Craig Giesecke: Many restaurants, not so many menus

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Craig Giesecke

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.

21 thoughts on “Craig Giesecke: Many restaurants, not so many menus

  1. Wow. This is surreally negative and seems totally unfounded. It’s as though you’re talking about some other city entirely. When it comes to food, creativity that is also delicious seems to thrive here as much as anywhere in the world. And our appetites – at least of the locals – for the new, the different, the highly creative – are absolutely insatiable. If New Orleanians are good at only a single thing, I’d say it’s welcoming newcomers to the restaurant scene. And if those newcomers prove to be good at what they do, we fill up the house. So sorry you feel this way.

    • Thank you Shawn for your reply which mirrored what I would have said – one thing about New Orleanians is they live to eat and they love Good Food but I’d go so far to say what offended a friend of mine the other day – Serendipidity had some tasty food but it was way overpriced – I went twice with my young son and it was a $75 meal and in the neighborhood that is just too expensive to patronize. I didn’t go expecting Parkway – I went expecting fresh and innovative dishes – and there was some of that but not all of that – in the end I ate at Serendipity four times and none of it was memorable. I can still remember what I ate at Cafe Bouley ten years ago – so if it is to be pricey, then at least be memorable. I don’t go out to eat poboys or New Orleans food hardly at all – unless I have a newbie out of towner in tow, I’d rather fresh and innovative any day of the week and if it has a New Orleans flare better yet.

  2. So, are French people closed-minded because they still like to eat cheese, baguettes, and croissants. Or, are Japanese people closed-minded because they still like to eat sushi?
    Sorry we don’t fit into your vision of what the New Orleans culinary landscape should be (even though New Orleanians have largely embraced new creative restaurants). But, you can’t expect a city with its own cuisine/culture to suddenly stop eating what constitutes a huge part of any culture: their local food.

    • I don’t want the column to be misinterpreted as saying there’s no culinary creativity. Off the top of my head, I’d say Toups Meatery, Louisiana Bistro or any of Adolfo Garcia’s places (like Rio Mar or La Boca) or several of the food truck operations certainly offer some of the most creative twists and turns in the region and the nation. It’s still here and we do it as well or better than anyone when we’re allowed to do it. My concern is we are not, as a city, as chef-driven as we were a few years ago. Perhaps our more immediate post-Katrina situation encouraged it — but whatever it was, I’d like to see more of it againi.

      As far as local dining tastes are concerned, I’ve mentioned in previous columns the differences between the tastes of Orleans Parish and the suburban areas. This lack of interest in other cuisines or in trying something new is certainly more of a suburban issue. I’ve been surprised a series of times in our nine years here by the lack of curiosity about, say, gratins or various Caribbean dishes. A few places like Baru or the couple of Ethiopian places specialize in less-common fare, but there seems to be a reluctance by too many to try such dishes when offered out as a daily special at a place with a broader menu. I’d think a city of New Orleans’ cultural heritage would, overall, have a more adventuresome palate. It’s certainly not everyone — but more widespread than expected.

  3. Craig, I’m sorry for your take on the “limits” of the New Orleans palate but it just smacks of sour grapes, is completely unfounded and really a bit laughable. The truth is that since about 2007 there has been a monumental growth of truly talented chefs and culinary entrepreneurs that have revitalized the gastronomic culture in this city and it has been recognized both locally and nationally. I spend a great deal of time in NYC, LA and travel constantly spending a great deal of time eating out. I am no professional critic but some of my best friends around the country either currently work in or have worked in the restaurant industry and they all are in agreement that the growth in New Orleans has been nothing short of spectacular. This has nothing to do with cajun cooking and poboys (which incidentally should be revered ) but from new mostly young cooks and chefs . It ranges from food trucks to fine dining. Just looking at the acceptance and quality of the Vietnamese and Thai cuisine that is pushing hard into the market shows a perfect example of there always being room for more variety and quality. Sorry to say it but I think your bad attitude comes from the fact that the more new (and frankly exciting) ” young turks” that enter the fray the harder it is for decent to average cooks to compete. There is always room for great food be it cheap truck or white tablecloth but a mediocre business plan or average cuisine sometimes just doesn’t cut the mustard. Chefs and cooks successes are notoriously hard won and harder fallen so sorry it didn’t work out for your friend or for you for that matter. Let’s face it Craig, as decent and sometimes good J’anitas multiple incarnations and trials have been they and you have ultimately failed in the industry you supposedly blog and critique. I would say stick to writing about food but now you seem to be throwing a great food city under the proverbial streetcar and frankly it seems just a bit too personal so maybe you should find and concentrate on another passion away from the table. I think the cliche goes, “Pack up your knives and leave.”

