This year marks the 10th anniversary of Tales of the Cocktail. The event has grown every year and runs from July 25 to 29 at venues around New Orleans. The base of operations is the Monteleone Hotel, which has recently opened a new restaurant, Criollo, and expanded the bar area along the Royal Street side of the building. The newly opened space should make for a lot more elbow room for folks lining up for refreshments between seminars in the hotel's conference rooms and ballrooms.
Tales is about education and promoting the craft of the cocktail, but it's also a venue for young mixologists to network and advance their careers. I had a chance to do a brief interview with the woman behind the festival, Ann Tuennerman, also known as Mrs. Cocktail, recently; here's what she said:
It seems Tales of the Cocktail has grown each year, both in size and in the scope of the seminars and events. Do you see the event growing further? Do you think you'll outgrow the Monteleone?
Tales of the Cocktail is a nice size now. I am happy with the event size and think we have the same spirit and feel we did in the early years. We do not have any plans to move out of the Hotel Monteleone and into the Superdome or other mega venues. Speaking of the Monteleone, what do you think of the expansion of the bar? I think it looks fabulous. I love that the Hotel Monteleone has great traditions but stays relevant as well. The bar and the whole property have great energy.
Over the last few years it seems like every restaurant that's opened in New Orleans has two things – a house-made charcuterie program and craft cocktails. I remember at least one local critic saying that the charcuterie trend was a passing phase, since people weren't going to pay for small portions of cured meat forever. I haven't seen the same sort of criticism of craft cocktails, have you?
No, I have not and I do not think well made cocktails are a fad or trend. I think there are things within cocktails that will fade away, such as the skinny trend. But if you look back in time the Sazerac has never had a coming of age or a fall from grace and is still loved today.
Which spirited dinner are you attending, or are you obligated to make an appearance at more than one?
It is funny you ask this as the very first year of Tales of the Cocktail we had ten spirited dinners and one of my colleagues took me in his truck to every one of those dinners so I could stop in and say “Hi” and thank them again for participating. Now, Paul and I rotate and go to a different restaurant every year. In 2011 we went to Sylvain, and in 2012 we are going to Borgne where we will be joined by Malcom Gosling. Paul and I also host a Founder's Day table at our annual dinner and invite various people from the bartending community.
I don't know if you can pick favorites from the seminars, but are there any that you're particularly excited about?
The Friday afternoon seminar on Russian drinking culture, for example, looks fascinating to me, as does the panel on how our tastes change as we age on Saturday. Those look really interesting to me as well, in addition to the seminar on Indian spirits, orange Curaçao and our series on how to open a bar and not screw it up. However, they will all be super. We have an outstanding presenter's committee that includes working bartenders from around the lobe, and they select the seminars from submissions. This year we had about 300 submissions for 51 seminars.
You probably get this question a lot, so I apologize if I'm asking you to repeat yourself, but what do you see as the next big thing in spirits? Think we'll have a day when home-distilling is as common as home-brewing? Any trends that might surprise people who aren't plugged-in?
I think rum is a spirit that is really coming into favor now; high-proof spirits, bartenders making mixers and spirits. These are some trends I see happening from my world.
I'd like to thank Ann for taking the time to respond to a few questions, and hope that you enjoy Tales of the Cocktail this year.
It seemed like Johnny V's, the restaurant at 6106 Magazine St., took a long time to open. I'd heard about it from chef Ryan Hughes, whom I'd met when he was at Café Degas, and I was asked to write the introduction to the restaurant's cookbook. I like Hughes, and I like his food, but with a 7-week-old baby at home, it's difficult for me to dine out at night these days, and one of the conditions for neighborhood support was that Johnny V's would not be open for lunch service. So I never got to see what Hughes was doing at Johnny V's; he called me last week to tell me that he was leaving the restaurant, along with much of the staff. The call came a little more than a week after Times-Picyaune restaurant critic Brett Anderson gave the place a three-bean but mixed review; he liked Hughes' cooking but thought the décor was more a Disney version of New Orleans than truly New Orleans.
Hughes said that the restaurant's owner, Johnny Vidanovich, wanted to take the restaurant in another direction – closer to the food at nearby Clancy's, where Vidanovich worked with Johnny V's maître d' Nash Laurent. Hughes' replacement at the restaurant is Armond Jonté, whose previous experience includes Commander's Palace, Gautreau's and an eponymous restaurant in Waveland, Miss.
It has to have been frustrating for Hughes, as he was in a state of limbo for months while Johnny V's went through significant delays resulting from problems with permits for the renovation of the interior. Johnny V's has only been open for a few months, so it's a bit odd for it to take such a dramatic turn. Although I've never tasted Jonté's food, he has a reputation for cooking good renditions of classic Creole bistro food – food not unlike that found at Clancy's, as it happens.
Anyway, any frustration Hughes felt was short-lived; he told me that he'll open a new restaurant, Purloo, at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, which will be moving to 1504 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. in early 2013. Hughes said he expects to open Purloo in February, which gives some indication just when the museum will occupy its new space. The restaurant is named for a Carolina low-country rice dish similar to jambalaya, paella and pilau.
Chefs Chris DeBarr and Paul Artigues opened the Green Goddess in May of 2009. It was a tiny restaurant even when, weather permitting, diners could eat at tables set up outside of the restaurant's Exchange Alley address. The Green Goddess is fully Artigues' gig now, as DeBarr is set to open Serendipity in the American Can Co. condominium building in the next few weeks.
The new venture takes the place of an Italian restaurant called the Olive Branch, and DeBarr told me that he'll be cooking the same imaginative, eclectic cuisine that's earned him a loyal following. He's bringing some dishes over from the Green Goddess, and has a few new items in mind, including a Malaysian-style red curry goat empanada with brabant rutabagas fried in duck fat and caramelized parsnips, and fried pickled okra rellenos stuffed with pimento cheese. The kitchen at the Green Goddess was tiny, and lacked a gas burner, so DeBarr is excited about what his crew – many of whom came with him from the Green Goddess – can do with a more space. It's not the size of the kitchens in which he worked when he was at Commander's Palace or Arnaud's, but he said they will easily cover 75 diners. The problem, he told me, is that the restaurant currently seats 100, and he has plans to add seats outside under a covered veranda in the not-too-distant future that would bring them to around 150 seats. DeBarr explained that they're going to “walk things up” when they open, and figure out how many customers he and his crew can handle. He doesn't want to slow service or compromise on his food.
Joining DeBarr in the venture are Allison Gorman, formerly of the Cake Cafe, and Ed Diaz, most recently at Bar Tonique. Bugs Brockway and Ralph Shumaker are going to be running the front of the house.
DeBarr talks a lot about music, and jazz specifically. It fits his personality, and his improvisational method of cooking. Not that his dishes aren't carefully thought out, or tested ahead of service; it's more in the combination of ingredients, flavors and techniques. It's an imaginative style that, in my experience, generally works out well. DeBarr mentioned that the August issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine will honor the wine list at Green Goddess; it's one of only a few restaurants in New Orleans to get the magazine's seal of approval, and DeBarr was understandably proud. As always, I defer to my colleague Tim McNally where it comes to wine, but I was always impressed by the wines on offer at the Green Goddess, even if I'd never heard of most of them before. There's no phone number or website for the restaurant as yet, but I'll certainly provide that information when I have it.
Speaking as a resident of Mid-City, I'm pretty excited to have DeBarr as a neighbor, and I'll be writing further about Serendipity once I've had a chance to sample the food.