The New New Orleans: Life Takes A New Direction After Katrina

Until Hurricane Sandy slammed into New York and New Jersey in October, New Orleans was perhaps the biggest urban natural disaster story the country had ever seen. Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, the city has gotten back on its feet, regrouping after the storm of a lifetime.

Now, New Orleans isn’t just rebuilding what it was before. It’s beginning to move forward. Across, the city, new people, places and points of view are adding flavors to an already rich gumbo. People who weren’t in New Orleans before Katrina are helping to craft the city’s future. And places that have been derelict since the storm, and even before it, are coming back to life.

This New New Orleans has many of the elements of other successful cities. It’s attracting entrepreneurs, through the same kind of incubators you find in Silicon Valley. Young professionals, like the Emerging Philanthropists of New Orleans, a grassroots giving circle, are contributing money and time. Big name companies, like General Electric, are making investments and creating jobs.

But the most visible evidence of the New New Orleans is in the city’s food industry, which has doubled in size since before Katrina, and which has broken away from some of the traditions of the past. If New Orleans once rested on its food laurels, as critic Alan Richman proclaimed a year after the storm, it’s not doing so any longer.

“The best thing that happened with that experience, with Katrina, was that it forced people who were on their knees to come back and compete,” says restaurant owner and entrepreneur Joel Dondis (above).

“Whoever came back was going to get better. The beauty is what you see today.”

%Gallery-170745%Before Katrina, it might have been hard to conceive that New Orleans would have a new burger joint visited by star chefs in a neighborhood previously deemed unsafe. Or, in a city where supermarkets were the only place to buy meat, that MBAs from Tulane University would open a butcher shop.

No one could have imagine gumbo and music festivals and a concert series in a downtown park that nobody used. But all that’s happened in just the past weeks and months.

The New New Orleans is not without its obstacles. The French Quarter and much of the Central Business District are a construction zone, with the city scurrying to build a street car spur and make other improvements before the 2013 Super Bowl.

Crime remains high, and unwary tourists can get robbed at ATMs or rolled by unsavory characters late at night if they don’t have their wits about them (as can happen anywhere). Almost every neighborhood is still rebuilding in some fashion, and streets can be shut and rerouted on a daily basis with little explanation.

But the new New Orleaneans are pushing forward, anyway, and many of them are building on the city’s past as they create new opportunities.

Joel Dondis has been a part of the New Orleans culinary scene for a generation, but since the storm, he has pressed forward with new ventures in desserts, fine dining and casual meals.
One of his post-Katrina restaurants, Grand Isle, named for the island at Louisiana’s tip, sits squarely in a tourist zone, flanked by the convention center on one side, Harrah’s Casino on another, and faces a courtyard where visitors in name tags stroll in the noonday sun.

Inside, Grand Isle is the epitome of the expansive seafood restaurants you find on any shore, with tile floors, wood trim, big windows, and waiters bustling with platters of shellfish and pints of beer.

But Grand Isle didn’t exist before Katrina, Dondis explains, gesturing around the room. “This was a parking garage.” He built the place from scratch, drawing on the Gulf Coast tradition for ocean fishing and shellfish gathering, and it’s now part of a restaurant organization with five businesses and 400 employees.

The walls, made from cyprus wood, are decorated with stunning black and white photographs by legendary local artist Fonville Winans. Others show vintage scenes of VIPs at big game fishing clubs, beaming at their catches of giant ocean fish.

The New Orleans-dominated menu seems familiar, but the dishes have twists – the shrimp camanida po’boy has a citrus butter and Asian slaw, the blue crab claws are marinated instead of fried as they might be elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, and the gumbo has house-made andouille sausage. The chef, Mark Falgoust, also makes his own boudin, the meat and rice mixture served warm in Louisiana gas stations.

They’re making boudin, too, at Cleaver and Company, a just-opened butcher shop a few miles away in Uptown. It’s joining a growing trend across the country for high-end meat markets, supplied by local farmers, where cutting and curing takes place on the premises. All of Cleaver’s meat comes from within 200 miles of the tiny shop.

