Several years ago, when I was working at Dick and Jenny’s, every staffer got a “shift meal” to take home at the end of the night. The late, beloved James Leeming was the chef at the time and any of us could take our pick of duck, prime rib or whatever. My choice? I’d get what I thought I might eat later, but I’d usually head to the Rally’s near Louisiana and St. Charles. Or Buddha Belly on Magazine. I have no idea how many of these shift meals turned into science experiments in the fridge at home.
I found this same thing to be true when we were running the kitchen at The Avenue Pub on St. Charles. Being a 24/7 bar, we had to keep the kitchen staffed pretty much around the clock on weekends or at least leave food the bartenders could drop and fry. Big sellers to the staffs from Commander’s Palace and other lifted-pinky spots? You got it — cheese fries, chicken wings and anything else that would leave a puddle of grease in the basket. Oh, we had duck and lamb and other fancy stuff available — but after the service-industry crowd arrived, they just didn’t sell worth a damn. And the drinks? PBR, Bud Light or a highball made with well liquor. Shots anyone? You bet. Classy.
I was thinking about this the other night when The Beautiful Kim and I ventured waaaay Uptown for our anniversary meal at Cowbell on Oak St. Given our recent (voluntary) hiatus from professional cheffing, we availed ourselves of a gift certificate so we could keep as many dollars as possible at home. As in “in our own house.” This was our first foray in months to a place where someone would actually cook for us and serve to us, but I gotta admit, as excellent as everything was, it was kinda weird at first.
It took us a few minutes to stop analyzing how stuff was made or prepped and to just enjoy what we were having. Every errant drip of sauce was wiped up, plates stacked and used silverware gathered together. The tip was about 25%. The place was pretty busy, so we didn’t linger. Gotta turn those tables on a Saturday night, y’know? It was delightful.
During my (thus far) week-long break from professional cooking, I’ve exercised my culinary chops solely by turning on the oven to do a frozen pizza or throwing together an occasional salad. The word for this would be “glorious,” though I’m sure I’ll want to get back to it in some fashion before long. It is, after all, What I Do. But how I do it remains to be seen.
For every John Besh, Adolfo Garcia, Emeril Lagasse or other big-name chef this city has produced, there are at least 100 who toil with the same passion, skill and ability in the places most never think about. I’m talking about the folks who work behind the counters and behind the walls in places like Rouse’s, Langenstein’s and BreauxMart. When you pick up that roasted chicken to take home after work, think for a minute about how much you’d be willing to pay for that same chicken spread out thoughtfully on a plate with the properly paired wine, brought to you by a white-aproned server in a tasteful dining room.
In 90% of the cases, you’d be willing to pay what you’d pay at such a restaurant because it’s just that good. One of the many glories of living where we do is our passion for the food we eat on a daily basis, regardless of how it’s packaged or the circumstances in which it’s served. Things are that way because of the pride and talent of those who prepare it and, thank you, because local customers demand it. No wonder this is one of the world’s great food cities.
Now — that’s not to say there’s no bad food in New Orleans. Jesus Eisenhower Christ — some of it is just absolutely awful. And, unfortunately, it can sometimes be found in places that have existed for far too long on a reputation built more than a generation ago and furthered by those who are loathe to offend.
We’ll talk about that at some point, won’t we? Supper’s about ready. Let’s eat.
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.