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Settling In: Two Years at Maurepas Foods

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 Chef Michael Doyle and Brad Smith of Maurepas Foods
Chef Michael Doyle and Brad Smith of Maurepas Foods
Photo: Brasted

Maurepas Foods is two years old, which might surprise anyone who watched the Bywater grow from a fringe neighborhood in New Orleans to a village of new restaurants worthy of attention from scribes at the New York Times. It's been about a year since Eater checked in which Maurepas's Mike Doyle and Brad Smith, and though there have been some changes (like brunch, for starters), the restaurant's ambition to be a neighborhood stalwart for the foreseeable future can almost be taken for granted. This is what the next generation of New Orleans neighborhood restaurants looks like.

So, over the last two years, what has changed about the restaurant? What has changed about the rest of the Bywater?

Mike Doyle: Between one year in and two years in, I think the neighborhood has just settled in to itself. The neighborhood was always good (and still is) but now it seems to be settling into its groove. It's become more predictable. We've had a couple stores open here and there, but the block now has its own system and hierarchy—it's become normal, like our little Main Street.

Brad Smith: I think from opening to one year in—that was the wildest to watch. It was almost like the Wild West around here. You watched property values skyrocket 30, 40 percent. You saw Sui Generis come in, Pizza Delicious come in, Booty's come, Prime Grille—it was this wave of restaurants and people all of a sudden and everyone was trying to figure out what piece of the pie they would get, what the demographics were, and answering questions like, "Are people going to come from Uptown to Bywater, or are we going to rely exclusively on residents of the Bywater?" After the first year, it just shook out and now it feels like home.

MD: We got rid of the lunch, and that's been the biggest change in my life. I got very used to this idea where this was my store on the corner, and that was someone else's store, and every morning you interacted with the other store owners and watched people come in and out of different places. Now that I'm not serving lunch, I'm back in that kitchen all morning prepping, and it feels like my little block has been taken away from me. It's for the better. I'm probably a lot less frustrated and I enjoy myself a lot more just butchering and prepping; it's really enjoyable back there during the day. It was, though, very much this 'sweeping our storefronts' kind of metaphor (there's not actually a lot of sweeping going on, though).

Does the decision to do brunch have anything to do with how much more settled the neighborhood seems now?

MD: Yeah, I think brunch speaks to that. It also speaks to how we started to see things shake out, with more people moving into the neighborhood. We have seen, especially on the other side of St. Claude and closer to the river, that there's a lot of apartment living. We were having this consistent phenomenon of large groups of young people coming in and ordering a lot of drinks and cheese plates to share, mussels, or the chicken because it comes with an egg. You could read their ticket and say, "They're coming in for brunch."

Now we sort of see who's actually moving in with the booming Bywater rental market—brunch became this natural offshoot, where you're getting this clear message that people want you to serve it.

BS: With lunch, the Bywater isn't quite a destination yet for people to come to work. This is where people live, and they work somewhere else. To have a sustainable lunch—most folks have a predetermined amount of time to have lunch and get back to work. To come all the way out to the Bywater and make it back to work is asking a lot from people, but on weekends, when these folks are all here in the neighborhood, and to serve a brunch like we do—I'm actually a little surprised at how fast it's caught on. I thought we'd have more growing pains and have to sort of slowly grow into this idea, but it's just taken off.

Do you miss at all those moments right before the Bywater stopped becoming a 'best kept secret,' before it really became a place known for its burgeoning restaurant scene?

MD: [Laughs] Ultimately, I'm doing this to turn a profit.

Does it change your focus at all, seeing that the Bywater has changed?

MD: Sure, it changes the focus somewhat, but I think that might even just be the story of the restaurant. I sought to open a very unique kind of neighborhood restaurant where we would be doing things a little bit above the standard of your average neighborhood restaurant. I would be making my food, which is very personal, but it was never this thing where we were going to be groundbreaking culinarily.

Then we opened and we were so busy, and these national magazines were writing about us, and all of a sudden you feel this level of scrutiny where we think, "Wait, is this now a big restaurant? Should I be thinking harder about how to make that dish? Because I really just wanted to make some churched-up rice and beans."

BS: I have to say that that level of exposure brings out a higher level of detractors as well. Where there's notoriety, there are always haters and I think that you can really lose your focus within that high level of intense dialogue where you forget that we opened this place to sort of just be a corner store in the Bywater, and that, regardless of the notoriety we got when we first opened, it's settling back into what we set out to do; we're becoming that corner store again.

MD: It's definitely what we wanted to do in the first place, and some days, when I'm feeling very stressed out and tired, I go and sit at a diner to watch the cooks. These guys are my age but they're probably working for less money and they probably don't have the same ambitions for a career that I do. But I'm watching them and I'm thinking, "They seem to doing a good job. They're having fun and talking to each other; they're basically the same as me. I missed out." I think that those guys got a chance to just do this without any pressure, then one of them will break an egg yolk and but put it on the plate anyway and I remind myself that, no, that's not me—I can't do that.

There's always that moment, though, when you think, man, that guy's got the life right there. He's just cooking that chicken breast and he's going to slice it and put it on the salad, and when he goes home tonight he's not going to worry about whether the person who ate it thought it was the best thing ever or whether they're about to write to Food & Wine and say, "This guy doesn't know what he's doing!"

It's always been a tough line to straddle where I want so badly to have limited ambitions, but it never seems to work. So I just embrace it. You'll come in here, get some churched-up rice and beans, and they'll be the best you ever get.

BS: I think, personally, that nostalgia can be a hindrance. I think a lot of places hold on tight to want they want and what they want to be and who they've been for so long. You have to have the capacity to say, "It doesn't matter what we want." The people who come in here dictate it, and if you're not intuitive enough to pick up on it and be flexible and change, I don't think you'll survive.

MD: They don't buy organ meat like I want them to.

BS: The old [restaurant] guard in New Orleans is here for a reason. I think you reach that status and you just become part of the story of New Orleans, but if you're a new restaurant, you have to be able to reach out to your guests and give them what they want.

MD: I think that's something we fight against all the time. I want this to be a neighborhood stalwart kind of place; I want it to be here for 20 years. Someday, I hope I get the opportunity to open some place on a nightclub strip and it's got a four-year shelf life and we flip it over and do a whole new thing...

BS: [Laughs] 18-dollar martinis!

MD: That's not this place, but I often feel that pressure from people who want it to be very groundbreaking in some way. That's not what I want; I want this to be a nice little neighborhood restaurant.

· All Maurepas Foods Coverage [-ENOLA-]

Maurepas Foods

3200 Burgundy Street, New Orleans, LA 70117 504.267.0072 Visit Website

Maurepas Foods

3200 Burgundy St, New Orleans, LA 70117

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