  4. I am not sure I followed this . Are you saying you are thinking of leaving New Orleans because all the restaurants serve po’boy sandwiches and are shackled to local cuisine cliches? Well don’t you worry , there are plenty of places to try, they just are not uptown. Come down town to RESTAURANT ROOT, go to the Bywater to RESTAURANT BOOTY and MAUREPAS FOODS Try RESTAURANT MARIZA in the Rice Mill. Go to 3 MUSES in the Marigny All of these restaurants have diverse innovative menus that are not chained to traditional So LA cuisine but pays homage to it here and there. I you decide to leave you will be missed and there will always be a place for you here. Bye for now.

  5. Wow, I’ve never commented before, but here’s the first… I’m a native of Metairie ( or out-of-towner for those NOT born in the city) and I’ve moved to Manhattan to further my music career. As much as I want to criticize Mr Giesecke for his views and call him a typical Midwest transplant who packs up and leaves… I can’t. I left too. People in NOLA ARE closed minded and the tourists DO expect the same fare over and over. I felt that unless you had a horn section in the band, you were shut out of a lot of opportunities. May be his food sucks, I don’t know. But maybe his food is great and no one has the drive to try something new. Unfortunately, even I am guilty of that attitude about food at home. When I come back, I take people to po boy shops in Metairie, not an avant garde restaurant that can be found in NYC. Love it or hate it, his opinion should cause everyone to analyze the state of our city.

  6. I’ll be honest with you, I have several friends that have moved here from suburban cities across the country and I have had a tough time encouraging them to try new things when dining. Also, my parents who are senior citizens, can’t have food that upsets there stomach or that has too much salt. I actually think that there is a shortage of restaurants that caters to the senior citizen demographic in new orleans. Honestly, every unique restaurant I have tried to bring my parents to either uses too much seasoning and salt or uses ingredients which old bodies have trouble digesting. Therefore, a trip to xyz leaves my parents always ordering the salad. As to the 25 to 35 young professional crowed, I can tell you that a lot of them have moved here from suburban areas and there willingness to try new foods is slim; however there appetite to try new hip spots is greater, so much so that you could be serving some of the craziest plates in town, but if you maintain a hip location they are there. Honestly, I love trying new places and I know locals do to, but there are only so many of us. Also, I am not saying this is your case, but I have a sister who thinks she can cook and never believes in following any type of instruction, she always throws in a pinch of this and of that, that outcome is always terrible. Another example are those statues in front of lake side mall, people said those medal stick figures look like creative art, but to me they look like a children’s playground that got hit by Katrina. So creativity does not always yield good results and when it doesn’t you shouldn’t blame everyone else because you tried something new and no one liked it.

  7. You’ve totally missed the boat with this one, and for someone so entrenched in the culinary scene have completely misanalysed everything here.

    People in Louisiana have tremendous and varied palettes, certainly the most vibrant and discerning found in all of North America.

    This generic mish mash of blah generic muddled flavours gallivanting around as cajun or creole or something ‘inspired’ by those two are not in the slightest the product of ‘local’ tastes. They are instead the rubbish put together to meet the needs and desires of bland tourists and tourist-transplants who feel they know more than anyone from here and thus are entitled to dictating what our cuisines should be and how they should taste.

    Over the past decade even most of our famous local big name restaurants have been bought up by people from NY or CA or elsewhere who have craftily kept the old name, the old décor, and often at least on paper, the old menu. The slop coming out of those old kitchens though is nothing but a sad Americana ripoff of the dishes they poorly impersonate.

    Just as our city is now full of ‘fauxcals’ ready to “educate” all of us Louisianians on who we are, what our culture and history really is, and how things should be done (down to even arguing that we’re actually “Louisianans” without the second ‘i’), many of our ‘local’ favourite dining options are now ‘fauxcal restaurants’.

    The destruction within our culinary scene goes far further than that wrought by these same ‘saviours’ overall. Sure, our glorious fauxcal ambassadors are more than happy to promote their made up version of New Orleans history, to proclaim the Bywater “real”, and to argue for some asinine reason that we once were home to a mysterious lost indian tribe called the Tchoupitoulas (it’s the name given to residents of that area between roughly Napoleon Ave and Deckbar, always having been used to refer to white and black residents, never indians unless they just happen to be living in the Carrollton area).

