When the High Hat Café opened last June, it joined what is quickly becoming a pantheon of casual Uptown eateries lining Freret that includes Ancora Pizzeria, Company Burger, and Dat Dog, to name just a few. Tapping the talents of former Donald Link kitchen fixture Jeremy Wolgamott, co-owners Adolfo Garcia and Chip Apperson, a native Memphian and long-time admirer of what lies just downriver, have blended New Orleans classics like red beans with Delta-inspired dishes like cornhusk tamales, pimento cheese plates and fried catfish with hushpuppies. From this melange of upriver and downriver cuisine, these men have created a wholly unique destination for Uptown diners, which is no easy feat in a city packed tighter with restaurants than a Brooklyn-bound L-Train is with hipsters.
Even High Hat's bar is churning out some interesting amalgamations from what manager Ryan Iriarte mischievously calls his "chemistry set" of infused liquors. If High Hat's kitchen is trying to capture the spirit of Southern soul food, its bar has already distilled the South with its Cecil's Cocktail, a sweet-tea concoction with Jim Beam, Steen's cane syrup, lemon juice, and mint that one especially poetically-licensed regular has told Iriarte "tastes just like seersucker."
Chip Apperson: Our business is good, I say consistently good. It's hard to predict because we don't have a big reservation book to let us to see what our services are going to be like, but I think our business is good to great and I feel good about it.
You were in the Memphis restaurant industry for many years ? what eventually brought you to New Orleans?
CA: My wife and I sold our restaurant in Memphis six years ago and we always kind of thought about living in New Orleans. We love the city, been here, visited many times over the years, and we decided that it was now or never, or then or never. So about about five years ago, we pulled up stakes in Memphis and moved here and just love it.
What are some of the differences you've noticed thus far about running a restaurant in Memphis vs. New Orleans? Do patrons expect different things?
CA: The challenges are the same and running a restaurant is hard no matter where you do it. The challenge in New Orleans is that the competition's more fierce here because there are so many more restaurants per capita in New Orleans than there are in Memphis. Also, I was from Memphis and I knew a lot of people in Memphis, so when I opened my restaurant in Memphis, it already had a bit of a reputation there, whereas here, nobody knew me. But [laughing] that's why I wisely partnered with Adolfo Garcia, who's an old friend. Then Jeremy [Wolgamott] and Adolfo had been in touch. Jeremy had starred at Rio Mar a couple times before he went to work for Donald Link at Herbsaint and Cochon, but he'd kept in touch with Adolfo. When Adolfo and I decided to do this project, Jeremy was a no brainer to bring in to run the show. He's doing a great job.
The High Hat's been a big part of Freret Street's resurgence. Do you feel special to be a part of this neighborhood's ascendance?
Jeremy Wolgamott: Yeah, absolutely. It's really cool to see everything come in. Especially when we started building and I first came over here and met Chip, the building was more or less empty. There was Cure on the street and Sarita's was here, and that was basically the whole street. There wasn't a whole lot else here and that's why I've sort of seen it, not from the very beginning, but from most of the beginning. It's been really cool to see especially compared to working downtown where there's just restaurant after restaurant, hotel after hotel, and people constantly walking by. Right when we first opened, there wasn't anybody on this street ? if you saw someone walking down the street, you knew they were coming to eat. Now, especially on the weekends, you'll see people walking up and down the street and they're going to Company Burger or they're going to Dat Dog, and it's really cool to see the whole area kind of open up and become more of a pedestrian-friendly, people-friendly place than it was even a year ago.
What about the Freret Market? Has that help pull in some extra business?
CA: We have not set up over there, but we have enjoyed some run-off business from them. On good days over there, several thousand people come to those markets, and it's nice exposure for us. We're open on Saturday for lunch and people from the market can either come over and check us out, come in and eat, or just come in to get out of the elements. So, yes, theres a synergy there, but we don't participate as a food vendor.
Is there a larger sense of camaraderie on this street amongst all the new restaurants?
CA: Everybody on this street knows everybody.
JW: We all ask each other favors, from, "Can I borrow a roll of quarters?" "Can I borrow some to-go containers?" We all know each other, talk and go to each others restaurants.
Last week, me and Adolfo [Garcia] were in Atlanta doing the Atlanta Food and Wine Fest and Kirk Estopinal from Cure was up there and we all went out drinking together. We met up and had dinner one night and we went out drinking a different night, so it's definitely a friendship on this street, everybody gets along. After a long night we'll go down to Cure, and the guys from Cure come down here for lunch, Adam Biderman comes here for lunch, we'll go down there to get a burger. It all works out well. It's fun to have something like that, where we're all working towards the same thing. It's not like we're trying to fight each other for business because business is good for everybody.
