The John Besh restaurant empire has consolidated itself in post-Katrina New Orleans, stretching with manifest dining destiny from the Superdome almost to the Mississippi. Within its sundry restaurants, young chefs are busy ushering in a new era of New Orleans cuisine, infusing youthful energy and creativity into their bustling kitchens. Perhaps nobody is better equipped to judge how much these newer Besh spots measure up against some of the city's more hallowed dining halls than Brian Landry, who was the creative whiz kid at Galatoire's for five years before finding his way to Borgne about a year ago. Since then, Landry has tended to Borgne as if it was his baby, which, thanks to the Besh Group's business model, it pretty much is.
How has the first year in a new place been for you?
It's be great. I mean, we opened the same day the Saints played the Lions in the playoffs last year. Obviously it doesn't look like we'll have a repeat of that. I think the restaurant has done what we've wanted it to do. We wanted it to be a place that caters to locals first. We wanted to create a local vibe and build a local clientele, and throughout this first year we've been doing that. I think we're heading in the right direction.
What have some of the biggest challenges been thus far?
The biggest challenge is probably all of the construction, what with the new streetcar line and no street lights or traffic. It can get to be a nightmare, especially right at the corner [of Poydras and Loyola]. That's probably the biggest single challenge, this ongoing streetcar project.
What's the average crowd look like? People working in the CBD? People trudging home from the sports complex?
I think we have a few different kinds of local crowds. Lunch is very much driven by local businesses. There are a bunch of rather large office buildings directly next to us, and that definitely creates a nice local business crowd for lunch. At night, I think several different things are going on. Definitely on the weekends the locals are visiting us with great frequency. Every time there's a major event, whether that be a Madonna concert or a Hornets game or a Saints game, then again we see this huge influx of locals. Then, during the week, it's kind of a mixed bag. It's businesspeople having dinner, locals driving in from surrounding neighborhoods, and a lot of hotel guests. We kind of have a bunch of different people we're feeding throughout any given week.
Can you spot the out-of-towners the second they walk in the door?
No, no! I mean, having grown up in New Orleans, and worked in so many kitchens in New Orleans just like my GM [Octavio Mantilla], we notice and recognize a lot of familiar faces, but by no means can we tell the difference between locals and tourists when they walk in. Unless we already know them, which a lot of times is the case anyway.
How did working at Galatoire's prepare you for working in such a huge space?
This is one big room, but as far as number of seats, Galatoire's is a big restaurant when you're spread out over two floors. As far as the sheer volume of people, I think my training more than prepared me for this. Ralph's On The Park is another pretty big restaurant that's broken up into very small rooms. Typically you have just one kitchen putting it all out. The volume of business has not been an issue for us at all. I think the kitchen's designed for speed. We use a lot of different techniques and we have world-class equipment that helps us execute everything the way it should be executed.
Is there a fairly strong sense of community within the Besh Restaurant Group, or does everyone involved sort of march to their own beat?
At times there's a very communal feeling, but I think one of the things I enjoy most about the structure of it is that we have plenty of autonomy thanks to the way Chef Besh has drawn up his business model. I'm his partner here, at Bornge, which means I have ownership in the restaurant, I get to work on the menu, I have influence on the design, etc. He really lets the chefs take ownership of our restaurants. Chef Alon has the same at Domenica, and so does Chef Mike at Restaurant August.
In that sense I feel very autonomous, like, Borgne is my baby, but we are all part of a larger group. We travel and do events together, especially charity events. When I'm sort on something on a given night, I have seven sister restaurants to call and ask, "Hey, do you have a little bit of this to get me through the night?" There's a lot of give and take. When we want to promote employees, we look within our sister restaurants first. There's a lot of resources and reassurance knowing that you're not just one, but there's a nice balance between having your own spot and having a lot of other people to help you out, too.
It seems like having that bulwark of Besh restaurants would help ease the growing pains of a new restaurant...
It definitely does.
What sort of contrast have you noticed going from a very old New Orleans restaurant to a brand new place? Do you see a huge difference between that old guard of New Orleans dining and the new guard?
Sure, it's pretty different. I'm not going to speak for my partner, but I don't see many more Besh restaurants popping up in the Besh Group. I think we're at a good number. Lots of times, it's the talent pool within the company that determines the next restaurant. They do foster a lot of upward mobility, and when they do find someone in the company who they really want to latch onto, they create a place for that person. That's kind of how Alon and Domenica came about. I obviously came from outside the company, and that's probably made Borgne a little different than the others, since I didn't come up through the BRG. Coming from white tablecloths and old-world New Orleans to Borgne, which is in a newly renovated Hyatt and is a lot more casual, probably a lot more playful in the sense that the menu gets to rotate seasonal...it's just been a lot of fun for me.
Looking ahead, what are some of your hopes for this place? What's on the horizon?
In the immediate future, we have a lot of citywide events to prepare for. There's New Year's Eve, the Sugar Bowl Bowl, Mardi Gras, and the Super Bowl. The fact that we're kind of in the heart of that means that the next few months will be wild and fun. Menu-wise, I think we've been able to have a lot of fun just locally-sourcing a lot of produce and seafood, and as things come into season, we're finding it pretty easy to move them right onto the menu. We've even had a lot of fun with our cocktail list, which I took over recently, and we have so many great people behind the bar and in the kitchen, that even the super-busy times are fun.
The biggest thing is that we want people who come in to be comfortable, whether they're coming for a business lunch in a suit or their coming from the game in a Saints jersey. We're kind of a chameleon within the industry because we can cater to dramatically different crowds and they'll all feel welcome. There's no dress code, or white table cloth, but it works.
· Borgne [Official Site]