Chefs and Casual Food

Photo by Robert Peyton

It is a black letter rule of law that truth is a defense to defamation or libel. It follows logically from that rule that if what you say or write is not susceptible to being proven true or false, it cannot be defamatory or libelous. Opinions, for example, cannot be proven true or false. If I say that I think McDonald's makes the best hamburger in town, you cannot prove it's not true. You may disagree, and you may list a dozen reasons why I should change my opinion, but you can't prove that it's not my opinion.

As it happens, I don't think that McDonald's makes the best hamburger in town. My favorite at the moment is made at trūburger. It's one of a number of restaurants that have opened in the last year or two which select and grind their own cuts of beef for the patties, and I prefer the modestly sized sandwich they serve over the larger kind you'd get at Port of Call or Lakeview Harbor. Don't get me wrong, those are good burgers; it's just that, in my opinion, trūburger's is better.

trūBurger is one of several casual spots recently opened by local chefs who also run fine-dining restaurants. In the case of trūburger the chef is Aaron Burgau, whose Uptown restaurant Patois is perennially ranked as one of the best in the city. Another is chef Brack May's Cowbell, which serves a relaxed menu that includes an excellent burger. May was the executive chef at Susan Spicer's former restaurant Cobalt when it opened in 2001, and there he often cooked upscale versions of home-style food. At Cowbell his approach is more direct, and the atmosphere is certainly less formal.

The idea of fine-dining chefs opening casual restaurants did not start in 2011. Chef Scott Boswell opened Stanley almost immediately after Katrina, and has been serving burgers and other comfort food steadily ever since. Boswell's other restaurant, Stella! serves perhaps the most inventive food in New Orleans, and while there's no less attention to detail at Stanley, the cuisines are very different. At Stella!, waiters change your silverware between courses; at Stanley, there's a soda fountain. John Besh, too, has several entries in the casual eatery category. American Sector, in the National World War II Museum, serves an interesting take on American classics, such as a Sloppy Joe made with meat from slow-cooked short ribs. Also in the WW2 museum, Besh's Soda Shop recreates a part of the American dining vernacular. Other examples include chef John Harris, who opened Bouligny Tavern adjacent to his fine-dining restaurant Lilette not long ago, and chefs Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski, whose sandwich-centric Cochon Butcher is far more casual than Link's Herbsaint and also a retail outlet for house-made salumi and charcuterie.   

In addition to American Sector and Soda Shop, Besh was also one of the first chefs in New Orleans to hop on the gourmet pizza train. The pies that chef Alon Shaya is turning out at Besh's restaurant Domenica are of the “authentic” Italian model, with thin crusts and exceptional toppings. Domenica is hardly a casual restaurant, and I mention it only because of what prompted me to write this piece in the first place.

Recently a local food personality wrote an article in which he opined that the trend toward chefs opening casual hamburger and pizza restaurants is “silly.” He called restaurants that make their own sausage and cured meats “pretentious,” and singled out one restaurant for particular scorn. He wrote, “Does importing a wood-burning oven from Naples made from stone quarried from Mount Vesuvius make a better pizza? Well, it sounds like it does. These days, that's almost enough to convince people to accept as brilliant flaccid pizza crusts and underwhelming toppings. Same effect is achieved by a pizza parlor's making its own sausage, salami and mozzarella. Mind over matter? We need another blind tasting of all this house-made salumi (the hip food word of 2011) against the best of what we already had at half the price.” That's a reference to Ancora, which in my opinion is making the best pizzas in town at the moment, and (at the risk of being described as “hip”) some of the best salumi.

