Whether the competition is for the next big chef, hottest restaurant or heaviest citizens, New Orleans is a top contender. That means other people are talking about the city's food as well. From the Food and Wine's Best New Chefs to reader polls in other gourmet magazines, New Orleans' food makes news.
New Orleans is the capitol of celebrity chefdom. Emeril Lagasse turned a new page on the profession in jumping from his immensely popular live-audience cooking show to darling of the national media. Emeril became a regular on Good Morning America, he graced the cover of People Magazine and took a celebrity turn for charity on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. He even climbed the food chain a step higher to his own sitcom on NBC last fall. While he may have been a fish out of water in the comedy department, his celebrity has not suffered.
Emeril started at the bottom of the food chain before there were celebrity chefs. A native of Fall River, Massachussetts, he attended cooking school at Johnson and Wales. After a few stints in the northeast, he was selected to take over the kitchen at New Orleans' Commander's Palace. After building a considerable name and reputation, Emeril went out on his own and launched his namesake restaurant, Emeril's, in the Warehouse District in 1990. His second restaurant, NOLA, soon followed.
His next kitchen was in front of a camera. Emeril started his series The Essence of Emeril to bring his bold "New New Orleans" cooking to television. Then he graduated to Emeril Live with a live audience, a house band and celebrities dropping by to help him cook. To spice up the presentation he started yelling "Bam" as he hit food with his seasonings. Soon audiences hooted and hollered when he added chopped garlic to a dish. His empire expanded with a new restaurant in New Orleans, Emeril's Delmonico, as well as restaurants in Orlando and Las Vegas. An Atlanta restaurant will open this year. On the side, Emeril has sold two million cookbooks and counting.
As a celebrity chef, Emeril has a local to thank. In fact, it was his predecessor at Commander's Palace, Paul Prudhomme. While Prudhomme is perhaps the most popularly misunderstood chef in America, he is the father of American regional cooking. When he brought his South Louisiana cooking across the country, he legitimized the concept of an American chef. Before that, fine restaurants almost exclusively cooked French food and wrote their menus in French.
A native of Opelousas, Louisiana, in the heart of Cajun country, Prudhomme learned to cook at home. While helping his mother feed his 12 brothers and sisters, he developed a love of cooking and took it as a profession. His mastery of New Orleans' Creole cooking landed him at Commander's Palace. He also preceeded Emeril in taking that notoriety and launching his own restaurant.
At K-Paul's, Prudhomme popularized his most famous creation, Blackened Redfish. The dish became so popular the Gulf was almost emptied of the species. But not everyone was doing it right. "Most people were saying ‘blackened' but they were just burning it," he says.
Prudhomme started opening his own restaurants across the country to set the record straight. As his fame grew so did the popularity of Cajun culture. Since then he has tried to make a few things clear. His cooking is not Cajun but a mix of South Louisiana cuisines. And more importantly, Cajun does not mean raging heat any more than Emeril's "Bam" does. The cuisine favors bold flavors but pepper is just one part of that.
Prudhomme was followed by a wave of American chefs who were free to cook American dishes. Or just their own creations. Fine American restaurants finaly wrote their menus in English.
New Orleans is now full of celebrity chefs and budding talents. Locals like chef Susan Spicer have multiple restaurants just like Emeril. After making her name at Bayona, she added Herbsaint and Cobalt in recent years. The men who trained in Prudhomme's kitchen have opened their own award-winning restaurants. Frank Brigtsen opened Brigtsen's, Greg Sonnier opened Gabrielle, Paul Miller is in charge of Prudhomme's K-Paul's and Randy Barlow opened several acclaimed places before moving on to a consulting role. Other recently recognized chefs include John Harris at Lilette, John Besh at Restaurant August and Anne Kearney-Sand at Peristyle.
Famous restaurants are everywhere. Among the best known names in the restaurant business is that of the Brennans. Different branches of the family run different restaurants, including Brennan's and Mr. B's in the French Quarter and Commander's Palace in the Garden District. Dickie Brennan, Jr. presides over Palace Café on Canal Street as well as the two newest restaurants, Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse and the recently opened Bourbon House on Bourbon Street. Ralph Brennan runs Bacco's in the French Quarter as well as Redfish Grill.
Famous restaurants are nothing new in New Orleans. Perhaps the most famous restaurant in the city is Antoine's Restaurant, opened in 1840 by Antoine Alciatore. It is the second oldest continually operating restaurant in the country. The fifth generation of his family now runs the massive and exceptionally traditional establishment. With seventeen dining rooms, it occupies most of the block. Famous dishes invented in its kitchen include Oysters Rockefeller and Pompano en Papillote. Tujague's is also more than a century old and maintains a traditional Creole style of serving a multi-course, prix fixe dinner with several entrée selections. Arnaud's is the third most senior restaurant. "Count" Arnaud opened it in 1918 and launched its signature spicy Shrimp Remoulade.
While fine cooking is nothing new in New Orleans, Creole cooking is not just for professional chefs. Home cooking shares many of the recipes. Plenty of locals will put their gumbo up against any chef's. Comfort food in the city comes from old French, Spanish and African dishes that are everywhere. Jambalaya is like a Creole paella, though usually made with sausage and chicken instead of seafood. Crawfish etouffee sounds fancy, and can be, but is crawfish tails smothered in a rich dark sauce and served over rice.
Even everyday staples have gained a reputation. Po boy sandwiches stuffed with fried shrimp or oysters are everywhere in the city. Beignets are just donuts with powdered sugar. The locals don't even put holes in them and yet they've got a certain caché. Even stuff that goes uncooked, like raw oysters, draw foodies from far away.