Every generation has its food fads, popular chefs, restaurants and favored shopping market or districts that become the guardians of the culinary flame—establishing, forging and maintaining paths that flow forward and back in an everything-old-is-new-again way. Impacting people and businesses across New Orleans’ broad culinary landscape, the “Old Guard,” like gumbo, is composed differently for everyone, and depends on age and memory.
I’ve lived here almost 40 years, and there are very specific people and places on my list. As I navigate the growing ground of food businesses, I often wonder who is taking root and doing things that will leave an indelible mark on the city in the wake of the likes of Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, Binder’s Bakery and Terranova’s Supermarket? Who are the “New Guard,” our food industry leaders forging the next path? That depends on perspective as well.
With crystal ball in hand, here are the places and people I believe will stand the test of time.
WHO: Michael Gulotta, chef/owner of MoPho, a modern Asian-inspired restaurant that pulls from local flavors.
WHY: Gulotta first established himself at the helm of Restaurant August. When he opened MoPho, there were mixed reviews across the board, but he powered through and corrected what needed fixing. Gulotta works hard, gets media coverage without the help of a publicist and is always looking for ways to be better. He’s hunkered down, shunned expanding too quickly, and focused on being in the game for the long haul.
WHO: Isaac Toups, chef/owner of Toups’ Meatery and Toups South, both of which are big on Louisiana food vibes and relatable flavors.
WHY: Toups is quickly positioning himself as the city’s new Cajun king. He's all about old-school flavors and dishes with modernity but nothing too wacky. He’s affable and has a personality that made for good TV when he was on “Top Chef.” Some believe he’ll wind up with his own show—it’s possible. More important, he, too, has been thoughtful about expansion with perseverance that smells of success.
WHO: Michael Stoltzfus and Kristen Essig, co-chef/owners of Coquette, a contemporary temple of food, cocktails and connection.
WHY: Both Stoltzfus and Essig are dedicated stewards of local produce and supporters of regional farmers, massively creative and serious about details. That diligence is evident in the food, décor, dishware and service. They think outside the box and make dining memorable with specialty menus and theme dinners (like “Fried Chicken & Champagne” and “No Menu Tuesday”) that bring on the clever and leave out the kitsch. Keeping things fresh, fun and delicious, they continue to cement their place in the city.
WHO: Grayson Gill, baker/owner of Bellegarde Bakery, known for its dark baked breads with sturdy, chewy crusts.
WHY: Tenacity and talent. Gill is no newcomer to the food scene, but becoming a bread rock star has taken time and a staunch refusal to shortchange or alter his mission to make the best bread he can using quality products and Old World techniques. His commitment to all elements of the bread-baking process—from the growing of the wheat to milling (he has one of the country's largest stone mills on site) and mixing—sets him apart. So does his product, which is distinctly different from other local breads. Sticking to his guns, baking the way he wants, Gill has gathered quite a following and is more than on the rise.
WHO: Alex Harrell, chef/owner of Angeline, a smart, elegant French Quarter bistro.
WHY: Harrell is a chef’s chef with vast experience, low-key with quiet intelligence and scads of talent. Embedded in New Orleans’ dining scene, he took the long route to owning his own restaurant (he worked for years at Sylvain and other places before that), making it well worth the wait. His focus is turning out Southern food with Louisiana love and French sophistication. Angeline exudes longevity with upscale dining that’s comfortable and friendly; a recipe that makes for a restaurant with long legs.
WHO: Simone Reggie, owner/operator of soon-to-open Simone’s Market.
WHY: Reggie has been around the block in the local market/grocer biz. She has incredible connections with area farmers, producers and chefs, which is reflected in the products she plans to carry in her store. Adding to her knowledge base, Reggie sought additional training at San Francisco's Bi-Rite Market and has brought in chef Ashley Roussel to help with on-site food prep. Simone’s Market is her effort to keep alive the faint remainder of small, locally owned and operated grocers with a personal, old-timey feel and well-curated stock. Reggie’s timing is spot-on and likely to spark the return of more of this kind of business.