Adolfo Garcia is best known for upscale restaurants Rio Mar, La Boca and A Mano, which to be fair to the local food personality, said personality called “superb.” Garcia opened a traditional Neapolitan pizzeria called Ancora on Freret Street last year, where chef Jeff Talbot make pies using a wood-burning oven made with stone from Mt. Vesuvius and imported from Naples. They follow rules for pizza specified by the Association of Vera Pizza Napoletana; their salumi is made from heritage pigs, and they use a starter to raise their dough which Talbot has been using continuously for over six years. If all of this sounds pretentious, it certainly hasn't come across that way when I've eaten there. I've found Ancora to be a very comfortable and down-to-earth restaurant. You may disagree, and that's fine. A friend whose opinion I respect isn't crazy about the pizzas at Ancora, though he agrees with me that the salumi is fantastic. We agree to disagree about the pies.

It's true that some of the more notable restaurants to open in 2011 were casual, and were opened by talented chefs. But that trend didn't start in 2011any more than did the trend of local chefs making their own salumi. Chefs Besh and Shaya have been turning out some fantastic cured meats at Domenica, as have chefs Link and Stryjewski at the aforementioned Cochon Butcher. Over at Crescent Pie & Sausage Company, owners Bart Bell and Jeff Baron have been making first-rate sausage since 2009. The fact that chefs Garcia and Talbot have gotten into the game is really only worthy of criticism if you find their salumi to be inferior. I don't see how anyone who has eaten at Ancora could reach that conclusion, but that's merely my opinion.

I think it's a bit more than silly to complain about the pretentiousness of restaurants making their own salumi in light of a few additional facts. The same local food personality who called chef Garcia “flagrant” for opening Ancora rightly heralds chef Frank Brigtsen for taking over the extremely casual Charlie's Seafood in Harahan. It's hard to imagine a more talented chef, or a more casual restaurant. The same famous local food personality also shared my opinion about Domenica's pizza and (his word) salumi when he reviewed it some time back: “The pizza could be called the best of all time locally. The thin crust is charred here and there by the hot fire, topped with an offbeat selection of ingredients. The salumi is extraordinary. It may even be too good.”

Now perhaps the local food personality's point is that the pizza at Domenica – also cooked in a wood-burning oven – and the salumi – also made in-house – are markedly superior to what's on offer at Ancora. But his complaint generally about house-made salumi seemed also to be that the prices were too high. If that's the case, I don't understand what he meant by calling for a blind taste test “of all this house-made salumi … against the best of what we already had at half the price.” I know that he didn't mean that the salumi selection at Domenica is half the price of what you can get at Ancora, because at the end of his review of Domenica he noted that while “It seems as though dozens of chefs are making their own charcuterie, prosciutto, and salumi (the appealing Italian word for "cured deli meats")” he also predicted that given the cost to diners, it would not be around long.

I am also puzzled by what he meant in his more recent piece when he suggested a blind tasting  “between all these ten-dollars-and-up burgers and some without all the pedigrees.” He made that suggestion in the context of dismissing the new places for using “Kobe beef” and hand-patting them to order. It was admittedly an exaggeration for effect, but his point appeared to be that the question of grinding beef in-house or sourcing beef directly from ranchers is meaningless to the final product. He's entitled to his opinion, but I do wonder where he ate a “ten-dollars-and-up” burger, because none of the recently opened restaurants charge $10 for their standard fare. Indeed, the burger at Port of Call is the one that springs to my mind in that price range. It's $10, and $11.25 with cheese. trūburger's basic sandwich costs $4.50, and The Company Burger starts at $6.50. You may prefer another restaurant, but I don't think complaining about the price is legitimate.

You may wonder why I am not identifying the local food personality by name, or linking to the pieces I've quoted here. It's because a couple of years ago I had an email exchange with the local food personality in which he accused me of using his name to draw attention to my own writing. I certainly don't want that charge leveled against me again. I will say that the local food personality is an excellent writer and has forgotten more about New Orleans restaurants than I will ever know. He's also a talented on-air personality. But those things don't excuse his take on Ancora, trūburger or any of the other casual restaurants opened by talented chefs in the last year.

If you disagree, you're wrong, but you can feel free to leave a comment or email me about it.

Categories: Haute Plates, Restaurants

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