Cleaver, which opened at the end of October, had a line of customers waiting outside the door on its second Saturday in business. Simone Reggie, one of the Tulane-educated business partners, guided customers to three sheets of butcher paper taped to the wall that listed the cuts of beef and pork as well as the poultry available that day.

A delivery man brought boxes of ducks through the front door as a man at the counter gave specific instructions for how he wanted his ribs prepared: “I want a St. Louis cut, with the fly removed,” meaning the top flap of meat. Seth Hamstead, Reggie’s business partner, said he didn’t mind the instructions, because Cleaver can’t prosper without educated customers.

“People are making more of an effort to preserve the culture of New Orleans,” he said. Hampstead, who got his undergraduate degree at Tulane, worked in Chicago but chose to return to Tulane for his MBA. There, he met Reggie, who had worked for Chef John Besh as well as Cintas Corporation, and the pair concocted the idea for the butcher shop.

“You’ve had a change in the workforce. People aren’t staying in jobs 50 years any more,” Hamstead said. “They’re going off to do their own thing.”

Of course, New Orleanians love nothing more than a good party, and one sign of how far the city has come took place in November. Emeril Legasse, known as much for exclaiming “bam!” on his Food Network program as for his restaurant empire, held his second annual Boudin and Beer fundraiser on a temperate November Friday evening.

A year ago, the original Boudin and Beer attracted 1,500 people and 25 chefs from New Orleans and Mississippi, who prepared their version of boudin and served samples from individual booths. This year, the number of chefs swelled to 59, from all over the country, with beer and cocktails flowing and live music and dancing that went on into the night.

The varieties of boudin were as varied as the chefs, with grilled boudin, boudin kiev, seafood boudin, even nutria boudin prepared by New Orleans chef Susan Spicer. People crowded around Mario Batali as he cavorted with belly dancers, and laughed at the hot moves of the 610 Stompers, the area’s most popular men’s dance troupe.

The event was held in New Orleans’ warehouse district, not far from the convention center, which played such a tragic role in Katrina. But the area has rebounded to become a center for artists and museums, and restaurants like Cochon, the center of the universe for chefs who cure their own meats.

Many of those chefs ended up the next day on Freret Street, a seven-block district in the Uptown neighborhood that is filling up with bars and restaurants, creating a trendy new entertainment area miles from the Quarter, in both attitude and atmosphere. Others wound up nursing their hangovers at La Petite Grocery, another Dondis restaurant, and spooning up gelato at Sucre, his patisserie helmed by chef Tariq Hanna, which opened only months before Katrina.

After surviving four hurricanes – Ivan, Katrina, Gustav and most recently, Isaac – Dondis says he’s come up with a formula for how to get his places down to minimal loss. Sucre never lost power during Isaac, and became a kind of general store for New Orleanians, who came in as much to charge their phones and use wifi as they did for sundaes.

“Power and data connectivity,” Dondis says, have turned out to be the criteria for coming back from a storm. Throw in food, and they’re an analogy for the New New Orleans, too.

NEXT: A Stroll Down Freret Street

For more on the New New Orleans, click here.

[Photo credits: Micheline Maynard]

Cruise Vacations: Not Your Mother’s Slow Boat To China

cruise vacationsOften believed to be the travel choice of the newly wed or nearly dead, the nature of cruise vacations has evolved in recent years. At one time, a cruise vacation meant shuffleboard, never-ending buffets and a few thousand older, overweight passengers on a spin around the Bahamas. Now, the old iconic activities, dining options and even older passengers are being replaced with an active lifestyle and options for adventure travelers.

As new ships come out, cruise lines are careful to build in an ability to be flexible and cater to the traveler of today. Relevant dining options ranging from lifetime event dining, like a steakhouse dinner to celebrate a graduation at a fraction of the cost on land, to comfort food dining, like Macaroni and Cheese in the ship’s main dining room, reflect an evolving passenger’s taste.

Pinpointing that taste and satisfying it, cruise lines are more rabidly focused on capturing the attention of would-be passengers with far more than low prices and bonus offers. Branded experiences ranging from an infusion of DreamWorks characters into the Royal Caribbean fleet, a Nickelodeon influence on Norwegian ships and even Apple products in iLounges on Celebrity Cruises are proving popular. Off the ship, adventurous shore experiences often put cruise travelers on a path similar to that suggested by popular travel bloggers going it on their own.

