New Orleans: For the love of food, community

I can’t think of many places in the United States where the love of food is deeper than New Orleans. We just returned from our visit there with chefs Jen Tillou and Olivia Eckert and beverage manager Billy Burg. Richard had put together an exhaustive (and exhausting) list of restaurants and bars to try as we gathered inspiration and recipe ideas.

The team will put all that inspiration on display at our NOLA After Hours dinner on Tuesday, March 13. Olivia was so jazzed that she went into the kitchen after we got back to Janesville at 10 p.m. and worked until 4 in the morning. The ideas from the kitchen and bar are flowing and we’ll be sharing a menu for the dinner next week. There are still a few seats left if you’re interested in joining us.

Like the team, I was inspired by the food and drinks, but for me the deepest inspiration came from the restaurateurs we met on the trip. We had the good fortune to talk with the owners of a couple of NOLA institutions – Upperline and Brigtsen’s. Both serve classic creole food and have been around for approaching 40 years.

We met JoAnne Cleavenger of Upperline on the first night of our visit. She was at the hostess stand and checking in on us. When I mentioned why we were in town, her eyes lit up and she shared the stories of her first few tough years in the business. She promptly took our chefs on a tour of her kitchen and shared the secret of their amazing fried oysters.

But it’s what she said about the role of restaurants that really resonated with me. “We’re one of the last businesses where you walk in the door, you’re greeted and looked in the eye,” she said. “That’s not true at so many places anymore. Even the grocery store, that’s going away. But a restaurant is about creating community. That’s why they’re so important to the health of a neighborhood.”

What was also clear is that while Upperline hasn’t made JoAnne a rich woman monetarily, it has made her a woman rich in happiness, friendship and stories. After 35 years, she still loves being at Upperline and greeting guests. And while she’s gracious, I wouldn’t want to be the line cook that put out a substandard dish under her watch. She’s tough as nails under the sweet grandma demeanor. And at around 70, I would guess, she’s as vibrant as a woman less than half her age. And, by the way, the New Orleans Times-Picayune named Upperline “Restaurant of the Year’ in 2017 despite all the flashy new restaurants that have opened recently in the city.

After our second visit to Brigtsen’s, I can still say it’s one of my favorites. The food was impeccable as was the service. We had the good fortune to meet Frank Brigtsen, who handed Richard his card and offered to share their amazing BBQ recipe, and his sister Sandy, who was our hostess. The chefs got a tour of their kitchen, too, and an offer to come in and observe the next time we visit. Frank and Sandy also exhibited a love of hospitality and unwavering standards.

Richard and I didn’t get into the restaurant business as spring chickens. As I watched JoAnne, Sandy and Frank, I thought that through hard work and passion they found the fountain of youth. And ultimately that came from making people happy night after night.

I guess the rocking chair can wait.