The world-famous cooking of New Orleans is sometimes treated as though it’s about things: fresh seafood from the Gulf, lakes and bayous, fresh game from the forests, swamps and skies, fresh produce from the rich, river-silted fields. But we say, hold on, there. The world-famous cooking of New Orleans is really about people. And here is a list of 10 New Orleans chefs considered culinary heroes by many.
Poorly rewarded but rich in their offerings
The restaurant business being what it is, the vast majority of those people labored for years unknown, poorly rewarded (before chefs became media superstars) and almost certainly forgotten shortly after their deaths. Yet the history of this city’s cuisine is also the history of those people — who applied themselves to the preparation and service of food and wine with a special twinkle in their eye, an extra spring in their step, and the occasional stroke of genius. The 10 people we have in mind did a lot of jobs over many years, lived with a lot of titles, and knew both fortune and misfortune. We call them something simpler than all that, though. We call them our heroes.
This colorful journalist and man about town is thought to have written the most comprehensive cultural account of turn of the century New Orleans. Hearn’s La Creole Cuisine is said to be the most accurate account of Creole cooking techniques and ingredient listings prior to the 20th century.
His accounts of New Orleans as a city prone to mystery, decadence and romance have endured to this day. Born to a Greek mother and Irish father in 1850, Hearn moved to New Orleans after his scandalous affair with a free-woman of color rocked prudish Victorian Cincinnati. Finding haven here, Hearn’s editorialist status at the current newspapers of the day, both the now defunct Daily City Item and the Times-Democrat, kept him in tune with the fashionable currents and political climate of the day. His accounts of New Orleans and the evolution of Creole culture and cuisine are unparalleled.
The first lady of female chefs and famous for her three-hour second breakfast now known as brunch, Madama Begue opened her French Quarter dining establishment in the mid-19th century. A German immigrant of the Kettenring family, Elizabeth Dutrey Begue’s legacy began as traditional fare from her native country. It evolved to include Creole and Cajun dishes, however, after she joined forces (and households) with her bartender, Hypolite Begue, upon the death of her first husband.
It is noted that in 1884 during the Cotton Centennial, Begue’s superstar status and the quality of her cuisine brought throngs of tourists to her dining establishment. Madame Begue died in 1906 but her reputation and her brunch creations live on, primarily in the name of Begue’s restaurant at the Royal Sonesta Hotel and in the traditional eatery in her best-known location, Tujague’s.
Son of the founder of famed Antoine’s restaurant, Antoine Alciatore, Jules began his culinary contribution as chef at this revered New Orleans dining landmark since 1840. Some of his more lasting ideas include Oyster’s Rockefeller, pommes de terre soufflï¿½s (puffed potatoes), and pompano en papillote — fish in a parchment bag cooked in a special wine sauce. Jules took the reins of the kitchen in 1887 after years of tutelage by his mother plus apprenticeships in the great kitchens of Paris, Strasbourg and Marseilles — the family’s hometown.
Upon Jules’ return to New Orleans, after a brief stint as chef of the famous Pickwick Club, his mother summoned him to head Antoine’s. To put this change of guard into perspective, it is interesting to note that Antoine’s has been in operation 40 years longer than Galatoire’s and 80 years longer than Commander’s Palace. Jules’ prowess in the kitchen is largely responsible for the reputation and praise Antoine’s has received. Over the years, it has hosted nine presidents, the King of England and even His Holiness Pope John Paul II.
Most recognized as the mastermind behind the first great movement of Creole cuisine and patriarch of a family restaurant operation that has endured for a century, Monsieur Jean immigrated to America from the foothills of the French Pyrenees in 1880 and opened an inn in Birmingham, Alabama. Twenty years later he abandoned Birmingham for the cosmopolitan life of New Orleans. In 1905, five years after his move to Nouvelle Orleans, Galatoire purchased Victor’s restaurant, renamed it appropriately and set off on a culinary course to that would forever change New Orleans cuisine and social life.
The first restaurant proprietor to adjust classical French cuisine with an eye toward locally available ingredients, Galatoire created an elegant cuisine that has become a rite of passage for those wanting to trace the city’s culinary roots. An equal rite of passage is standing in line wai