At age 13, Rick Blount began work at one of New Orleans’ most legendary restaurants—his great-great-grandfather’s. Today at 58, he manages what is now regarded the oldest family-run eatery in the nation. Antoine’s, the city’s grand dame of French-Creole cuisine, marks its 175th anniversary this year. Famed for its oysters Rockefeller (which Blount’s great-grandfather, Jules Alciatore, created in 1899), the world-renowned restaurant continues its culinary legacy by sticking to tradition while embracing change. “How can you be old and new at the same time?” asks Blount. “That’s what makes Antoine’s—and New Orleans—so different than most of the world.”
The director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, where there’s currently an Antoine’s anniversary exhibit, has called the restaurant a “food museum” in its own right.
There’s a lot about Antoine’s that is museum-like. The building itself hasn’t changed much over the years. And the dishes we serve, in general, are authentic and prepared the same way they would have been during the 1800s.
Antoine’s isn’t just resting on past laurels, though.
Like anything, Antoine’s had to adapt and change or meet the fate of the dinosaurs. It had become too stiff, so we relaxed the dress code, added the Annex and Hermes Bar and made a substantial amount of changes over the past five years.
You took over as CEO in 2005. How has the French Quarter dining scene changed over the past decade?
I’m really bullish on the French Quarter, more so today than any other time in history. It’s poised to be as great as it can possibly get. There’s unbelievable competition, unbelievable pressure for excellence and all of that, I think, is nothing but a good thing.
Which of Antoine’s 14 themed dining rooms is your favorite?
The 1840 Room, it’s probably the closest thing we have to a family dining room. The walls are adorned with portraits of my ancestors and family members, which makes it a particularly interesting room to me.
There is talk of Japanese Room getting a makeover.
I hope. It’s an interesting anomaly. People either love it or hate it; some think it’s the coolest thing in the world, others think it is totally out of place and can’t imagine having a traditional French-Creole dinner amid orange blossoms.
In addition to five generations of Alciatores, the restaurant counts a multigenerational waitstaff as well.
There’s a family culture at Antoine’s. I can’t say we’re always the most functional family … but we are a family. And that’s very important to everyone who works here. Not only do we get along ourselves, we get along with our guests.
Oysters Rockefeller or oysters Foch?
Both originated here and are wonderful dishes. But if we were sitting in the Hermes Bar and someone said, “I want to try oysters, but never have,” I would suggest the Foch. The combination of the oyster and the pâté and the sauce is really pleasing to the palate, even if you’re not an oyster lover.
If you could relive one moment in Antoine’s 175-year history what would it be?
Oh, lord, there are so many. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in New Orleans during the Civil War or Reconstruction or the Roaring ’20s. To have seen the end of Prohibition—what a party that must have been! The conversations you could have with the thousands of people who have sat in those bentwood chairs, from President Roosevelt to Whoopi Goldberg. I would love to be able to talk to any of them.