Gourmet Chefs Going Casual:
Dream Or Nightmare?
Last week Chef Adolfo Garcia from four-star RioMar (and La Boca and A Mano) opened a pizza and sandwich joint on Freret Street. A couple of days later, Chef Aaron Burgau--the kitchen partner at Patois, another four-star place--opened a hamburger joint on Oak Street.
I know a trend when I spot one, and so I've been on the lookout for the next hot-chef/cheap-eats places. I found that a bunch of them are in the pipeline, as the dining public continues to leave formal restaurants for dives.
Chef John Besh--owner of five-star August, four-star La Provence, and five other heady restaurants--hasn't opened a new restaurant in a full year. His turn is Tuesday at 10:30 a.m., when he'll open Cafeteria Lady. I sneaked into a pre-opening run-through.
"Everybody has memories of the food in their school cafeterias," Besh says. "It's where you ate your first shepherd's pie, spaghetti and meat sauce that was somehow better than your mother's, and good old Salisbury steak. We're going to bring all that back. With better ingredients, of course. And my face and name behind it to make sure people come in."
The restaurant is on the corner of Palmer and Magazine, in a defunct Catholic grammar school's actual cafeteria. (I think it used to be St. Heather's.) Few changes were made in the place, other than general refurbishing. You have your mama pay in advance, and you just show up and get in line behind all the other customers.
At the head of the serving line, a matronly woman wearing a hairnet (she told me it didn't bother her, because she wears one all the time) picked up a three-compartment plate with her left hand. With her plastic-gloved right hand, she grabbed a bouquet of lettuce from the pan in front of her, then two slices of beet.
The gaunt older lady with dark circles under her eyes and a frozen face stuck a dipper into a repository of bright orange, opaque French dressing (seasoned with French sea salt, Besh notes) and dashes it across the salad while looking out into the void, as if she'd done it ten thousand times before.
Your first course is now complete. The staring lady hands off the plate to a young woman. Like the first two, she's wearing a white uniform which could as easily be that of a nurse. I looked at her and she smiled back. "You can have white meat or dark meat," she said. The chicken is speckled with black pepper, but is otherwise dry at the skin. Looked and tasted good, though.
The next specialist took the handoff from her left, and stirred a slotted spoon in a vat of petits pois. They were a brighter green than any peas I've ever seen in a school cafeteria. Turned out they have been shelled from fresh pods. They actually bounced a little when they fall into the upper left-hand pocket of the plate.
Now the staff clown took over. It's a guy, of course--the only one on the line. Stacks of white sliced bread were on the counter behind the ladies. He picked up a slice and flipped it like a Frisbee. It landed right on top of the plate three feet away. Dead center! Every time! The kids loved it, and the adults applauded.
"Fresh-baked bread, right here, this morning," he said.
"Every cafeteria in all five of the schools I went to baked bread in their own kitchen," I said. "Great hot rolls all the time." The fellow slumped his shoulders and made a sad face.
I hated to say the next thing. "Where's the dessert?"
The man pointed to the other side of the dining room. "No room on this plate," he said, with a much gruffer voice all of a sudden. "Over there. Only if you eat all your peas." I laughed. He looked stern.
John Besh himself was standing near the dessert station, where another middle-aged lady in her nurse outfit stood, spooning pear halves into monkey dishes.
"I hope this is the kind of pear I remember from school," I said. "I could stick the whole thing in my mouth and squeeze it through my teeth into a puree, it was so soft."
"You wouldn't believe how much work it is to make a fresh pear come out like that," John said. "But that's what everybody remembers, so we had to do it."
Also to be collected here is a half-pint of milk in a little bottle, with a cardboard plug in the neck. Pull back its tab, and a hole just big enough to admit a straw reveals itself.
The food is almost absurdly simple in its flavors. No big statements, other than the tsunami of nostalgia. The price for the whole fixed menu is $18.75. There are no choices, just like in school. No tipping. No take-out orders.
Why are you doing this, John? "Everybody loves it," he said. "People want comfort food. I'm giving them what they want. What's wrong with that?"
I wanted to say, "But you're this talented chef, and this is. . . " But I didn't. I must try to get my head around this trend. Either that, or slit my wrists.
And that's when I woke up. It took me a minute to realize this was all a dream. But a very realistic one. I went back to sleep and, strange to say, the dream picked up at a new venue.
So I'm driving uptown on St. Charles Avenue, and I catch the light at Washington Avenue. At first, I thought I was having a flashback. But no, that really was a white wooden box like the kind that sold hot tamales on neutral grounds all over New Orleans about fifty years ago.
A vendor dressed in a chef's jacket and toque had the lid of the box open, and was manipulating something inside. Four people stood in a line in front of the white box. And then the familiar faces of two women who I at first took to be waiting for the streetcar resolved themselves into Lally Brennan and Ti Martin--the owners of Commander's Palace.
I rolled my window down and waved. "Tom!" Ti shouted. "Pull over! We want to show you something new!"
