What is it about some folks that makes them dislike New Orleans' cuisine? When I heard that Cochon had been named one of the 20 most important restaurants in the U.S. by Bon Appétit magazine, I was already thinking of how I'd mention it here. I like Cochon and chefs Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski, and I like the way they've taken Cajun and Southern food and made it more chef-driven. The humble origin of the food at Cochon is recognizable. It's not fancy, but just about every plate is unmistakably the result of a lot of thought and training. A lot of people ask me for advice on where to eat in New Orleans, and I invariably recommend Cochon.
So although I agree that Cochon is an important restaurant, I was a little disappointed to read the actual piece in which Andrew Knowlton ranks Cochon No. 14 on Bon Appétit's list. Knowlton is Bon Appétit's restaurant and drinks editor, and he first got my attention when he was a judge on a Food Network show in which John Besh competed to become “the next Iron Chef.” I wasn't terribly impressed with Knowlton then, but I don't doubt he's a good writer and knows a thing or two about food. The fact that he recognized Cochon as an important restaurant is evidence of the latter, but the way he recognized Cochon still grates. Here are the first two sentences from the piece: “I was always in love with the idea of eating out in New Orleans, but I was never in love with actually eating out in New Orleans. The food was filling but often uninspired.” He goes on to praise Cochon for “chang[ing] all that” by “rais[ing] the bar on the rich culinary traditions of the Louisiana bayou…” Even complimenting Cochon's décor requires Knowlton to describe “too many of the city's dining rooms” as “dusty.”
Knowlton is entitled to his opinion. You and I might disagree with him or with the way he expresses his opinion, but if he didn't like dining in New Orleans before Cochon opened, that's fine. As I said above, I agree with him that Cochon was one of the most important restaurants to open in New Orleans or elsewhere in decades. I don't agree that when Cochon opened, other restaurants in town weren't cooking food that was just as “inspired” or serving it in dining rooms that were in need of a dusting.
Knowlton's characterization of New Orleans before Cochon may be intended to refer to such old-line Creole palaces as Galatoire's, Antoine's, Brennan's and Arnaud's. If that's the case, he is ignoring or is unaware of the many other inventive and ambitious restaurants that opened before Cochon. It's also a reiteration of a cliché among certain New York-based writers that New Orleans restaurants and Creole cuisine are overrated. In both cases, it also ignores that “eating out in New Orleans” is hardly limited to fine dining. New Orleans is justifiably famous for our white-tablecloth establishments, but there's great food to be had at neighborhood joints and corner groceries, as well.
Look, Knowlton's piece is not quite 150 words in total, and it's impossible to cover a topic like dining in New Orleans with any depth in that space. There's no way to avoid certain oversimplifications if you've only got 150 words with which to work. That said, using “dusty” as shorthand to describe old-school New Orleans restaurants is lazy. That's the generous interpretation of Knowlton's intent. I think it's equally likely that Knowlton knew being critical of New Orleans – even in a piece in which he praises a New Orleans restaurant – would generate a lot of attention. I don't know Knowlton, so I have no idea which option fits. Nor do I care; for lunch today I had a fried oyster poor boy, and I'm too busy thinking about the next time I'll have soufflé potatoes, broiled pompano and a stiff martini at Galatoire's to bother.
Congratulations to Cochon for the deserved recognition. Too bad the delivery method was so asinine.