Ryan Hughes has been cooking in New Orleans for 16+ years, first arriving in the 90's to extern at Brennan's and residing in the French Quarter, where the history buff immediately took to the architecture and perusing vintage book stores. Since then, he's honed his craft under Susan Spicer, held down chef duties at Cafe Degas, and has now just opened his own restaurant Purloo in Central City. All the while, Hughes also has amassed dozens of vintage menus and postcards from New Orleans restaurants of yore. Here now, he shares a few favorite menus from his collection, talks inspiration, and also gives Eater a look around his newly opened all-things-Southern Central City restaurant Purloo, now open inside The Southern Food & Beverage Museum.
How many vintage menus do you have?
Forty or fifty of them. I mainly just collect old New Orleans one. When I was living in the French Quarter, one of my favorite things to do on my one day off was walk around to explore. This was 16 years ago. There were five or six old school used book stores (some are still there). I used to go to them, and just sit in there and I started collecting old postcards. They'd have them behind the counter. You'd ask the guy and he'd bring them out. A lot of them are restaurants, snap shots inside. There were three major postcard makers, back in the turn of the century, and their job was to send photographers to Cities and they'd hand color and tint them in. I collected those and menus at the same time.
What's your most beloved one?
The Brennan's menu. Chef Mike Roussell was a very big mentor for me (He was the chef there for 40 years. He started off as a dishwasher.)He'd send me up to the very top floor. Up in the attic on the fourth floor was, covered in chicken wire, Paul Blange's (the original Brennan's chef). There was all sorts of old terrine molds and fish poachers, and old copper stuff they'd only pull out during Debutante balls and stuff like that. Well, Chef Mike knew I loved going up there... He knew I was a big history buff and loved history. (He also introduced me to Susan Spicer at Bayona.) Anyways, before chef Mike Roussell passed away, I went back to visit him often. I saw the decline. I saw what was happening there. After the storm, I'd go back and visit once a month, something like that, and about every time they'd be like this person died, that person died. Everything was fragmenting. Chef Mike died. But one thing he gave me was this menu. Did you know that Brennan's used to be on Bourbon Street? This is the menu.
This is even more interesting. Same menu, but I found it online. It has the original wine list, the hand typed specials, and from what I understand, Ella is the one who hand typed all the specials originally. Isn't that crazy?
This is the original Brennan's lunch menu too. Imagine getting all dressed up and this is what you saw. It transports you to another time.
You can see they ran out of the steak, so they scratched it out. She couldn't find the accent on the type writer so she wrote it in. I study these. I really do. What's fascinating, is from the rise of haute Creole cuisine, from the 1890s to the 1970s, I would say, until Paul Prudhomme came around, three quarters of these menus all had the same shit on them. But they were all packed every night, so what does that tell you? People had alliances for restaurants, dishes and waiters. Everybody served the same exact items, you needed to do something better. you had to be that much better at service. It makes you think and transport yourself to back in the day. You got all these menus you're used to seeing. Why would I go to this restaurant over this when all the things are exactly the same.
Have they influenced your own menu?
I would like to explore more of that with this restaurant, but I don't want to do that right now at the beginning. I'm not all about recreating them at all, but just going back and paying homage to them the right way, I don't know, like Tournedos Rossini. Do you know what that is? Nobody does. It was on Brennan's, Antoine's, Arnaud's. It was bread, some type of rusk. At Brennan's they used Holland's Rusk (bread in the shape of English Muffins that they put all their eggs dishes on). They were one of the only restaurants that used them. That's a secret. You would take a rusk, or brioche, a slab of pate or foie gras, sear off a steak and put it on top, and deglaze the pan with Madeira or Marsala (i forget) and sometimes raisins, and shaved truffles on top. It was the most decadent thing ever. I'd love to do something like that.
Have you noticed any dishes that are now long forgotten or have faded out of New Orleans restaurants?
They all used to do a version of boiled beef and potatoes. Maylie's popularized the dish because it was a hardy thing to have for lunch. A lot of people went to work in the market and they needed something hardy, hardy, hardy to eat, so that was on almost all these menus. The diner ones anyways, maybe not the more fancy ones.
They all used to do liver, that's fallen out of fashion. Philadelphia cream cheese is on almost all these menus, but that was a trend. Imagine if you'd never had cream cheese before in your life. Notice they had a lot of guava jellies they served with it. That's what it was back then. It was a treat back then.
Do you think today's menus, like the physical menu, have lost some of the luster that the old classics used to have?
Of course. I mean look at these, they're beautiful. What I found, a lot of these menus were painted and put together... there used to be two or three presses in the Quarter, and that's what they used to do back then. Restaurants would barter or trade with these artists, like hey, if you make my menus I'll give you dinner. Now to do something like this is prohibitively expensive. You'd never do paper because it's so disposable. Everybody now has cardboard with the leather binding and inserts. I don't collect those at all. i just like the paper menus. They're fragile.
I know this stuff, the older it is, the rarer it is. And think how much was lost during Katrina.
Do you have a favorite shuttered New Orleans restaurants?
I was too late in the game to eat at any of them, and I think the way my brain works that's probably a good thing, because it makes me realize what I've missed. What might've been. I didn't grow up around these restaurants. For New Orleanians that's such a big part of the culture. As a kid you go to Antoine's or Galatoire's, and you have that tradition within you from childhood. I came too late in the game. The year I was at Brennan's, was one of the last "good" years they had. People would even say it was going downhill then.
I always wanted to go to the German restaurant the first block of St. Charles. Kolb's. It was three stories, it had the little guy all his job to do was to turn the fans. It's still shuttered. I believe it was the inspiration for the John Besh restaurant Luke.
Can you explain the idea behind Purloo's menu?
What I'm doing is true Southern regional cuisine. It's not gimmicky. There's still a lot of my personality in there, but it's not It's a Small World, you know what I mean? I did hundreds of pop ups in a row, and learned so much from it. I could open ten more restaurants and not have a problem writing a menu. I would say, it's more of an emphasis on low country, because that influenced me a lot and that was my first foray into the south [in Charleston, where Hughes attended culinary school].