One of the great things about relocating to A Different Place is the learning curve. While some folks find it too easy to begin honking and beeping about how things just ain’t right in the new place, I find it mostly tremendous. So it is with my wife’s effort to obtain medical marijuana here in Southern California.
This marks my 78th and final column for Uptown Messenger as Kim and I pack up and move back toward the West Coast. She was raised in the San Diego area and we feel it’s time to tighten the circle, pulling family closer and seeking new opportunities. Besides, I am long overdue for a good, no-time-schedule road trip and the adventure it brings.
In a perfect world, we would have time and money for one last, great tour of New Orleans favorite haunts and to try to get around to a few spots we haven’t yet tried. But we don’t have much of either, so such an event will have to wait until we return, which will be as often as possible.
While we’re still packing boxes, spinning off furniture and generally preparing for our move, I’ve had to take time out to schedule one final Big Event while we’re still in New Orleans. While others get involved in White Linen Night or the Red Dress Run, I’m gearing up for the Louisiana Restaurant Association Expo at the Convention Center this weekend.
I love food shows, but the LRA Expo is more than just your average feed-me-for-free event. It’s part reunion, part discovery expedition and all playground for those of us in the food biz. It’s not just a gathering of folks from around Louisiana or the Gulf South, but also from around the country. Though each year brings some different offerings, we can always depend on tremendous hospitality from Wendy Waren and the entire LRA crew.
I’m writing this column while sitting in our front room, which looks like the love child of Chaos and Literacy. It is a complete mess of books, boxes, various packing materials, ladder, some no-longer-hanging artwork, disheveled furniture and other stuff. In other words, we have a sidewalk sale coming this Saturday as we continue clearing out the house ahead of the move.
This isn’t your normal, rent-a-trailer move. This is a begin-again, let it all go, roll with what you can fit in one minivan, complete disengagement. We arrived in New Orleans the same way nine years ago, and I’m amazed at how much we’ve collected. Anyone is, if they’re stayed in one spot more than a year or so. We have two cats, so we have to reserve space for them. There are a few electronic items and some valued personal possessions and we’ve done some severe reduction of our wardrobes. Only one small piece of furniture will make the trip. Add in a bin of paperwork and we’re pretty much full.
I thought the hardest part would be deciding which books to take, since we have many and I have a thing for real books over a Nook or similar device. But now, looking at the kitchen, it appears to toughest decisions are still to come.
We’re in a situation these days at work where those of us who cook for a living are having to take things back to basics and re-learn some appreciation for what many of us view as scut work. I think it’s a good thing.
It is all fine and good to be creative and come up with new dishes and keep pushing culinary boundaries. This is what I love to do and what so many of my cheffery friends enjoy on a daily basis. But, in any decent commercial kitchen, one has to be a generalist and be willing to pitch in wherever it’s needed. If you find an executive chef who’s not willing to take his/her turn washing dishes, you’ve got a problem. A good leader pulls from the front of the team instead of shouting orders from the wagon the team is pulling.
Mymymy. Last week’s column kicked up a lot of dust, as I criticized what I see as the shrinking creativity of the New Orleans restaurant scene and many jumped to its defense. I stand by my opinion, but the fact I have one does not make me right. It’s an opinion and it’s good to see so many take issue. Thanks for reading and responding.
One reader made the observation I need to go out to eat more often and I certainly agree. But, as mentioned in a previous column, this is tough for us to afford these days. Perhaps the summer’s advent of various fixed-price meals will make this a more available option. I hope so.
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.
Our brief trip up to Illinois for a long weekend turned out to be every bit the culinary adventure we’d been seeking, not so much because the food was adventuresome but because it gave us a chance to hit some spots that simply don’t exist in this part of the world – at least not yet. Give it time.
As you read this, Kim and I will be off on a rare road trip, going to the Land of Lincoln (literally, since our 16th president had a law practice in the small town where we’re going. So did Adlai Stevenson, though his star has shone less bright in the galaxy of history).
I love being a chef and a food columnist in one of the great food cities of the world. But a conversation with a friend last week got me to thinking about something not usually mentioned in most such writing here in New Orleans and elsewhere. Namely, as great a food city as New Orleans is, most of us can’t afford to go out to eat very often and, when we do, we’re seeking convenience and looking at price as much or more as we are at the menu.
