However high Prudhomme's star rose in the 1980s, he would seem like a wallflower by comparison to New Orleans' current superstar chef: Emeril Lagasse. A native of New Bedford, Mass., Lagasse opened his namesake Emeril's Restaurant in 1990 in the Warehouse District, at the time an unlikely destination for gourmet dining. But it was an instant success, and the chef opened his second restaurant, NOLA, in 1992. In 1993, he published Emeril's New New Orleans Cooking, a bestseller and the first of eight cookbooks that together have sold more than 2 million copies to date. That same year, Lagasse began his ongoing presence on the Food Network, where his shows reach an estimated audience of 78 million. Though he now has more restaurants outside the city than in it (six vs. three here, including the still-shuttered Emeril's Delmonico), the chef's public image remains as firmly associated with New Orleans as his andouille-crusted redfish.
Prudhomme's kitchen produced more than stellar cuisine; Frank Brigtsen and later Greg Sonnier launched their own venues, starting a trend that showed how New Orleans' kitchens also serve as schools for the culinary arts. Just look at the alumni from Commander's Palace.
Through the years, it is still the Brennans who remain the family dynasty of New Orleans restaurants. Brennan's, Commander's Palace, Mr. B's Bistro, Redfish Grill, Bacco, Palace Caf, Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse, Bourbon House, Ralph's on the Park and Cafe Adelaide all bear the Brennan name today.
Many others have had their own part in advancing the cuisine while achieving a much more local level of fame. Susan Spicer doesn't have her face on a line of Chardonnay (like Lagasse) or tasso (like Prudhomme) but has been instrumental in starting a number of local restaurants, including an early turn at the Bistro at the Maison de Ville in 1986; Herbsaint in 2000; and Bayona, which opened in 1990 and where she remains chef today.
Several other star chefs have followed -- most recently Restaurant August's John Besh and Lilette's John Harris. Then there are the more mobile chefs who keep popping up in different settings: Gerard Maras and Kevin Vizard, to name two, keep us guessing about their locale every few years, but never the quality of their work.
As famous as local chefs become, their cuisine still must rely on the availability of quality ingredients and a public that appreciates their craft. Both these factors have seen their own local transformation in the past 25 years, which Elizabeth Pearce, senior curator of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans, credits largely to the re-emergence of neighborhood markets selling fresh, local food both direct to consumers and to restaurant kitchens.
Such open-air markets were once common place across the city, though they had dwindled to the verge of extinction locally with even the richly historic French Market offering only a small assortment of farm vendors by the 1990s. But 1995 marked the creation of the Crescent City Farmers Market, which grew to four weekly markets before the storm providing venues for residents to reacquaint themselves with local foodstuffs and creating a food supply chain much closer to the soil than modern grocery store shopping. Some restaurants took full advantage of the bounty and chefs often now brag on the local pedigree of their ingredients, which Pearce says helps educate and influence the palates of diners.
What qualified as local cuisine today can look and taste quite different from the local cooking of 25 years ago. Sara Roahen, Gambit Weekly's restaurant critic from 2000 to 2005, covered a beat that saw a burst of restaurants hit the scene with a distinct new style she describes as combining elements of Creole cuisine with riffs on others, including Italian, classical French and Asian cooking. Within just a few years around the turn of the millennium, this new style of New Orleans restaurant manifested itself in the establishment of places like Dick and Jenny's, Herbsaint, Lilette, Restaurant August and Cuvee.
Not every new idea took root. Fusion cuisine, which attained craze status in other cities during the '90s, was a decided fizzle in New Orleans, where it was most often a blend of Creole and Asian techniques. Caf Indo in Mid-City, 56 Degrees in the CBD and Noble Bistro in Metairie each took up the fusion mantle -- and none are currently in business.
But the past two and a half decades saw New Orleanians from Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, Indian and Latin American ethnicities making purer forms of their culinary traditions felt in a big way. Pho Tau Bay built out from its original Gretna location into a four-restaurant mini-chain, introducing people in Metairie, Mid-City and the downtown medical district to the flavors of pho, bun, banh mi and other Vietnamese classics. The chain's owners plan to rebuild at least some of these locations and other Vietnamese restaurants continue to thrive around town. Another highly successful local chain, Mona's Cafe, has grown from a grocery store in a converted Mid-City gas station to become a fixture in neighborhoods across town, while others from the casual Lebanon Caf in the Riverbend to the more polished Byblos restaurants in Metairie and Uptown show off the diversity of styles the cuisine offers.
The cuisine of Latin American cultures increasingly revealed its diverse stripes to New Orleans diners through the '80s and '90s as well. Casa Garcia has been serving family-sized portions of Tex-Mex fare in Metairie for more than 20 years, but later additions like the downtown Cuban restaurant Liborio, the high-end offerings at Taqueros/Coyoacan or RioMar and the Central American and Mexican regional specialties on the West Bank at Pupuseria Divino Corazon and in Kenner at Fiesta Latina showed the fuller spectrum of flavors and traditions. The influx of Latin American people to the area since Katrina has many local fans of this region's cooking hopeful for even more choices in the near future.
Indian restaurants established their foothold in the local market early in the 1980s when the Keswani family opened their Taj Mahal, which is still firing up its tandoor oven in Old Metairie. The local curry scene remains small, but has grown to include today's popular Nirvana on Magazine Street and India Palace in Metairie.
Gambit Weekly has played its own role in the development of the New Orleans restaurant scene as its pages joined the seemingly endless local conversation about cuisine. Columnists have kept restaurateurs on their toes, helped educate the public and ferreted out new trends and hidden gems on the backstreets of the city. More recently, Gambit has suspended restaurant reviews to focus on documenting the extraordinary story of the city's culinary rebirth following Hurricane Katrina. Stuck for a brief time with little more than survival rations, a city that loves to dine out has brought back its restaurants -- both palatial and humble -- at a pace and with an enthusiasm few could have predicted during the darkest hours. No matter what trends or changes await the city's cuisine, it seems certain that when New Orleanians talk about food they will continue to say a mouthful.