Flickr photo via Trey Ratcliff

Along with this “give-them-what-they-want” focus comes a branding effort designed to jumpstart the infusion of trendy, relevant elements to the onboard experience on older ship as well. Royal Caribbean has a Royal Advantage program being rolled out to older ships, replacing tube sets with flat-screen TV‘s, adding new trendy dining venues found on the newest of ships and upgrading other elements of the onboard experience as well.

On Carnival Cruise Lines some travelers may lament the near extinction of the party-going frat sailings (AKA “booze cruise”) but don’t have to look far for new, different venues that are becoming the place to be at sea.

Inspired by what is popular while traveling, Carnival unleashed its FunShip 2.0 initiative in New York last October. The $500 million enhancement program includes partnerships with popular celebrities and leading brands.

Funnyman George Lopez and celebrity chef Guy Fieri along with Miami Heat‘s DJ Erie are doing more than simply lending/selling their well-known names and star statuses to the Carnival brand in an attempt to draw a new breed of cruise passenger. Each has worked with Carnival to create experiences that fit the brand and infuse their own unique style.

cruise vacationsThe Food Networks Guy Fieri is working with Carnival to offer a dining venue called Guy’s Burger Joint, featuring the Food Network star’s (really amazing) hand-crafted burgers and fresh-cut fries with special recipes created exclusively for Carnival.

Different, from previous product upgrades that have happened throughout the years, cruise lines are listening and communicating with passengers and targeted travelers, speaking their language. Also, reflecting a degree of transparency, cruise lines are letting us in behind the scenes to see what goes into bringing something new on board as never before.

At a press conference in New York, Fieri manned the outdoor grill most of the afternoon, making soon-to-be signature burgers and answering questions. When asked why he got involved with the project, straight-talking Fieri told us, “…because these people at Carnival really care about their customers. It really means a lot to them that the people who sail on their ships have a good time. I wanted to be a part of that.”

It’s funny how you can hear something like that from a cruise line a million times and think nothing of it, but let those words come out of a popular icon in the world of food and all of the sudden they have meaning.

Fieri’s influence goes beyond the burger recipe too and gets really detailed in its execution on board. Condiment stations will feature a suggested menu developed by the chef to show guests what condiments and toppings they can use to build a specialty burger. In addition to burgers, Guy’s Burger Joint will serve fresh, hand-cut French fries prepared on board. We sampled (OK make that “inhaled”) both in New York and agreed with most others that it was one of the best burgers ever.

Carnival is also teaming up with comedian and TV personality George Lopez who will become the cruise line‘s “creative director for comedy” as Carnival introduces the Punchliner Comedy Clubs Presented by George Lopez.

cruise vacationsTo become the cruise line’s curator of comedy, acting as a consultant on the vetting and hiring of comedic talent for the line’s existing fleetwide comedy clubs, Lopez will play an active role in the securing of top up-and-coming comedic talent, utilizing his vast resources within the North American comedy scene.

“Carnival’s ships offer a huge audience that truly appreciates comedic performances and the on-board clubs are fantastic,” Lopez told us. “I intend to help build and nurture an understanding among up-and-coming comedic talent that these ships represent a phenomenal environment to work and gain experience.”

Through the partnership, Carnival ships will feature a Lopez comedy routine shown on in-cabin televisions fleetwide and pre-recorded introductions by Lopez at comedy club shows, as well as a new Punchliner Comedy Brunch that will be offered on sea days. Lopez will also partner with the line on a comedy-themed consumer contest in 2012.

“Carnival’s guests absolutely love comedy which is why we are already the cruise industry leader in fleetwide comedic programming and, in fact, we host more guests in our shipboard comedy clubs than any land-based comedy chain in the U.S.,” said Gerry Cahill, Carnival’s president and CEO. “By partnering with George Lopez, an exceptionally talented, respected and popular comedian, Carnival’s comedy offerings will be taken to an entirely new level.”

