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The Flavor of New Orleans; how the taste of the city remains strong through the pandemic

The Shrimp Boat Poboy at Saint John captures the flavors of New Orleans.
The Shrimp Boat Poboy at Saint John captures the flavors of New Orleans.(Rob Krieger)
Published: Nov. 24, 2021 at 10:04 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The restaurant scene in New Orleans is eclectic, storied, and quite likely the reason many visitors travel the world to get a bite of unrivaled flavors, but during the pandemic, that spirit was shaken. While centuries-old recipes haven’t wavered, the places you find them may look different and as some flowers wilt, others are just budding.

“We weren’t planning a menu, we weren’t planning a concept, we weren’t planning anything, but something about the building immediately spoke to my wife and she said this is the place, we need to do it,” Eric Cook, the chef of Saint John, said.

Within weeks Cook, the owner of Gris Gris on Decatur, opened the doors of the city’s newest restaurant, jumping at the opportunity. Despite the uncertainty of the future of the restaurant industry, Cook decidedly doubled down.

“Immediately I knew in this building, the history was that we were going to be strictly a traditional Creole restaurant. We were going to be a New Orleans restaurant and we were going to tip a hat to everything that got us here. It’s one of the best, if not the best food city in the country,” Cook said.

That hat tip shows up in the dishes he’s created alongside top talents, like his chef de cuisine, Daren Porretto, who was stunned to see New Orleans institutions, like K-Paul’s close their doors.

“Just to not see them come back, it’s a stab to the gut. Nobody wants to hear that, but I think one of the most attractive things for me that has come out of this are new places and when Cook called me about this place I think it took me maybe 5 minutes to say let’s go,” Porretto said.

Now he’s cranking out golden shrimp, classic oyster patties, smothered turkey necks, dishes that don’t shy away from the flavors of decades ago.

“I can’t imagine myself doing anything other than cooking and to open a new place that kind of continues that legacy of local New Orleans food, true to the books, true to what we really know, it means the world to me,” Porretto said.

It’s a commitment to tradition and creativity you’ll find just across the quarter at Palm and Pine.

During the last year and a half, Amarys Koenig-Herndon and Jordan Herndon got creative to keep their doors open while supporting their fellow restaurant owners.

“Hosting each other for pop-ups, sharing deliveries when you couldn’t make a minimum, letting one of the farmers you work with come and sell produce at your restaurant, calling each other in the middle of the night being like, ‘this is hard,’” Koenig-Herndon said.

It was hard but in a restaurant that makes no bones about their obsession with all the choices in the city, it was clear getting through the pandemic would take a lot more than just trying to meet that bottom line.

“We didn’t look at each other as direct competition or ‘that restaurant is struggling’ or ‘maybe I can steal some of their guests.’ We looked at it as we all need to band together and still have a thriving industry in our city so that our industry can survive,” Koenig-Herndon said.

In fact, it may be that industry-wide support that fed the flames of some of the newest spots in town, like Bub’s Nola, where the crew started smashing patties during the pandemic outside of bars and breweries, something that was unheard of just a few decades ago.

“It’s become so much more approachable for those hungry young chefs and entrepreneurs to say, ‘Hey, let’s do a pop-up,’ you know. There was no such thing as a pop-up back in the day in the ‘90s, in the early ‘90s working for the big houses around the cities, you can just break off and set up a flat top somewhere,” Cook said.

But Tristan Moreau and Ron Richard did just that, setting up their flattop outside of Mid-City Pizza first, they had no idea it would eventually land them a permanent place on Banks Street. What started as a chance to gather with friends during the pandemic, quickly became a taste even the top chefs in the city craved.

“It’s not lost on us. All adage to the city’s food scene and that drives us here to be like, ‘Hey, the burger’s a simple product, people are paying a slight premium for it, make it right, it has to be done right,” Moreau said.

It’s that attention to the product that’s prevalent in nearly every successful New Orleans restaurant, regardless of how simple or complex the menu may be.

“That’s as Nola as it gets. Come to dine, but it’s not always white tablecloth, you could have the best anything; wings, po-boys, whatever it is,” Moreau said.

But sometimes the best dish just isn’t quite enough.

“If I thought that I could open Upperline exactly the way it was two years ago, wow I’d be in there in a flash, but I can’t,” JoAnn Clevenger, the restaurateur of Upperline said.

Clevenger has been the matriarch of what might be the quintessential New Orleans restaurant, Upperline, since 1983, serving more than 400,000 guests in the revered dining room.

From Jeff Bezos to Drew Brees, the tables have hosted myriad hungry people looking for something special, but Clevenger knows that era of unmatched dining is coming to an end for her.

“I was under a delusion about my own capabilities about the readiness of the people that used to work here that want to come back,” Clevenger said.

Closing Upperline is an end to the most storied chapter of her life that has more stories than you might imagine, but during that time she’s honed in on a secret that makes a restaurant more than just a place to eat.

“Don’t waste the guests’ money, time, or expectations. Give them what they’re wishing for and when you do it’s fabulous, it feels so good inside. I call it the benevolent circle because you make them feel fabulous and they give you all this praise and make you want to come back and do it tomorrow,” Clevenger said.

The benevolent circle is clearly a concept that so many understand as they push New Orleans restaurants forward.

“Let’s remember how this all started. The influences that got us here, that gave us that talent to be such a destination for food,” Cook said. “That’s authentic to the history of New Orleans and the people who made New Orleans a great food town.”

“People been coming here to eat for a hundred years, they’re going to come a hundred more,” Moreau said.

“I think they’re some extraordinarily talented and passionate young people coming through and whether it’s because of pop-ups or someone backing them to open their own restaurant, I feel confident that there are enough passionate talented young people that will move on,” Clevenger said.

It’s a circle that’s been around for centuries, with flavors undoubtedly strong enough to keep serving for centuries more.

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