It was two blocks before I found a parking space. Walking back, I realized that all the other pedestrians were headed in the same direction I was, and would soon converge on the white box. As I closed in on it, I could read the legend on its side: Commander's Toast Point.
"Commander's Toast Point?" I asked Ti and Lally. They threw their heads back and laughed.
"Ain't this somethin'?" Ti said. "Welcome to our newest restaurant!"
"It looks like a hot tamale stand," I said.
"That's exactly what it is," said Ti. "Some friends of ours had one in their garage and let us have it."
"Tom, really, we keep seeing the best chefs all over the country starting hamburger places and hot dog stands," said Lally. "Wolfgang Puck sells sandwiches in airports. With his name on them!"
"And people love them," Ti said. "And he makes a fortune. We were talking about this a few weeks ago and decided we had to come up with our own little thing like that. So what little thing does Commander's Palace have that everybody loves and talks about?"
"Garlic bread," I said.
"Bingo! People brag about coming in for dinner and eating four plates of garlic bread before they even look at the menu. It's our signature dish, and we give it away."
Ti screwed up her face as if she were thinking really hard about something. "Do they want it so bad that they'd pay for it?" she said. "Outside the restaurant, I mean. That way they could get what a lot of them come to our restaurant for, and pay a lot less than the price of a Commander's dinner."
"Devil's advocate," I said. "I wouldn't pay more than a dollar or two for six pieces of your garlic bread, good as it is. How could you make anything at that rate?"
"We couldn't," said Lally. "But what if I said we had garlic bread with prosciutto on top?"
"Or olive salad," said Ti.
"Or foie gras?"
"A fried oyster?"
"Little piece of trout pecan?"
"Shrimp with pepper jelly?"
I broke in. "Thickened turtle soup?"
The cousins looked at each other. "Almost. We just sell the garlic bread with a dipping cup of turtle soup."
"And you can charge, three, four, five dollars for all of that," I guessed.
"No, a little more. And twelve for the foie gras and fifteen for the Louisiana caviar or the truffle butter!
"You think anybody's going to pay that for food from a hot tamale stand in the neutral ground?"
The women looked at each other as if they'd just been asked something incredibly stupid. "Take a look," Ti said, pointing to the line. Ten people were in it now. "It's a little thing called Twitter. And Facebook."
The "chef" (I recognized him as a junior waiter at Commander's) was moving as fast as he could, tucking four pieces of the garlic bread with slices of ham and cheese on each into a dark green cardboard container printed to look like marble. While he did, the customer pulled his card through a wireless reader handed him by a young woman, who then went back to greeting each new arrival and handed him or her the menu.
"Tom, it's gone so well that we've got a carpenter working on ten more of these," Lally told me. "The next locations are in the neutral ground across from the Camellia Grill, Jackson Square, Carrollton at Claiborne, and Harrison Avenue at Canal Boulevard. People are begging for us to put one in their neighborhoods. I think we'll have to set up a production line in the spare space at Café Adelaide to keep up with the demand!"
"But what do you think this will do to the Commander's name?" I asked. "I don't mean to insult you, but I've seen Mardi Gras street food vendors with more substance than this!"
"It's incredible, isn't it?" said Ti. "But Tom, people don't care anymore. Everybody just wants simple convenience food. The old regulars will keep coming to Commander's, and everybody else will come here. The people really, really love the idea!"
A streetcar screeched to a halt at its stop on the other side of Washington Avenue. Some thirty people stepped down and made a beeline for the garlic bread stand, all but running there.
"And the tourists!" Ti said. "The concierges in all the hotels are talking about Commander's Toast Point! Well, please excuse us. We have to pitch in to help with the crowd."
I shook my head, said my "see ya' laters," and turned to walk back to my car. I was so agape with what I'd just seen that I didn't hear the furious bangs on the streetcar bell and screaming metal-on-metal braking, inches away and rolling toward me. I put my hand out as if I could stop it. I felt the single headlight warm my hand as Car 969 swept over me.
I woke up, covered with sweat, my heart beating loud enough to hear. I was in my bed. None of this had happened. It took me a few minutes to regain my composure.
A strong urge to eat garlic bread came upon me. "No! No!" I screamed.
It seemed like a couple of weeks since Chef Adolfo Garcia opened his new pizzeria and neighborhood café on Freret Street. "Too long," he said. "I've got to open something new soon or I'll be left behind."
That's how he explained Manilkara Chicleria, his new. . . well, it's so innovative that I don't know what to call it. It doesn't seem like a restaurant to me, although there are tables and waiters and they take credit cards and you can even make a reservation. The menu includes about forty items.
The funny thing is that all forty of those are gumballs.
Manilkara Chicleria is on the corner of South Carrollton and South Claiborne Avenues, in the Claiborne neutral ground. The location was familiar. I spent hundreds of hours here waiting for the Kenner bus to take me home from Jesuit.