Lopez is seriously into the comedy concept too, much like Fieri and his cooking. In an interview with CruiseRadio‘s Doug Parker and Matt Basford, Lopez detailed his involvement saying “I will bring people from television and movies and that will make it better. You start to see people on the ship that you have seen in movies and that makes it fun, that’s a great surprise,” adding, “I will be performing on the ships occasionally myself which I am excited about.”

cruise vacationDJ IRIE, song master to the stars and the official DJ of the Miami HEAT, will develop a first-of-its-kind DJ academy at sea that will train all Carnival DJs across the “Fun Ship” fleet. The DJ IRIE Spin’iversity promises to bring an exciting and relevant new vibe to the line’s legendary nightclubs, deck parties and beyond.

“Miami HEAT games are known for their high-energy and non-stop fun created by DJ IRIE and we want to tap into his unique skills and passion for music to create an unforgettable atmosphere on board,” Mark Tamis, Carnival’s senior vice president of guest operations told us. “Music is the soundtrack of our lives and our goal is to create an emotional experience for our guests through the right mix of terrific music and a DJ with a unique personality who can energize a crowd.”

Whether spinning in clubs in Miami or Las Vegas, at a sporting event or hosting his popular South Florida radio show, the internationally known DJ IRIE has mastered the art of bringing a crowd to its feet and pumping up the energy and excitement – much like Carnival had done for 40 years.

But through his new comprehensive training program, IRIE will train Carnival’s DJs how to read a crowd and tailor song selections from every musical genre, appealing to guests of all ages. He will also instruct DJs on how to make maximum use of their own personality and energy to create their own persona and build popularity among guests to develop a fan following.

An important point to note: none of this costs extra. This is Carnival reinventing the at-sea experience, adding more options than ever, all included in the price.

The onboard experience is changing in other ways as well. Big name entertainment is lending their name to new cruise ships as Godmothers, or just to be were the entertainment action is.

Martina McBride performed on Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas; Maroon 5 rocked Galveston with Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Magic as a backdrop. Other acts from Kid Rock to Dancing with the Stars contestants host themed cruises, allowing fans up-close-and-personal time like never before.

Off the ship too, cruise lines are taking a good hard look at what they have for travelers once ships reach their destinations. Taking a page from travel bloggers, cruise line “excursions” are far more than a busload of tourists complaining if the air conditioning is not cool enough.

Today we’re seeing cruise passengers getting off the bus and on to kayaks, scuba diving, surfing, hiking and climbing trails, viewing history, arts and culture up close in any given port. At the end of the day some ships may stay in port late or overnight before moving on to their next stop.

Always a solid reason for cruising, travelers get to see and sample destinations they may or may not want to return to later, for a longer land-based vacation.

No, today’s cruise vacations are not your parents’ idea of a good time, they’re yours, whatever that may mean.


Photos via Carnival Cruise Lines

Raw Fusion popup brings sustainable cooking to Orange County, California

raw food Beginning in January, 2012, residents and visitors to Orange Country, California, can enjoy Raw Fusion cooking at the PALMO kitchen popup restaurant every Monday night.

Raya Belna, the creator of the popup as well as a Food Network award-winning Raw Foods and Vegan chef, is passionate about locally-grown, organic ingredients. The popup will feature a menu consisting of uncooked foods as well as cooked gluten-free vegan cuisine. Each week, a new venue will be used as well as an original menu created based on what produce was picked that week.

“I want to give our guests as much information about the ingredients as possible, where they were picked and what day they were picked on, in hopes of creating a strong connection between farm and table,” explains Belna. “Our mission is to bring awareness to the natural beauty and abundance that surrounds us here in Southern California and to really connect with our food source.”

The first evening of the PALMO kitchen will take place Monday, January 2, 2012, from 5PM-9PM at the TEE Room at the Newport Beach Golf Course. For more information, visit the PALMO kitchen website or e-mail Raya Belna at raya@palmofoods.com.

A guide to America’s most “offal” restaurants

offal restaurantsEven when I was a finicky kid subsisting on Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, I was intrigued by offal. No way in hell would I have eaten what are politely known in the food industry as “variety meats,” but they sure looked intriguing.

