New Orleans’ modern culinary history started in the year A.K. (after Katrina). Before the hurricane, the city’s great culinary strength—its Cajun and Creole cultures and cuisines—also worked against the industry by boxing chefs into cooking dishes that people expected to eat when they visited the Crescent City. Katrina’s destruction didn’t touch that culture (and we certainly didn’t pass up shrimp remoulade, gumbo, or other traditional foods on our visits) but in the landscape that followed chefs now have greater flexibility and creative freedom to cook what they love.
For some chefs, that means exploring the avant-garde, as Philip Lopez does with his broad interpretation of American cuisine at Root. Chefs Jeffrey Talbot of Ancora and Alon Shaya of Domenica showcase authentic Italian food, forgoing the red-sauce-and-noodles stereotype to give New Orleaneans wood-fired pizza, house-made salumi, and perfect, al dente pasta. Chef Nathaniel Zimet cooks wildly creative Southern food at Boucherie, bringing together nostalgic flavors on fresh, inventive plates. At newly opened Borgne, Chef Brian Landry reaches deep into the city’s culinary archive (and Gulf waters), resurrecting old dishes like Oysters and Spaghetti. And Chefs Aaron Burgau of Tru and Adam Biderman of The Company Burger are gambling that burgers, not po’ boys, are the future of this city’s sandwich scene.
New Orleans’ most established chefs—John Besh, Adolfo Garcia, Susan Spicer, and 2003 Rising Star Chefs Donald Link and Scott Boswell—are also expanding their repertoires and reach with a slew of new openings, whose cuisines range from 1950s Americana and deep Southern to global and purely porcine. On the cocktail front, modern Mixologist Neal Bodenheimer, Kirk Estopinal, and their crew at Cure recently opened an ode to the historic cobbler cocktail at Bellocq.
Post-Katrina New Orleans has 30 percent more restaurants than it did in 2005, and this growth is fueled by an influx of young, affluent professionals who seem to be moving south in droves. There are more diners in this city, even though the population has yet to rebound to pre-storm levels. Conventions and tourism are also major factors. The nation poured its resources and good will into New Orleans after Katrina, and seven years later, the number of business travelers and revelers continues to grow.
The New Orleans of 2012 has a cosmopolitan food scene with a local accent and a swarm of devoted diners and chefs. It’s a place where young people can launch their culinary dreams. Real estate’s still reasonable, local farmers grow beautiful produce year-round, the chef community is tight, and the handcuffs on creativity have effectively been unlocked. The world here is a chef’s Gulf Coast oyster.
We’ll celebrate the best of New Orleans dining at our upcoming 2012 New Orleans Rising Stars Gala on April 19 at the New Orleans Museum of Art. And in the mean time, we’re traveling to Atlanta, Hawaii, and Las Vegas in the next few months. So reach out and give us your give us your nominations for chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, and mixologists. And as always, stay tuned to Facebook and Twitter for the latest updates, and we hope to see you all in New Orleans in April!