One of my hobbies, I guess you could call it, is going online to take a look at the various reviews of various restaurants and other businesses I know on social media and review sites like Yelp!, Urbanspoon and TripAdvisor. It’s not that I use these guides so much for choosing where I want to go, since I’m entirely capable of determining that for myself based on personal experience. It’s just that some of the amateur reviews are so beautifully written (“the place has the ambiance of the Arizona Dept. of Corrections”), while others bear witness to what can be the sheer cluelessness of the reviewer.
One of the good/bad things about being in the food business in one of the world’s great food cities is the competition. The upsides are many: the continued pressure for innovation and creativity, the consistent high quality of even the most basic places and the ability to socialize and work with some of the best chefs this nation has to offer. There are many, many other great things about the New Orleans food scene, not the least of which are talented colleagues and the very discerning and appreciative customers.
With summer fast approaching, Kim and I are looking forward to something we haven’t been able to do in what seems like forever – taking a summer vacation.
It’ll only be five days and, though many of our friends will be heading to a beach or the mountains, we’re only going to around Peoria, Ill., for a family event. But, honestly, we could not be more excited if we were headed to St. Kitts or the Andes. We’re also planning to drive, and the 12 hours or so up and back (with an overnight each way) will be a long-overdue chance to explore some spots we’ve never seen. Or at least I’ve never seen, having not spent much time in the Great American Heartland outside of Kansas City, Chicago or St. Louis for business purposes.
As the weather gets a bit warmer and steamier this week, I’ve been turning my attention more to foods that leave us feeling a bit lighter and healthier. Fortunately, we’re headed into that perfect time of the year when the Creole tomatoes and similar fare will be very affordable and readily available.
I was fortunate enough during JazzFest to do what I love most (at least professionally) — work in a creative kitchen with other inventive folks, tweaking the menu a little each night and leaving room for whatever inspiration happened to hit. While I was limited mainly to pantry work (salads, saucing and desserts), there was still plenty of back-and-forth about what might work and we could each throw out ideas for possible use. The creative spigot was wide open, even more so when things got busy. It was delightful.
I’ve unexpectedly had the opportunity lately to spend a lot more time in the French Quarter, since I’ve been helping a friend during JazzFest. This gave me the chance earlier this week to pop into the Louisiana Music Factory to see Beausoleil and Zachary Richard, as well as wander around aimlessly. I think that’s the best way to see the oldest part of our city – without a schedule or plan. Tours are fine to get a sense of how things are laid out, but I also think a completely unstructured day is a lot more fun.
I mentioned in last week’s column some of my ideas about pairing various beers, wines and foods together, and already I’ve gotten a few questions. They mainly involve how someone knows certain things go together before they spend a fair amount of money during a trip to the store. Pretty much anyone who cooks even semi-regularly is willing to experiment and improve, and I’m one who has been lucky enough to make a fair living doing so.
I’ll finally be getting an opportunity in the coming month or so to do what I enjoy most – coming up with menu items to pair with beer at a dinner or other special event. While I never think of myself of actually going “to work,” it is at times like these that I really feel like I’m being paid for something I’d be doing anyway. It’s one of the ways in which the culinary, art and musical worlds are very similar to each other.
I’ve got to give a tip of the hat to my fellow columnist Jean-Paul Villere for his recent piece about real estate and which neighborhoods around the city are next in line for gentrification.
Restaurants and other food operations usually follow but can sometimes lead the redevelopment of neighborhoods. Indeed, New Orleans East and some other areas are still sadly lacking in full-service grocery operations. But this summer’s planned reopening of the Circle Food Store will be a beacon in Treme, and the original Juan’s Flying Burrito on Magazine was one of the landmarks in the comeback of the Lower Garden District.
One of the things we’re still working out in the new shop is staffing – how many people to bring in at what times of the day and how long they’ll be there. It’s a difficult balance, since you want professional, experienced folks – and those kinds of employees want and deserve a reasonable wage. But when some parts of the day are stronger than others, some have to be sent home and that makes no one happy. If good staffers don’t get enough hours, they go elsewhere in a hurry.