My idea of a great time in New Orleans is sitting down with a lemonade and talking with Lolis Eric Elie, the journalist, food writer and filmmaker. His mind is amazing, it ranges over so much. But New Orleans is his first love and he knows it inside out. Elie works on the HBO series Treme and co-directed and wrote the award-winning documentary Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans.
Lolis Eric Elie: One of my complaints about food in New Orleans for years had been that to go to a reasonably-priced place, say $10 or $20 for dinner, you had Asian places, you had Lebanese places, but no American places. That has changed to some extent. There are a few places now, High Hat Cafe is one example. A couple of other places have filled that niche of quality food -- not white-tablecloth and not fine-dining prices.
We focus a lot on why we're different from the rest of the South, which I think is valid and important. It's one thing that has kept us so interesting. But there's a whole lot of tradition that is very much part and parcel of the rest of the South -- or perhaps I should say the rest of the Souths, plural.
For example, grits. They are a staple in New Orleans, just as they are around the rest of the region. Corn bread, same thing. Fried chicken, same thing. A lot of the things that you come to New Orleans for are not those things that you can also get in Mississippi and Alabama, but nonetheless are the things that people fix at home on a consistent basis. Part of it is reconnecting us to those aspects of our tradition.
For example, gumbo. In New Orleans on Christmas, Thanksgiving and a whole lot of other holidays, gumbo is the first course. Even though it's big enough and hardy enough to be a meal, it's gumbo and then the turkey and the dressing, et cetera. Fine-dining places here always have gumbo on the menu, same with étouffées and other kinds of dishes. I think there has always been more of a dialogue between home cooking and fine-dining in New Orleans than in most of the rest of the country.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Since Hurricane Katrina, there have been major changes in the restaurant world. What was the effect?
LEE: I'm not certain that we can look at these trends as being directly because of the flood -- there are aspects that reflect what's going on in the rest of the country. If you're a fine-dining chef but you really don't have the money to open a fine-dining restaurant, perhaps you open a food truck or something less formal.
Tom Fitzmorris kept a list of the new restaurants opening up. He argues that there are more restaurants now than there were prior to the storm, despite the fact we have less of a population. But it's also striking to me how many of these fine-dining restaurants are opening. The fact that they haven't closed suggests to me that they're at least marginally profitable. As you know, the restaurant business is not the best way to make a lot of money.
LRK: No, you don't tell your banker you're going into the restaurant business.
LEE: Part of it is the people most apt to come back were the people with the most disposable income. The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center says that about 10 percent of our current population came here since the levee failures. So in that way, all of these new people coming in wanting to go to these restaurants I think contributes to the strength of the restaurant economy.
LRK: But what about the loss of people who couldn't afford those restaurants? What about the loss of that entire group of people who couldn't afford to come back? That's a tremendous loss in a whole other area of food and culture.
LEE: It's incalculable. As an example, the city council here in 2008 voted to demolish the major public housing complexes. It was the usual arguments of those people are lazy, et cetera. What folks missed was the fact that there was public housing meant that there were people who could afford to work as dishwashers and as cooks in restaurants that weren't paying them so much. We were in that sense subsidizing these businesses -- the hotels with the people making beds for little or no money. We were subsidizing that and these people were working. That's the kind of thing that's often missed in this equation.
LRK: You write for the HBO series Treme, which is about a particular neighborhood of New Orleans. In this television show there's a lot about the food scene here in New Orleans. How is it playing out in the show?
LEE: Food is a big part of the culture here. By having a chef as a main character, it gave us entrée into the world of food in New Orleans. In addition to the fact that she's doing this cooking during the first season in New Orleans and during the second season in New York, we also focus on people eating and cooking in other contexts. Our characters from out of town go and discover New Orleans' restaurants, so it really is a celebration of New Orleans' food.
But by the same token, I think we're able to fictionalize an aspect of restaurant life that you don't see on all of these other cooking shows. Anthony Bourdain writes the story lines for Janette Desautel, who's our chef character. A lot of what he's doing is taking all the things he's either seen, heard, or experienced and putting them into one nightmare for her. He's unwilling to relive these things, but he has no problem making her relive them. Fortunately, what everyone tells me is that the restaurant world has gotten a lot more professional in the days since he was cooking, in the last 20 years or so. You're not automatically signing on to be tortured if you work in a fine-dining kitchen. In some ways we're playing an aspect of this culture that has fortunately passed, but it's still funny and fun.
LRK: It's a fascinating series. I'm looking forward to seeing how this season is going to roll out for us.
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