In those days, there was a shelter the with a roof of terra cotta tiles. The other thing I remember about it is that there was a small gum machine that dispensed cellophane-wrapped Chiclets. Two white candy-coated gum lozenges came out when you pulled the plunger after depositing a penny. One day during my high school years, they stopped refilling the machine. It remained there, empty, for many years after. That gum machine makes the Chicleria a weird coincidence.
Manilkara Chicleria is in the exact spot where that shelter and that gum machine were. It's bigger, with six tables for four, air conditioning, spring water. The bathrooms--originally built for the bus and streetcar drivers--are below street level. Manilkara Chicleria's kitchen is down there, too. It's small, but big enough to make gumballs twice a week.
"Chewing gum comes from chicle," Adolfo told me. "Chicle comes from the manilkara chicle tree that grows in Mexico and Central America. It was a real treat for the Maya, who were the first gum-chewers. It caught on about a hundred and fifty years ago in this country.
"But chewing gum now is made not with chicle, but rubber," said Adolfo. "Chicle trees became scarce after Wrigley stopped buying Guatemalan chicle. The sap is very expensive, but we have a few single-orchard producers who tap the trees and ship it by air straight to us. It really makes a difference. Here, let's try some. What flavor do you like?"
You pick, I told him. "Give him a banana-mango," Adolfo told the waiter, who reached out to take what looked like a golden token from the chef.
The waiter stepped up to a machine much larger than a standard gum machine, high enough for its gumball-filled glass balloon at eye level. He whipped out a napkin, opened the chute and cleaned it out with great care. He sent the token rolling through a complex passage, then hit a bell. At that sound, the waiter pushed a lever from left to right, then back again. He positioned a small glass beneath the chute. A bright orange ball fell into it.
We walked to a table and sat down. "The flavor of the coating is all natural," said Chef Adolfo. "Organic, in fact. Perfectly ripe bananas and mangos, Mexican vanilla, and cane sugar, all grown on the same plantation where the chicle trees are. If it were a wine, it would meet the standard for 'estate bottled.'"
I poured the ball into my hand. "Okay, stop right there," the chef said. "Notice that it feels a little warm? We keep the dispensers at the perfect temperature for maximum enjoyment. The aromas roll off the coating, and when you put it into your mouth and chomp down, you'll notice a pleasing softness. Go ahead!"
I threw it into my mouth, and indeed the flavored erupted as from no other gumball of my life. The texture was almost sensual. The warmth of the gum gave way to an unexpected coolness as the chicle and its sweeteners dissolved.
"Okay, that's a normal gumball flavor," said Adolfo. "Now I want you to try something offbeat. Spanish sardine and black olive on the outside, hummus in the center." He handed another coin to the waiter, but this time I saw that it wasn't just a token, but a gold Sacagawea dollar coin.
These things cost a dollar each? I asked.
"It's not too much when you consider the quality of the ingredients," said the chef.
Probably not, but when you consider that it's a gumball, it seems extreme, I told him.
"Well, we're selling the hell out of them," Chef said. "When we open the doors in a few minutes, you'll see--wait, look outside the door! There's a line already!"
The Sardine-olive-hummus gumball was strongly flavored and good. I don't know how he did it, but when Adolfo blew a bubble with his, the bubble was shaped like a fish. I followed that with a dark brown turtle bean soup and chorizo gumball, then bright green arugula-Gorgonzola (a salad ball), and dark maroon hanger steak and chimichurri. For dessert, tres leches gumball. The waiter brought the check. With tax and tip, this came to just under ten dollars.
The doors opened, and the people streamed in, all with big grins on their faces, the look of people who are on the cutting edge of the next big thing. "I do four of these, and I don't even need to eat!" said one of these excited souls. "It's the best restaurant in town!"
I wished Chef Adolfo good luck, and shook my head as I walked out the door. Across the bay where the Kenner bus reaches its inbound terminal, bus number 208 waited. Its side was plastered with an ad for the House of Lee.
And then I had a start. Standing in line to get into the bus--as he did every day for decades, en route to and from the French Quarter where he worked--was my father. "Daddy!" I shouted. He looked my way but then turned back around. No, he wouldn't recognize me at age sixty. But what's he doing there?
I rushed toward the bus. My foot landed in a big blob of bubble gum on the hot asphalt. I tried to pull it free, but it wouldn't move. A little harder, and I felt the pain from my recent ankle surgery telling me not to do that again. And now the Palmer Park bus wheeled into the bay, heading right for me, the driver pointing to Manilkara Chicleria. He saw me at the last second and. . .
And I woke up. This is getting ridiculous. Three dreams about brilliant local chefs turning their attention to street food, trying to make something gourmet out of the lowest species of edibles? All in one night! Am I losing my mind?
Well, I'm glad to know that Adolfo isn't opening a place selling gumballs. But the trends seem to be headed that way.
Four-twenty-nine in the morning. This time, I got out of bed, and starting writing this.
This is the third of four parts. The others are here.
Above are the first two of four parts about the alarming movement by respectable chefs to the service of everyday eats. Tomorrow: the very, very casual branch of Commander's Palace.
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