As per usual, my friends and I were stuffing our faces with the city’s finest when the conversation turned to the city’s great culinary scene. We argued over favorite restaurants, favorite recipes, best chefs and we all had different answers. Maybe we’ve just been spoiled all our lives but we never really considered why the food gets considerably worse the farther away you are from New Orleans. So I decided to do a little research and what I found made me hungry, pleased and proud.
In a 2013 interview with CNN, culinary adventurer and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain remarked on his love for the unique food culture of New Orleans:
“In America, there might be better gastronomic destinations than New Orleans, but there is no place more uniquely wonderful. So I would say New Orleans. With the best restaurants in New York, you’ll find something similar to it in Paris or Copenhagen or Chicago. But there is no place like New Orleans. So it’s a must see city because there’s no explaining it, no describing it. You can’t compare it to anything. So, far and away New Orleans.”
Those who live in and love the city would likely agree with Mr. Bourdain’s sentiments. And not to argue with Anthony but I will attempt to scratch the surface behind the reason why this city has some of the best culinary alumni in the country.
The Acts to FollowWith over 1500 restaurants in the greater New Orleans area alone, one reason for our amazing chef roster is likely because the food culture of New Orleans is one of the most hyper-competitive and saturated environments in the United States. But is it the competition of the city that makes chefs so inspired and the food so famous? Superstars like Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, Susan Spicer, Donald Link, John Besh, Leah Chase, and Tory McPhail are just a small fraction of the culinary masterminds that the city employs and celebrates. But what is significant about making it here as opposed to other cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York? Let’s take a closer look.
The Food History
Looking back through New Orleans’ history, the impact the city has made on the American palate is palpable. Home tothe fifth oldest restaurant in the United States and inventor of the Oysters Rockefeller, Antoine’s Restaurant opened in 1840 and is still run by the original owner’s family. Opened in 1880, Commander’s Palace has hosted some of the best chefs and James Beard award winners, including Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme and current Executive Chef Tory McPhail. But is it just the food that makes this city the stomping ground for some of the country’s most recognized chefs or is it something more?
Once called the “jewel at the mouth of the Mississippi,” New Orleans has always been a port city. At the time of the Civil War, New Orleans was the largest city in the South with over 5 million transits and residents running through the city. In combination to the amount of industrial and commercial traffic, the city supported a diet that relied heavily on influences from French, Spanish, Caribbean, Native American and African cuisine and ingredients. This blending of ethnic groups came together to form the NOLA favorites that are attempted by many, failed by most and loved by all.
The Tough CrowdThe truly remarkable aspect of New Orleans cooking is that the food isn’t just something that you have to pay top-dollar for, something you seek out in a fancy restaurant on St. Charles, something you need a reservation to experience. It’s the food that your father and mother made, the food you had for every birthday, wedding and funeral, the food that farmers, slaves and working folk made, the food you were fed in school, the food you grew up with and for natives, any attempt to mimic this food without proper respect to the traditions is met with brutal criticism and deafening laughter.
Which brings me back to my original question, what is about this city that produces some of the most recognizable culinary masterminds in the country? Perhaps it is because of the highly competitive nature of the city’s restaurant scene, a new chef either has to have a completely revolutionary food concept or he has to perform the classics with incredibly precision. But even if a chef can open a restaurant and create amazing food, it is the people of the New Orleans that have to be impressed. And they’re a hard crowd to please. They’ve grown up eating this food, they know what it is supposed to taste like and they want to see it done properly. Restaurants pop up in this town and they disappear just as quickly, especially if those trying to capitalize on the city’s food as a cheesy tourist attraction. So if you plan to open a restaurant in New Orleans, do your homework and treat the food with the dignity and respect that the locals expect or don’t even bother.
The Two-Way Street
New Orleans is home to some of the amazing chefs in the country but what makes the culinary culture of the Crescent City so unique is the reciprocal experience food symbolizes in this town. If a chef wants to make it in this city, he can’t just have great reviews, a fancy dining room or a show on television. They must impress the people with their interpretations and yet still be humble to the traditions of the region. In return, locals will praise and appreciate the chef’s amazing creations and support their careers for years.
Let us know why you think NOLA has the best chefs in the country in the comments below, or tell us restaurants we should try in our Foodie Fridays series.