CA: In our case, on this street, competition is good for business. Unless someone were to open up a southern-style soul food joint across the street, then I would be pissed. There's pizza next door, there's a different kind of pizza down the street, there's hot dogs, there's high end cocktails, there's gourmet hamburgers, and the po' boy shop is a great little neighborhood joint. I think there are few more to come, too. There's going to be a new place opening on this block, Publiq House, in the blue building at the other end of this block.
So is Freret becoming more of a destination citywide or is it strictly an Uptown affair?
CA: We've had both. We get a lot of neighborhood people coming in, a lot of regulars, the "neighborhood" being within 30 blocks. You can be here from almost anywhere Uptown in five mintues...unless it's Mardi Gras or it's a weird time of day. We're so centrally located that we're a neighborhood restaurant for all of Uptown. We're seeing traffic from the hospital, from the little local businesses in the neighborhood, residents, and it's really interesting because this space was Bill Long's bakery from 1936 to 1985 and a lot of uptowners of a certain age remember this like it was yesterday and wax poetic about the corned beef sandwiches, the macaroons, the sweet rolls and the donuts, the french bread, or the chicken salad, and a lot of people come in here saying, "I remember Bill Long's." That's been good recognition for us.
This food, though [laughs], is a little different.
We feel like we have a little niche in the vast offering that we're lucky to be in. We're doing some old New Orleans traditional food, but we're also doing Memphis stuff,?Memphis being sort of at the top end of the Mississippi Delta?with the catfish and the hush puppies and the hot tamales and the country style vegetables, done the proper way, not out of a can. It's not a a dying art or a lost art, but there aren't many places in New Orleans that offer that kind of thing, so it is sort of an interesting blend of Bayou and Delta food, Adolfo being from New Orleans and me being from Memphis. Jeremy's a Southern boy too, and he's the one executing the whole thing with a perfect hand. It's worked out. I think people are paying attention to it.
Is the menu still changing, still evolving?
CA: The menu's changed a couple times since we opened, just with seasonal soups and vegetables, but I think it's definitely a work in progress. We're talking about some summer menu changes right now that we'll do in the next couple of weeks, as well as a menu format change, but that won't affect the content so much?it'll just be a different look. I think as we mature the menu will too. It takes a while. We're doing it really well now, the menu's strong, and all the items have been fine-tuned. We might spread our wings a little bit, but we're not going to get crazy and try to turn it into an eclectic, high-end place where all of a sudden the prices go up to 25, 30 dollar entrees. We want to keep the prices down.
[Adolfo Garcia walks into the room and starts joking with Jeremy and Chip. He agrees to sit in on the rest of the interview.]
Speaking of cameos, I heard you guys hosted some very famous chefs, courtesy of [Treme creator] David Simon. Was that a surreal experience for you?
CA: That's exactly what I was going to say, it was very surreal. We weren't sure what really happened until it was over and we had it on film. David Simon's assistant called and said, "We want to bring Tom Colicchio, Wylie Dufresne, David Chang, Alfred Portale, and Eric Ripert."
JW: Basically, the "who's who" of New York chefs.
CA: They came in and they were cool. They were all drinking whiskey and having a good time, and we just kind of fed them family style. The idea was that we were going to put out some starters on the table and then we were gonna give them menus and everyone was going to order, but when the time came, I went up to David Simon and asked him if they were ready for menus and Colicchio goes, "Fuck that, just keep doing what you're doing!" So that's what we did?we just started sending stuff out family style and they were passing plates around and Eric Ripert was eating barbecue shrimp with his fingers and licking them and drinking straight bourbon. It was great. They were very appreciative and we continue to be a destination for some of the Treme producers.
Adolfo Garcia: The whole crew has been good to us. They bring people by and let them know that the High Hat's open and we're doing Southern food on the Freret corridor. The local support's been great. David Simon continues to be a supporter, as well as George Pelecanos. He's a great guy?comes in by himself, sits at the bar, has dinner and drinks a glass of wine and he's very interesting.
JW: It was crazy for the guys in the kitchen because these chefs are the big names in New York. I have three of their cookbooks?like, three of the guys who came in, their cookbooks are sitting on my shelves so it was weird to cook for them but they were all great. They came back and shot the shit with us and talked with us and told us [the food] was great. It was a great experience and everyone in the kitchen was thrilled, 'cause kitchen people are nerds like that.
AG: It's almost like if you're in church and the Pope walks in?that's how it felt when these guys walked in. It was surreal, it really was. It was like, "Dam, look at these guys."
CA: It was funny, too, to watch the other customers who were in here that night be cause the chefs pulled up in one of those white stretch vans, one of those long 15-passenger vans, and they just got out, one after another, and walked in the door and people were like, "Whoa, who are these people?"
There were some people in that night who knew who they were because they were all in a storyline of Treme.
