The procedure for ordering at New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival food booths is pretty straightforward: name your dish, fork over cash. At some booths, however, it's common for festivalgoers to try to make dinner reservations, too.
Of the 60-odd food vendors at Jazz Fest, some work as private caterers throughout the year while others do the festival circuit exclusively. But a handful also run stand-alone eateries. For them, Jazz Fest time is an inevitably exhausting, potentially rewarding juggling act between their dining rooms and the Fair Grounds. It can mean logging 16- to 18-hour workdays and recruiting crews of employees or volunteers to staff the booth. It means prepping weeks ahead of time and finding chilled storage space for massive amounts of food.
As the occasional over-the-counter reservation request attests, berths at the Fair Grounds can be as valuable for restaurants as Jazz Fest gigs are for bands. These restaurateurs say the seven-day event is a marketing opportunity that pays dividends year-round.
"We started at Jazz Fest not long after the restaurant first opened," says Momo Young, owner and sushi chef at Ninja (8433 Oak St., 866-1119; www.ninjasushineworleans.com). "Now people associate us with the Jazz Fest. They come to see us every year at the festival, and they come to see us at the restaurant other times."
Such double duty means some of the dishes the public may associate with Jazz Fest are actually available all year long.
For a few vendors, Jazz Fest exposure was the impetus for opening their restaurants in the first place. Wanda and Skip Walker had to buy special equipment when they took over the cochon de lait sandwich concession at Jazz Fest in 2001, and soon they decided to start a restaurant to put that investment to use year-round. In 2004 they opened Walker's Southern Style BBQ (10828 Hayne Blvd., 241-8227; www.cochondelaitpoboys.com). This tiny joint's location by the lakefront levee in eastern New Orleans is fairly remote, but the renown of its Cajun-style roast pork draws the cochon cognoscenti all year and has spawned an online business for the family's sauces and rubs.
Galley Seafood (2535 Metairie Road, Metairie, 832-0955) has been a vendor at Jazz Fest since 1977, when owners Vicky and Dennis Patania began serving fried catfish and trout po-boys there. As their festival menu evolved, trout was replaced by the now-immensely popular soft-shell crab po-boy. The Patanias parlayed their success at the Fair Grounds into their camp-like Old Metairie restaurant in 1991.
"You think people get enough seafood out here, but you know New Orleans people, they're always planning the next meal," Vicky says. "Last year, by the time we made it back to the restaurant (from Jazz Fest) people were already tailgating in the parking lot waiting for tables."
Fatigue is inescapable with such schedules, but Moncef Sbaa of Jamila's Mediterranean Cuisine (7808 Maple St., 866-4366) has evolved his own psyche-up ritual while trekking from his Jazz Fest booth to the Tunisian restaurant he runs Uptown with wife Jamila.
"You leave exhausted, you know, but then you see everyone outside, neighbors playing music on the porches, everyone still partying," Sbaa says. "You can feel the night is just beginning, and I focus on that. It gets me energized for the fourth quarter."