Although the late Ella Brennan wasn’t at the Orpheum for the American Cuisine & Hospitality Symposium on September 17, she was most definitely present. The legacy of the great restaurateur and matriarch of the Brennan family was a recurring theme during the day of seminars and discussion held to celebrate two birthdays: the 125th for Commander’s Palace and NOLA 300, the city’s tricentennial.
Close to 500 people ponied up $200 a ticket to listen to heavy hitters in the food and beverage world spend the day yakking about trends, American cuisine, cocktails, the future of the hospitality business and how to fix its ills.
It was a repeat performance — many of the same luminaries were at the first meet-up 35 years ago, when industry thought leaders who fomented a culinary revolution that is still simmering today. These included food writer Ruth Reichl, Jeremiah Tower (Chez Panisse, Stars), Larry Forgione (An American Place), Drew Nieporent (Tribeca Grill, Nobu), Danny Meyer (Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Shack Shack) and Jonathon Waxman (Barbuta, Jams).
Local New Orleans talent also stepped up to the plate, from relative newcomer Nina Compton (Compere Lapin, Bywater American Bistro) to Ti Adelaide Martin and her sister Lally (Commander’s Palace, SoBou, and others), Michael Gulotta (MoPho, Maypop), Leah Chase (Dooky Chase), Donald Link (Herbsaint, Cochon, Butcher, Pêche, Boulangerie) and Emeril Lagasse (Emeril’s, NOLA, Meril, Delmonico – 12 in all).
Hospitality, the New Frontier
Over and over again, hospitality was named the new frontier, the difference between achieving a good dining experience and a great one. Danny Meyer, a restaurant guru who opines frequently on the guest experience, credited Ella Brennan and her kin for setting the gold standard in what she called “fanatical hospitality.”
“Although we’ve come a long way, I still worry that we hire any beating heart to fill slots as opposed to a hospitality heart,” said Meyer. He hopes that, just as chefs were behind the scenes 35 years ago, and now have achieved prominent status, maitre d’ and servers will be viewed as important as the people cooking.
“There is unbelievable nobility in service,” he said. “Helping the guest celebrate the important moments and forget about the most difficult for a few hours is beyond important.”
Algae and Seaweed and Bugs, Oh My!
Whole crop cookery is just one of the trends Commander’s chef Tory McPhail identified looking into the future of the restaurant business. McPhail, who introduced the local panel, “New Orleans: Just Getting Started”, earmarked the current spike in world wide population and the effects of climate change as forces to be reckoned with. Urban farming and lab grown wheat are on the table for discussion, along with an increased concentration on aquaculture.
While Americans aren’t so into it, the fact that 80 percent of the world eats insects for protein is a thing, he added. Although it’s not new, harvesting crops below the sea is gaining traction, along with an increasing reliance on algae products for human consumption.
The New Orleans Table
The fact that New Orleans has been setting the table for 300 years was celebrated and discussed all day long. Pushing beyond the accepted script about the city’s foodways and history was a theme from both food writer Lolis Elie and chef Donald Link.
“The French are credited with so much of our cuisine,” said Elie. “But the last influx of French speakers was from Haiti, doubling the city’s population from 4,000 to 8,000. You don’t see gumbo in Paris. We need to broaden our definition of Creole and of ourselves,” he said. “That is the real road map to defining our cuisine.”
Link agreed that the African and Caribbean influences cannot be over emphasized when it comes to what’s on our plate, equally if not more important than its European roots. Emeril raised Ella’s spirit in the conversation, remembering that she told him 37 years ago to learn about the culture and history of the people in this city. “She said when I understand the people, I’ll understand the food, and she was right.”
Nina Compton is new to the party, opening her first restaurant in 2015, her second in 2018. The welcome she felt from the restaurant community was startling to her. “I can’t imagine any other place, any other city, that offered the kind of support I got here,” she said. Michael Gulotta said it this way. “We take and keep the best of every culture that comes here,” he said. “People who have come here since Katrina to support New Orleans have taught me so much. Once you show that you want to be a part of our city, you’re in.”
Backwards in High Heels
The symposium also included a rather disjointed panel on sexual harassment in the restaurant industry that highlighted possible solutions and generational differences (the panelists’ ages ranged from early-30s to mid-90s).
Leah Chase said she used to tell boys who wanted to take her out, “I want to be seen — and I want to be seen with you. So don’t take me to some dark corner. I didn’t put on these clothes to not be seen.” She added that women of her generation combatted sexual harassment by talking themselves out of any situation.
In true New Orleans style, the symposium concluded with drinks and a panel on cocktails.
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