    Their farce of a New Orleans that seems to be slowly being marketed as reality is bad enough and a false appropriation of our culture, but their raping and pillaging of our culinary culture is something else all together.

    It’s to the point today, that if you want to taste REAL Cajun or Creole food, you have to get in a car and drive a couple of hours so that you can clear the corrupted influence of the BR-NO versions (which may as well be the ‘cajun’ cuisine of an Omaha Applebee’s when if comes to taste and authenticity).

    That’s not however the real tragedy. New Orleans isn’t ‘cajun’ nor has it ever been, and ‘creole’ has apparently been lost to some weird post-Katrina redefinition of the word as light-skinned black locals with no connection whatsoever to that distinct cultural subset of the state (helpful hint: if you can’t describe the basic differences between cajun and creole cuisine, you have no business cooking nor judging either!).

    The real tragedy is that our once rich high-dining culinary scene, one of the only places in the country where traditional French, modern Parisian, and every variety of fine dining and epicurean delight could be had in a single night out, has been bleached out into some sham joke of a family-friendly flavour-lacking, unhealthy, mockery of its former self.

    Even our higher-dollar venues now require yelling at your table mates just to be heard over the throngs of uncouth “eaters” (dining is a social activity these cattle have never probably done) all demanding oversized portions of fried yuck, and who find it within their rights to fill the restaurants of our city with screaming, crying, nasty, playing, jumping, yelling, ill-behaved spawn they call children.

    Yes, Craig’s right that the menu selections are total crap these days, and yes, restaurants and dining out are nothing like they used to be. New Orleans is quickly losing its right to claim ‘culinary capital’ status, but this is not the fault of locals, and is certainly not a result of the tastes of Louisianians.

    Generic, bland, meatloaf and mashed potato uncouth uncultured Americana moving here is what everyone keeps declaring to be ‘progress’ these days and what so many call ‘rebuilding’ or ‘rebirth’ when it comes to New Orleans. Well, when that’s who you fill your city with and who buys up all your restaurants, that’s what you get.

    Don’t worry guys, maybe we’ll all luck out and they’ll put a Luby’s or Golden Corral in the building where Brennan’s was.

    • I’d agree, first of all, I need to eat out more. As mentioned in an earlier column, we simply can’t afford it. My opinions are based on what I see on menus and on conversations with other chefs and service-industry folks in town, as well as our conversations with friends who have the money to go out a lot more..

      Our pending move has nothing to do with “sour grapes,” in that I have a couple of opportunities starting in the fall when business picks up again. Believe me — I am not wild about the idea of packing up nine years worth of stuff. We love our house, the Irish Channel and this city — but it has reached a point that, overall, New Orleans is taking more out of us than it fills us. Time to go — and I frankly have no idea if I’ll be involved in anything culinary once we leave.It’s What I Do, but I also used to do something else.I think the best career skill in our current and future economy is adaptability.

      I should also mention that my observations have nothing to do with incursions by national chains (the new Five Guys in Mid-City, for instance). My personal experiences have been with owners who are native New Orleanians who have opted to go with humdrum pizza and cheaply done quesadillas as opposed to encouraging a menu with some fresh ideas.

      Finally, thank you for your responses. I knew when I wrote this column that it would touch a nerve if anyone actually read it. If anything is true about New Orleans, it is that its residents (particularly its natives) are passionate about food and anyone with an opposing opinion is an idiot, or at least sadly mistaken. I think that’s as it should be. Just because I write doesn’t mean I’m right.

      • Hi Craig,

        I’d like to thank you for the time you’ve contributed to New Orleans. We worked together at Dick and Jenny’s when you were kind enough to offer your help after the storm. James was elated to have you by his side and we wouldn’t have been able to stay afloat without you. My husband and I have since moved to Austin, James departed just before our move, and Dick and Jenny’s has changed hands. I wish you both the best in any venture you choose and creative freedom no matter where you live! Your contribution will not be forgotten.

      • Craig thanks for responding.

        I hope my comments didn’t come off personally negative toward you as that’s not the intent. In fact, if every transplant attempted to become part of New Orleans and to contribute to the mix the way you have versus trying to change the mix to meet their own desires, we’d be a much better place, and would likely not be having this discussion.

