A Tale of Two Kitchens

Christopher Testani
by Guy Martin - New Orleans - October/November 2013

From a hip joint in the Marigny to a bastion of tradition and excellence, Guy Martin reveals New Orleans’ soul, one dish at a time

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“Come around nine. I’ve got a sous subbin’ for me, so we’ll hit a few places and mess around town,” Heathcliffe Hailey barks in his trademark field officer’s rasp over my phone. 

It’ll be a long, hard march over the pocked and buckled streets of New Orleans this Friday night. I’m rolling through Treme, down Basin Street, a little after eight. I have to ditch my car someplace good, because I don’t think I’m going to see it for a couple of days.   

Here’s why: Tuesdays through Fridays, Hailey, a pirate chef in a city of pirates, cooks until 2:00 a.m. On Saturday nights, the protean, goateed, polymath coonass from Ferriday, Louisiana, does not shut his rocking little kitchen until the clock strikes 4:00 on Sundays. Which is to say, at 3:00 a.m. on any given Sunday in New Orleans, one can invite five or six people to stroll up to Mimi’s in the Marigny for Hailey’s signature late-night high-wire act: sautéed shrimp glazed in Herbsaint on a bed of organic purslane; grilled steak marinated in tobacco leaves and coffee; a heart of grilled escarole—a flash-seared Caesar with anchovy vinaigrette. To finish, toasted baguette points drizzled with sea salt, cayenne, pistachios, olive oil, and Belgian chocolate. 

In an already-extreme culinary town, this is extreme derring-do. Tout New Orleans, or more precisely, tout nouvelle New Orleans, knows this. Old New Orleans, the white-shoe crowd who absent themselves from the demimonde, couldn’t care less. As it should be. Hailey cooks his food for his club, the drivers of culture who finish work in the wee hours—musicians, other chefs, the waitstaff at other restaurants, and generally, boatloads of cool kids from around town. As closing hour rings down on other places, flocks of the hipoisie head over to the Marigny to gorge on Hailey’s curvy Hispano-Creole-Acadian tapas, which then fuel the party to rage into the dawn.   

But whether Hailey shuts off his stove at 2:00 or at 4:00 doesn’t matter; the point is, he’s not done with his day. He may drive out to Houma and check on the incoming fish, or he may pop some champagne, pick up his Gibson, and write some songs that have been growing like pea vines up in his brain that week. 

Which is my problem now: An appointment with Hailey at 9:00 p.m. approximates an appointment at 10:00 a.m. with a normal person, meaning anything can happen, and it can keep happening for a long time. On the real-world clock, it’s still a Friday evening in New Orleans, with many crosses on offer to which one could easily be nailed. Hailey’s never not cooking. What has the maniac cooked up for us to do, that’s the question.  

I skirt the Quarter and nose the car downriver, across Elysian Fields. The defensive play is to drop it as close to the beginning of the odyssey as I can, meaning his kitchen, where I’ll work with him later this weekend. The sun has finished baking the soft, cracked sidewalks of the Marigny, but they’re holding the heat. The cheek-by-jowl clubs on Frenchmen Street crank through their sound checks: a ragged guitar run, a burst of thunder from some tom-toms. At the precipice before its headlong dive into this Friday night, New Orleans holds its breath.

Any global port is a great magnet for immigrant cuisines, and, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, New Orleans definitely exerted great pull. But the city’s many imported cuisines—Spanish, African, Italian, German, Greek, Lebanese—were, perforce, grafted onto the root culture. The basic approach of the place to the stove was that of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. Today a New Orleans chef can be cooking toward France, or away from France, but France is the plinth upon which all kitchens here are built. 

In the early twentieth century, the three culinary duchies in the Creole kingdom of the Quarter were: New Orleans’ oldest restaurant, Antoine’s, founded in 1840 on St. Louis Street, today run by the sixth generation of the Alciatore-Guste family; New Orleans’ second-oldest restaurant, Tujague’s on Decatur, begun by Guillaume and Marie Abadie Tujague in 1856, now owned by the Latters; and Galatoire’s on Bourbon, founded in 1905. Because the town is, thankfully, Southern and slow to change, the old showplaces are very much alive. We don’t have to imagine what was cooked in Creole New Orleans. We can go to Antoine’s, Tujague’s, or Galatoire’s and eat it.   

So, I thought I would. One of the key holy rites of ancien-régime Creole cooking in New Orleans is a Friday lunch at Galatoire’s. As in any religious ceremony, there’s a strong current of madness in the pilgrims’ behavior within the temple. Galatoire’s chief operating officer, Melvin Rodrigue, was game: Come backstage, into the battle stations of the kitchen and into the byzantine workings of the front of the house, to experience the voodoo of Friday lunch.  

Because South Louisiana’s ingredients are unmatched, and because there is a gargantuan local appetite for them, over the last twenty-five years the chefs Susan Spicer (Bayona); John Folse, Rick Tramonto, and Chris Lusk (R’evolution); and John Besh (August, Lüke), to name a few, have blazed many splendid trails out from the Creole mother ship. Together, they form the high end. All of them are in the Quarter or in the Central Business District. 

In the eight years since Hurricane Katrina, a much rowdier generation of chefs has splashed out. None of their stoves are in the Quarter; they don’t necessarily play to tourists. Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski (Cochon) and Isaac Toups (Toups’ Meatery) pushed the bar forward. Much as New York broadened its cultural and real estate focus from Manhattan to Brooklyn, a large part of New Orleans’ post-Katrina creative energy is now devoted to the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater, two formerly beat-up districts lying north toward the navy base. Joaquin Rodas (Bacchanal), Brandon Paloma (Brandito’s Burritos), Tres Barnard (We’ve Got Soul), Chris Smedley (Borracho), and Cristina Quackenbush (Milkfish) have brought their kitchens into the Marigny. With his stove at Mimi’s in the Marigny since 2006, Heathcliffe Hailey plays a central role in this generation’s rejuvenation of that landscape.    

I met Hailey in a slow-mo, roundabout way because of Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane brought me to New Orleans to report, which is when I met Finis D. Shelnutt—“The D is for dollars, baby!”—a linen-clad French Quarter real estate dealer and bon vivant who grittily rode out the storm in his 10,000-square-foot Federal-era mansion on St. Louis Street. In Katrina’s aftermath, I lived around the corner from Shelnutt, a one-man outpost of civilization. He’d sheltered refugees; when they were evacuated, he cooked stockpots of red beans and rice that he gave away to the National Guardsmen who patrolled the city. At night, I’d walk around the corner and sit with him as he passed out food to the soldiers. 

Last year, Shelnutt and I were eating around town, looking for good chefs. One day Shelnutt said, “There’s this kid named Heathcliffe cookin’ up in the Marigny. He might just knock you on your ass.”

Thus the idea grew: to spend a weekend with Hailey at the dagger point of innovation and then spend a mad Friday lunch among the believers in the Creole temple of Galatoire’s. Somewhere in there—on some crazy culinary ground between 1840 and 2013—would lie the state of culinary affairs in New Orleans.  

“Guy! Wanna do a shot!” shouts Hailey from his stove. It’s not a question. He trots out of the kitchen to the bar.