Have you had any other confirming moments like the visit from the big guys?
CA: Having Leah Chase and Joanne Clevenger in here on the same day for lunch, sit on different sides of the dining room, spot each other from, and start chatting was very cool. Those are two of the grande dames of New Orleans cooking and restauranteur-ing. Having Joanne talk about us at a forum at Loyola about the future of New Orleans food was also very affirming. She mentioned us as one of the up-and-coming new places that she liked, and thought we were on the right track. That was flattering and we just heard about it from a Loyola professor or staff member who was a customer and told us, "Hey, I was at this thing the other there and Joanne Clevenger was up there talking about the High Hat on stage in front of a bunch of food academics." Those kinds of things make it nice, they reaffirm what we're doing. We have slow days and sometimes we wonder, "What are we doing? Maybe we served everyone who likes our kind of food, maybe they want another kind of food now." But it always kind of comes back around.
Have you realized yet the vision you originally had for this place?
CA: We've achieved the vision but that's not the end of the story, obviously. You've got to stay on top of your game and fine tune things.
AG: When you're in the first few months of running a restaurant, of course you want the business, but we know in the restaurant business it takes a while to get everything down because there are so many things that can go wrong from the time customers open the door to the time they leave. Did the check come in a timely matter? Did the drinks take too long? Did the food come hot enough? Did they put enough salt on that one item? Someone may have had nine things, but if that coleslaw didn't have enough salt, that's what they'll remember. And we know we have to watch everything, we have to taste everything, we have to look at everything. The way Chip looks around the dining room ? he can stand back and see the smallest thing, like somebody's head goes like this, boom, he's on that table. If you don't have someone with that vision, or if the chef has one of those cooks that tends to oversalt or undersalt and he doesn't correct that, you star losing it. It's an evolution and it never stops. Rio Mar, after eleven years, working because we pay attention to the smallest details. Ten years from now this will still be the High Hat, but it'll definitely be a better restaurant. Even in the next week it'll be a better restaurant. We don't stop pushing, we don't stop trying to get to that next level.
So, with this constant pressure to improve and not back-slide, what makes the job worth it?
JW: It takes a different kind of person. I know that Icould never sit at a desk and type on a computer for ten hours ? I would end up in a ditch, dead after a week of that. A lot of people wouldn't be able to make it standing up for 10, 12, 14 hours, running around all the time, but for the people who want to be in this business, for anyone who's working at any restaurant in the world, that's what it takes. That's the drive you have to have. You have to be willing to show up at nine in the morning, stay until midnight, and then get back up at nine in the morning just to make sure that somebody's dinner is right. It's one of those things ? if you spend too much time obsessing about the fact that you're just making this one person happy, you'll drive yourself crazy, but if you can keep running around and seeing the little things and keep trying to do new stuff, it keeps you up and it keeps you happy. Some people have it and some people don't ? maybe we're the lucky ones, but, then again maybe we're not.
CA: People are constantly coming up to me and saying, "That was really good, I mean, that was really good, thank you" on their way out. I think that's what it's ultimately about. at the end of the night when you've had a good night, it's just run like clockwork, like the well-oiled machine that it needs to be to have a good night. We have a good crew. Jeremy's got a good crew in the kitchen and we've got a good crew out front. People like working here i think.
AG: I think the ultimate reward in the restaurant business is just the same as being at home and having a dinner party ? you're nervous, you're guests show up, you're getting everything ready, you serve a great dinner, and, afterwards the house is a mess. After you clean up and you finally sit down with that glass of wine, you're like, "Man, I kicked some ass tonight ? they loved it. And the next time you see them, they're like, "Hey man, thanks for that dinner, we loved your house." Well, this is our house. When you're on the street and someone stops you and says, "Man, I had a great meal at the High Hat the other night." That's the ultimate reward.
Anything to add?
CA: Soul food has unfortunately turned into a lot of people opening up cans of Bushes Best and Sylvia's collard greens and putting them in a pan, heating them, putting them on a plate, and sending em out. Everything here is made from scratch, except for bread and ice cream, and we use as much local produce as we can. We're developing a pretty sweet little cocktail program. Ryan Iriarte is the manager here and he started with one cocktail that he put together in the first month we were here, and now he's got a list of 10 or 12 cocktails that he has come up with using homemade liquers, tinctures, and seasonal fruit. He's put some new spins on classical cocktails too. We're making a Ponchatoula sour right now with strawberries from Ponchatoula. He's made a strawberry liquor that we mix with Makers Mark bourbon and then homemade sour mix and egg whites and it is just this frothy, velvety delicious cocktail that's fantastic. We have the best Pimm's Cup in town?he's making a cucumber liquer that he mixes with Pimm's and a few other little ingrediants and people drink this and go, "This is really delicious."