        My main point that I want to make though is that nobody NOBODY opines the loss and degradation of our local culinary scene than do the locals of this city.

        As much as we want to invite everyone to come and join us in New Orleans and to move here and be a part of the magic that is this place, with every new person it seems our own city gets less interesting.

        I don’t understand it really. Whether it be destroying our dining and food culture, outlawing music, rezoning the entire city into nothing but a collection of suburbs, or what, I can’t understand why I keep meeting all these people who visit New Orleans, and upon experiencing that sensory magic that is the smells, sounds, flavours, and feel of all we are, decide to move here so they can experience it everyday.

        That part I get, but what I don’t get is that each one seems intent to treat that New Orleans that attracted them here in the first place as some corrupted hard drive that needs to be reformatted and rewritten into what THEY think a city should be.

        When you read what so many new arrival ‘chefs’ and such say in interviews about why they feel we need a new food truck or something, it’s offensive, insulting, and gives me good reason never to give a single one of them my money. So many of them speak of how they felt the need to bring ‘some culture’ to New Orleans, or to ‘introduce us’ to the foodie movement, and all sorts of other things that show their massive disdain for our city, its citizens, and the many cultures we represent. They come here obviously knowing nothing about our cooking, choose to remain happily ignorant of all of it, and at the same time continuously proclaim themselves experts in all things local and good, acting as if they’re doing us all a favour by endowing us with their gracious gifts.

        C’mon! This isn’t Butte, Montana or Odessa, Texas. This is New Orleans. This is the place that has created many of the recipes, dishes, cocktails, techniques and such that snooty denizens of L.A. and NYC seem to think have originated in their home markets. It’s not that newcomers aren’t welcome, it’s just that acting as if this is a desert of culinary emptiness, especially when you’re coming from markets whose restaurant scene developed by copying New Orleans, is simply an affront to everything decent and good.

        Couple this sort of thing with the continuous disdain so many newcomers in the dining market show for the place they supposedly now call home and it’s now wonder things are falling apart. Before Katrina, we had a huge population of PROFESSIONAL waiters, hosts, cooks, chefs, bartenders, etc. They contributed to their employers’ successes and were paid accordingly with these being REAL jobs that allowed those working them to make real money, buy real houses, send their kids to real colleges and all that.

        In come the out of town restaurant gurus though and suddenly now every single one of these jobs is minimum wage part-time rubbish! Just as they don’t care about our culture and our cuisine and us as customers, they show how little they care about their employees by reducing careers to trash labour. Well, you get what you pay for, and when you have someone making minimum wage cooking your steak, it’s going to taste like a steak made by someone who’s never been able to afford a good steak.

        Then look at the food trucks…

        Most don’t even have legal license plates on their vehicles. Most don’t have proper insurance. Most of the owners and drivers don’t even have valid Louisiana driver’s licenses, and those that do won’t bother to get the proper Class D one.

        There’s one food truck that uses an old Citroen who has it registered as a personal vehicle with personal plates.

        There’s another that sells empanadas who didn’t have a plate at all until I harrassed him, then went out and borrowed someone’s Mississippi car plate and taped it onto his van with blue painter’s tape.

        Even La Cocinita with their hugely expensive vehicle had to be forced to put a license plate on it. They still can’t be bothered to get an inspection sticker (brake tag) though.

        In fact, I have yet to see a SINGLE FOOD TRUCK with a valid Louisiana registration, valid Louisiana license plate, and valid inspection sticker operating in New Orleans — not ONE!

        It’s this sort of thinking, that transplants in the culinary scene are too good for locals and that they don’t have to follow ‘laws’ and such because that’s just for the ‘townies’ and those dumb Louisiana people that shows just why our restaurant industry is in the crapper.

        If people really want to support fine dining and authentic tastes here in New Orleans, STOP EATING at any of these places that pay minimum wage. STOP EATING at any food truck that doesn’t have a valid brake tag in the window.

        And SHAME every single transplant who sits around badmouthing New Orleans. Tell them to take that crap back home with them as they roll their illegally operating food truck or whatever back out of town.

        And certainly, if you know of a restaurant owner or manager who has an out of state plate on his own car or that of his business, shame him! Yell, make noise. Ensure the whole city knows that this supposed ‘saviour’ of our dining scene cares so little about New Orleans that he won’t even bother to register his car here.

