Much has been going through my mind over the past couple of weeks, as we’ve been doing some scaling back here at the house with a yard sale, taking that trip up to Illinois and generally refocusing ourselves. Quite honestly, the local culinary world has not treated us kindly over the past year or so, despite our history of success, and we wonder if our time in New Orleans is coming to an end.
We live in one of the great food cities of the world and you’d think there would be ample room for those of us who see food equally as playground and sustenance. But the truth is New Orleans is basically a city of many restaurants but only a few menus. Some of this is due to our status as a tourist mecca, with folks from around the world arriving and expecting Creole and Cajun all day every day. We certainly have more than enough places to fill that need.
The other issue is local taste. While South Louisianans certainly have great specialties to be proud of, loved and celebrated, I see way too many with little appetite for anything else. Despite our recent influx of bright newcomers from other food cultures, I see a lot of locals with a sort of bunker mentality when it comes to what they eat. This can make it tough on a chef or a place with some new and creative ideas, since it takes time for word to get out to those wanting something different and to be part of the fun.
I once had a customer who came into my place, looked at the menu and asked for a poboy, which was not a menu item. I explained we didn’t do poboys. He looked at me and said, “This is New Orleans. You have to do poboys.” I’m sorry dude, but no I don’t. Even if I did, I’d simply wind up being compared to Parkway/Tracey’s/Parasol’s/Mahoney’s or wherever. Some bands are meant to be cover bands, playing the songs that made others famous. Others prefer to be influenced and then cut their own road. While I can play a pretty decent culinary “Stairway To Heaven,” I am certainly the latter.
I was greatly saddened this past week to learn of the departure of Chris DeBarr from Serendipity, up at American Can. I haven’t had a chance to talk to Chris since his departure, but I understand he’s either moving to Houston or planning to spend a lot of time over there doing pop-ups or in other ventures. No matter the reasons, New Orleans is losing one of its most creative kitchen people – a guy I began admiring when he was at The Delachaise and even moreso at Green Goddess in the French Quarter. I always considered it a special event when he’d choose to come into my place to eat, since we shared the same vision, attitude and style.
Certainly, those of us who are willing to push the edge are much better off running our own operation. Twice in the past year, I have been hired because I have a reputation, then told I’m going to cook X, Y and Z. It’s like they said, “We hired you because you’re creative, now stop.” What?
Ultimately, a restaurant is a business like any other – it has to turn a profit or it has to close. Not only does there have to be a monetary profit, but the operator has to be willing to put in the hours and make the personal investment of time and effort to make it run as it should. This is why most food trucks eventually become brick-and-mortar operations or the truck is sold to someone else – there are only so many hours of food truck operating in most people. After awhile, they get tired of parking outside a bar at midnight or on a street at noon on a 95-degree day.
I know creativity sells because my own experience has proven it. It can take a longer-term commitment, but it can and does work. But I see those windows closing more and more in New Orleans in favor of turning quicker and easier money.
I understand why. But it’s a shame.
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.