In the back booth of Cafe Nino on South Carrollton, Michael Dunaway sat down for yet another meal with Ray Cannata. Hovering just over Dunaway’s shoulders were the cameras and microphones that have followed them all over the city, and crew members were delicately dabbing beads of sweat from the hot lights off Cannata’s brow.
Everything seemed ready to go until they noticed Cannata’s gray shirt. All wrong, they decided, but the only nearby substitute was the yellow shirt Dunaway was wearing, so the two similarly sized men stood up and stripped down to white tank-top undershirts. Cannata discarded his shirt and donned Dunaway’s, and they sat back down to film the meal.
“You know how they say, if you’re nervous, picture everybody in their underwear?” Cannata quipped before they cameras began to roll. “I’m actually getting interviewed by somebody in his underwear.”
In the entertainment industry, Cannata might be called “the talent,” a phrase with a humorous twist when applied to the star of an upcoming documentary called “The Man Who Ate New Orleans.” In Cannata’s case, however, the eating is just a small part of the package.
Cannata, a pastor originally from the New York area, was recruited for a job leading a struggling five-year-old Uptown church called Redeemer Presbyterian in August 2005, but before he could accept, disaster struck the city. After taking the job and reopening Redeemer with a congregation of 17 people in January 2006, Cannata threw himself not only into his work building the tiny church, but also in rebuilding flooded homes around the city.
As a way to get to know the city’s culture, Cannata (also now the president of the Audubon-Riverside Neighborhood Association) began making a concerted effort to eat at different types of restaurants in different neighborhoods around New Orleans. Over time, that project developed into a personal goal: dine at every single non-chain eatery in the city limits. With help from food writers and public records, he developed a list that now exceeds 600 establishments (and grows whenever a new restaurant opens) and began crossing them off.
His church’s efforts rebuilding houses brought him into contact with Dunaway – a film director and producer from Atlanta whose church had its own rebuilding project – and the two quickly became friends. When longtime friends of one meet the other, the reaction is typically the same, Dunaway said: “Oh my God, there’s two of you.” And, over time, the idea for a movie about Cannata’s project was born.
Now, the film’s advisors and supporters include Morgan Spurlock (director of Supersize Me), as well as chefs John Currence and John Besh, who’ll prepare the final meal on Ray’s list for part of the film. Dunaway expects to be finished in February in time for major festivals, and to have a grand opening later in the year.
In conversation, Cannata’s fascination with the city’s restaurants is apparent. Though he insists that he is no gourmand, any discussion that touches on food can instantly produce a rapid-fire list of related restaurants: Cannata’s favorite places for pasta with red sauce, for example, (which is what drew the film crew back to Cafe Nino for shooting last week), or favorite bakeries in a particular neighborhood.
But for a man starring in a documentary on food, the topic rarely holds his attention. He’d rather, it seems, talk about the far broader issues still troubling his adopted city, rattling off facts and statistics about blight and charter schools with the same enthusiasm he has for restaurants.
That passion – for the city as a whole – is the point of the documentary, both men say. Cannata’s church has grown to 180 current members, and the teams he has hosted have rebuilt 500 homes, but New Orleans remains the most blighted city in America. Five years after Katrina, Cannata and Dunaway fear the rest of the country is losing interest.
“It’s possible this work won’t be completed in Ray’s or my lifetime,” Dunaway said of the rebuilding. “The hook of the movie is the restaurant quest, but what the movie’s really about is what Ray has learned, what’s beautiful about New Orleans. It’s an argument about saving New Orleans at a time when that argument still needs to be made.”
Correction: An early version of this article misstated the number of current members at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. The correct number is 180, Cannata said.