        Craig, I hope you do find a good opportunity here. But I hope you and everyone else will join together to send the jerks who shouldn’t be here back where they came from because it’s they, not Louisianians who are destroying our restaurant scene in New Orleans.

  8. Craig, for perspective, I am totally into a balance of new and international food along with NOLA/regional food. I suspect your po-boy request from a customer is anecdotal rather than pervasive, but who knows. Before and after Chris DeBarr left Green Goddess, they’ve been packed, so what with Serendipity also, maybe its the case that a good chef like Chris just has creative chops but no stick-to-itiveness. The idea of him going to Houston as the promised land is comical.

    Regarding the main thrust of this piece, two of us showed up at Avenue Pub when J’anita’s was there, chiefly for the better-quality beers. The J’anita’s menu was disappointing for choices of uninteresting bar food. We expected more considering what Avenue offered to drink. We found that our food (sandwich and some guacamole) was as boring as we had intuited, so it was no surprise to us when J’anita’s left Avenue. To be frank, the idea that your menu did not appeal to New Orleanians because of our provincialism or xenophobia or whatever you want to call it is incorrect. Your food was not up to snuff. Simple as that. And to add, the idea that you wrote this column decrying homogeneity after not so long ago sticking up for chain restaurants shows that your thinking skills are severely compromised. Speaking of, the only thing that gives your point of view any credence is that a fellow commenter speaks up for the overhyped and mostly mediocre Maurepas/Booty’s/Three Muses as examples of adventurous and flavorful new restaurants. So yes, there are obviously some in this city that don’t know their heads from their tails.

    • Sorry your J’anita’s food wasn’t what you hoped. Perhaps it was an off night, as anyplace can have. I’ll let our reviews in the Gambit and elsewhere speak for themselves. Our departure from The Avenue was by mutual consent because we had, quite simply, outgrown the 90sqft kitchen. Weekend nights were seeing hour-long waits for food and too many were getting food and soft drinks or water — not the craft beers where Polly makes her money. Ask her about it — we remain great friends.

      I take none of the comments here personally. Thirty-two years of journalism gives one a pretty thick hide and it would be a dull world if we all felt the same about a particular subject. This has been a pretty lively but civil discussion, and the only thing that could improve it would be for all of us to be sharing a few drinks around a table.

  9. The vitriol aimed equally at Mr. Giesecke and “those damned carpetbaggers” reveals how uncomfortable the truth he touches is. I learned to eat here in New Orleans, and to cook and to work the front of the house. Then I went away for quite a bit. Returning after the storm with my carpet-bag full of nostalgia, I was quite disillusioned by how stagnant and provincial New Orleans restaurants, by and large, seemed to me.

    New Orleanians do have a tremendous cultural narcissism, with the associated lack of any need to seek input from others. The community tends toward the solipsistic.

    Yet I disagree with Giesecke’s conclusions. I agree with Banks McClintock and Littlewitch that we are in the midst of a tremendous growth in color, quality and diversity in the culinary scene here. (To their observations I would add Dante’s Kitchen, Crescent Pie and Sausage, and Coquette. I second Maurepas heartily.) And I happily attribute that growth to the influence of newcomers. Newcomers who fall in love with New Orleans and bring their own riff to add to the city’s beauty – just as has happened since they began laying flagstones three hundred years ago.

    I mean, have you never really thought about WHY the old line Krewes are the most boring organizations in Carnival? It’s because they are perfect in their own eyes and cast away any thought of change as anathema.

  10. NOLA food does pale in comparison to it’s reputation. My two favorite restaurants in the quarter? Felipes and Ginger Lime, yep mexican and sushi, but the food is fresh, flavorful, and affordable. Got tired of eating crappy versions of shrimp creole everywhere else. GW Finns sux, Redfish grill sux, ACME oysters lately have been fat and oversized flavorless behemoths. Dickie Brennens does have a great ribeye and worth the $38 on occasion. Nawlins doesn’t need anymore food magician rejects from top chef, Nawlins needs good, competent cooks who don’t stray beyond their skill level.

  11. ps: mareapaus foods and st lawrence, both over hyped, hipster disappointments. Tried Green Goddess once but no waiter would take my order because I sat outside and it was too hot for them to leave the ac. Drunk tourists with an expense account are the only thing keeping most of these local “chefs” employed.

  12. Creativity in food is over rated. Most “creative” menus are eyeroll inducing. The whole scene has become burdensome and obnoxious.

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