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. Having worked as a reviewer and having been reviewed on such sites and by professionals, I can tell you each of the sites has its good and bad points.
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. If you’re lucky enough to have made something of a name for yourself within the industry, you will never have much trouble finding a job. The only question is which job you are willing to take.
As a chef and restaurant operator, few things irk me more than when someone goes to an unfamiliar place and tries to make the local food fit their own palate. I call this the McDonaldsization of America, or the Applebee’sing of our nation. Please don’t try to make the local places that specialize in local cuisine do something they don’t do. Thank you.
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. One of the great things about late spring/early summer in New Orleans is the convergence of several great culinary and libationary events. Not only is our local produce becoming ripe, but we’re presented with the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience in just a few weeks. After Memorial Day, many restaurants try to drum up summer business with three-course meals for a set price.
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. It was the first time in several years I had done “fine-dining” and my first time ever to work in the French Quarter during a major event such as JazzFest.
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. In talking with a lot of service-industry folks over the past week, the general feeling is this year’s crop of JazzFest visitor seems generally more self-entitled than in the past.
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 have difficulty with so-called “fusion” cuisines because I think most are simply substituting a local ingredient for the traditional. For instance, it’s not much of a stretch to substitute crawfish for shrimp, rename the dish as something “Cajun-” and charge an extra dollar.
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. You’ll be seeing and hearing information about various events being planned around town for American Craft Beer Week, which is in the middle of May. I’ll be lucky enough to be working with the folks from Abita and NOLA Brewing (and maybe others) to pair various types and styles of beers with appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts, giving me pretty much carte blanche to come up with the tastiest stuff I can find.
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. The Lakeview area, while boasting the Robert Fresh Market near the lakefront, has been lacking grocery operations since Katrina.
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. At the same time, customers want and (usually) deserve good service – so you have to balance customer demand with realistic payroll costs.