As with most of my weird habits, I blame my dad for my fascination with animal guts. Growing up the daughter of a large animal vet, I spent most of my formative years raising livestock, assisting with surgeries and necropsies, and working cattle brandings, so I’ve never been squeamish when it comes to animal innards.

Not until I began working in restaurants, however, did I learn that offal, properly prepared, is absolutely delicious. Many of us were forced to eat liver cooked to the consistency of jerky as kids because it was “good for us.” When I ate my first tender, caramelized calf’s liver, however, the interior creamy and surprisingly mild, I actually enjoyed it. Ditto fried pig’s brains, calf testicles, smoked cow’s tongue, grilled chicken hearts…

In most of the world–Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America–offal has always been a dietary staple due to poverty, and the need to utilize as much of the animal as possible. Glands, organs, and other bits and pieces fell out of favor in America in the late 19th century due to cheap meat (muscle cut) prices. Today, offal is gaining popularity in the States, thanks in part to the increasing emphasis on sustainable food production and supply. British chef Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating has done just as much to inspire American chefs to get in on the offal revolution this side of the Atlantic.

Following the jump, my picks for some of the best restaurants in the United States to specialize in or honor offal (having the occasional sweetbreads or tongue on a menu doesn’t count). Read on for where to find these temples of, as one chef put it, “offal love.”

[Photo credit: Flickr user The Hamster Factor]

offal restaurantsIncanto, and SPQR: San Francisco
It’s hard to turn on the Food Network these days without seeing Incanto chef Chris Cosentino’s mug. The “Iron Chef” contestant also appears on a handful of other shows, but he’s best known for his obsession with offal. At Incanto, you’ll find Italian-rooted local cuisine heavy on variety meats. Lamb fries (testicles) with bacon and capers; kip (veal) heart tartare Puttanesca style; creative endeavors with cockscombs. If you want to discover how good esoteric offal can be, this Noe Valley spot is it.

SPQR–sister restaurant to the wildly popular A16–is a bustling little sweet spot on boutique-and-restaurant heavy Fillmore Street. The name, an acronym for the Latin version of “The People and Senate of Rome,” is a tip-off that rising star chef Matthew Accarrino’s menu is littered with animal parts. Look for delicacies like a delicate fritto misto of offal (liver, tripe, and sweetbreads), and braised pig ears deep-fried, and served with pickled vegetables and chili oil.

Animal: Los Angeles
As you will see, this round-up is unwittingly a tribute to Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs, past and present. But a great chef is a great chef, and it just so happens that 2009 F & W winners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo love them some animal parts. At their first restaurant, Animal, the down-to-earth duo–former culinary school classmates and longtime co-workers–serve up fancified down-home, finger-slurpingly good treats like pig tails, “Buffalo-style,” with celery and Ranch; pig ear, chili, lime, and fried egg, and veal brains, vadouvan (a spice mixtures), apple sauce, and carrot.

Clyde Common, Porland (Oregon)
The menu isn’t always bursting with offal, but this lovely communal dining spot in downtown’s Ace Hotel knows its way with variety meats–it’s where I first fell in love with tongue. Savor Euro tavern-style treats like chef Chris DiMinno’s chicken-fried chicken livers with cress, cucumber, and lemon aioli; pig trotters, or hearty charcuterie boards with excellent (heavy on the bourbon, gin, and rye) house cocktails.offal restaurants

Amis, and Osteria: Philadelphia
Arguably one of the nation’s most talented chefs, Marc Vetri trained in Italy, and now runs a three-restaurant (and growing) empire with his partners in Philadelphia. The award-winning chef’s restaurants Amis, and Osteria, are heavy on the offal, in two very divergent ways. At Amis, chef/co-owner Brad Spence turns out earthy, Roman trattoria specialties, including a menu section called “il quinto quarto.” In ancient Rome, this “fifth quarter” refers to the four quarters of an animal that were butchered and split up amongst the noblemen, clergy, and soldiers. Peasants got the fifth quarter (also known as “what falls out of the animal). Expect hearty fare like trippa alla Romana, Roman tripe stew.

