Almost at the very back of Antoine’s restaurant there’s a small dining room next to the wine cellar. Officially the area has been known as the “1940 Last Room,” but then there was the day that Paul McIlhenny nailed a sign to the door that proclaimed the room to be the “Chez Team Tabasco” room. “Which is it?” I asked CEO Rick Blount, the latest in the long family line to manage the restaurant. Blount expressed no preference, though it should be noted that the walls in the room are painted Tabasco red and that all of the framed pictures are of friends of McIlhenny. Who wants a room called “Last” anyway?
McIlhenny, who died this past February, could do such things because he was affable and because he was powerful. Like Blount, he was the CEO of a long-established family food business, in his case Tabasco. During his time at the helm, McIlhenny saw his family’s hot sauce expand beyond being globally known for its red bottle with a green cap to being a product-marketing brand. There are Tabasco flavored potato chips, liquor, plus the brand name on ties, ice chests and just about anything marketable. And there is the room at the back of Antoine’s.
There are three other rooms in the back of the restaurant: the Rex Room, the Proteus Room and the Escargot Room, which is named after a dining club. In his time, McIlhenny ruled over all three of those, too: He was a Rex. He was King of Proteus. And he served as the Escargot Master Chancellor. Certainly the renamed Tabasco room was a small conquest for him; nevertheless he set a mark that will not likely ever be broken, the only person to have reigned over all four of Antoine’s prestigious rear rooms.
He even reigned when he wasn’t on the throne. McIlhenny was Rex in 2006. That was a relief for Rex watchers because for each of several years preceding that Carnival season there were rumors in Uptown circles that the Tabasco boss would be King of Carnival. McIlhenny reveled in having been Rex’s shill monarch, and seemed to enjoy the ruse as much as the experience. Secrecy prevents knowing if he was ever Comus. He would just smile impishly when asked.
(As an aside, according to an article printed in the very first edition of New Orleans Magazine, published in October 1966, it was in the setting that would one day be known as the Tabasco Room that New Orleans Magazine was founded, over a dinner between executives of Atlanta Magazine and the local Franklin printing company. We take some pride in having Oysters Rockefeller in our DNA.)
I last saw Paul McIlhenny on Lundi Gras afternoon standing in the crowd that gathers outside Antoine’s after the Proteus lunch. Carnival was a fun season for him, but I suspect there’s one season he liked better: duck hunting. He could talk with authority about fowl and how to cook them. Come next fall, there will be one fewer sure-shot for the ducks to worry about, but somewhere in the marsh there should be a duck blind with his name on it. He was king of that, too.