Jeff Michaud, chef/co-owner of the industrial-farmhouse-styled Osteria, turns out intensely rich dishes like Genovese ravioli stuffed with veal brain, capon, and liver, served with a braised capon leg sauce; crispy sweetbreads with Parmigiano fonduta and charred treviso, and grilled pork tongue spiedini with fava beans and pancetta.

The Greenhouse Tavern, and Lolita: Cleveland
Chef/owner Jonathon Sawyer of downtown’s The Greenhouse Tavern is more than just a 2010 F & W Best New Chef. He’s a man who isn’t afraid to make “Roasted Ohio pig face” one of his signature dishes. Granted, this is a hog gussied up with Sawyer’s signature Frenchified gastropub style: cola gastrique, petit crudite, and lime. But Sawyer, who lived briefly in Rome, also pays tribute to the eternal city of love by serving a daily-changing il quinto quarto “with tasty bits.”

the Publican: Chicagooffal restaurants
Spicy pork rinds; blood sausage; headcheese; neck bone gravy with spaghetti and Parmesan; sweetbreads with pear-celery root remoulade. the Publican executive chef/co-owner/award-winning chef Paul Kahan is innovative with more than just offal. He uses scraps, blood, and bones to create charcuterie, as well as elegant, “beer-focused farmhouse fare (his father owned a deli and smokehouse; no wonder).” Chef de cuisine Brian Huston leads the show, carrying on the tradition.

The Spotted Pig, New York
Having just received its fifth Michelin star means this Greenwich Village hot spot will continue to be nearly impossible to get into. But it’s worth the wait for chef/co-owner April Bloomfield’s (yet another F & W Best New Chef alum) soulful gastropub cuisine. In the never-too-much-of-a-good-thing category: Calf’s liver with crispy pancetta and house-made bacon.

I’ve only tapped the surface of what talented, creative chefs are doing with offal in the United States. Have a favorite restaurant doing something noteworthy with bits and pieces? I’d love to hear about it!


Relief: Four airport perks coming soon

There’s nothing fun about going to the airport, and the regulatory climate isn’t likely to change that anytime soon. Security will still be a nightmare, and you won’t be able to bring your own water with you (at least not for a while). Fortunately, there are companies out there looking for ways to make your airport experience better.

So, what can you expect to see in your local airport in the near future? Here are four amenities to whet your appetite for something to counteract the airport security gauntlet:

1. Catch some comfy shut-eye: sleeping on a plane sucks. There’s just no way to get comfortable. And, if you slip your leg alongside the seat in front of you, you do run the risk that it will get slammed by the beverage cart. Well, you’ll be able to use your layovers to rest, soon. Napping nooks, already available at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, are expected to come to San Francisco in the near future. Seven airports are in the early stages.2. Light up a cigar: okay, this one is particularly meaningful to me. A few airports still have smoking areas (I just lit up in Denver last month), but they tend to be unfortunate spaces, not designed to appeal. This is where a company like Graycliff can make a difference. The Bahamas-based cigar and hospitality company has an idea for well-ventilated lounges, featuring cigar rollers (and nothing beats a stick fresh off the bench, at least, not for me). With Graycliff involved, you can expect a stylish, upscale experience. The first is already open at the airports in Nashville and Nassau.

3. Better shopping and eating: the challenge of finding a bite or buying a tie during weird hours could become a thing of the past. From the chance to dine at a Food Network Kitchen to broader shopping options, airports are scoping out ways to enhance the experience of being trapped within their walls. If all the doomsday predictions by the airline industry about the implications of the three-hour delay rule are true, you might need to buy several changes of clothes and meals … because they believe this rule means you will never get home again.

4. Get picked up more easily: no, this has nothing to do with wearing something hot or having that extra cocktail. Rather, airports are opening their minds to parking where your ride can wait for you. You call; they drive around to get you. But, it’s not always that easy. Nature calls, and there’s always a shortage of space. So, look for larger parking lots with bathrooms flight information boards and maybe even dining options? Newark’s already headed down this road, with plans in the works for JFK airport, Cincinnati, Fort Myers and St. George (in Utah).

For more on this topic, head on over to USA Today where airport expert Harriet Baskas explores more upcoming airport amenities.

[photo by msspider66 via Flickr]