A Tale of Two Kitchens
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
photo: Christopher Testani
“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.
photo: Christopher Testani
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.
Hailey is wearing his war gear: voluminous blue-and-white Nike basketball shorts, clogs, bandanna head wrap, the embroidered “Heathcliffe” Nehru jacket topped off with what I think is a pirate-issue shard of whalebone ivory piercing his left earlobe. “Nah,” Hailey says. “Veal bone. Pulled it out of a demi-glace boil. You know, veal stock. Perfect earring.” If he traded the shorts for some pantaloons and put a monkey on his shoulder, he could step right back to 1804, sidling up to the bar with Jean Lafitte.
Hailey’s lab is a tight 250-square-foot space wrapped around a stairwell at Mimi’s in the Marigny, a bar in a sturdy, two-story 1920s brick building at the corner of Franklin and Royal. Founded by Mimi Dykes and her brother Simon ten years ago, Mimi’s is a beloved pioneer and neighborhood anchor. These few streets around Franklin and St. Roch are a sweet, quiet corner of New Orleans: a few palmettos, some dogtrot houses, cozy little coffee shops and bars. In 2006, Hailey and his business partner Joaquin Rodas, the chef at Bacchanal, in the Bywater, put in the kitchen and started cooking tapas on Mimi’s second floor.
photo: Christopher Testani
Hailey whips up a last order of braised pork and figs, turns over the kitchen, and bounds down the stairs and into his vintage blue Chrysler van. In the chefmobile with us, kitchen detritus: a stack of fresh towels on the dash, rolls of plastic wrap on the backseat. We roll out to Bacchanal, up on Poland Avenue, hard by the Industrial Canal. It’s the Friday night rush; the beautiful people are lounging in the lush garden, chowing down on Rodas’s pork rillettes and zucchini bread with crabmeat. We buy a bottle of dry Catalan rosé, down it, jump back in the chefmobile, and head to the Delachaise, a bistro run by chef Chris DeBarr, a friend of Hailey’s, off St. Charles. It’s midnight. It’s packed.
“Frog legs!” Hailey shouts at the barman. They come, white and firm, dressed in a sharp, tangy remoulade. Out of this world.
“I’m not seeing a lot of big, heavy plates on the way in the newer kitchens of New Orleans,” Hailey muses, sucking on a frog leg. “I’m seeing bistros, pop-ups, uncomplicated food. I’m square in the middle of the trend, so that’s what I would see. But in a bigger way, it’s about being able to go out at night and not being instantly put in jail for three hours by the restaurant while they perform around you.”
It’s a much earlier evening than I thought. We knock off about three, playing guitar over a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape at Hailey’s house. He says, “I’ll meet you about six at Mimi’s. The wedding should be done around five.”
Wedding? In other words, Hailey’s doing a wedding, then cooking till 4:00 a.m.
At 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, then, I step into the kitchen. Hailey hands me a knife. A Mississippi organic farmer has dropped off big bags of basil, rocket, tiny cherry tomatoes, and purslane, the little cactus-family leaf.
“All right, brother, slice some of those little cherry tomatoes and take some of the basil and just sorta make a chiffonade.”
My chiffonade station is a little slow off the mark—the tiny cherries squirt out from under my knife. I have a respectable half gallon in about twenty minutes—a job that Hailey could have polished off in about three.
Nine o’clock, the early “dinner” crowd: Tickets are rolling out in rising tempo—gambas, steaks, calamari in a chorizo cream sauce, braised pork with figs. Hailey’s menu is evenly divided between hot and cold, vegetarian and not, but there’s this thing at the end called a Trust Me. A note below reads: Can be hot or cold, who knows?
For those who know the man’s work, this plate is ragingly popular. Essentially, he’s asking his customers to let him play the culinary equivalent of a guitar solo on their palates. It’s worth noting the obvious, that Hailey has just the two hands, that it’s a two-ass kitchen, counting him and his assistant, Morgan Sinclair-O’Connor, and that there are sixteen other à la carte dishes.
At ten-thirty, the furious Trust Me ballet plays out in front of me: Hailey’s working four à la carte orders. A steak sears on the grill. An order of calamari in chorizo sauce and one of escargot are simmering; plus, he’s sautéing some arugula to dump on the piping-hot flatbread that has come off the grill, the ancient Spanish version of a pizza. Out pops a ticket for a Trust Me. Hailey’s got forty-five seconds on the calamari, twenty seconds on the escargot, ten seconds until he dumps the sautéed arugula on the flatbread, and one minute until he flips the steak.
He lays the wilted arugula onto the bread, sprinkles it with Manchego, plates it, and slams a handful of scallops in a pan, pulls out a perfect shell of a radicchio leaf, plates it, and asks for a glass of Herbsaint—neat—from the bar. At first I think he’s ordered a drink—he’s a French boy.
He flips the steak, buying himself another two minutes on that. He plates the escargot, waits two beats, plates the calamari, has Sinclair-O’Connor run them to the table, throws some pistachios and red pepper flakes onto the scallops, waits another two beats for them to infuse, then dumps in the Herbsaint. Bright sugary-blue alcohol flames shoot three feet up, licking the bottom of the hood. He shakes the pan to even out the searing. With the back side of a spoon, he smears a half-moon of balsamic reduction on a plate and lays the steak atop it, then sends it out.
Shaking the scallops over the burner, he twists back to his prep counter, scoots the plate with the radicchio leaf on it closer, turns back to the stove, tosses the scallops, and, with the quiet hand of a priest at a wedding, coaxes the perfectly dun-colored half-dollar-size sea fruit into the radicchio leaf. In the heat of what we might call lunch hour, 10:35 p.m., a Trust Me is born.
“The veins in that radicchio leaf gave me the idea,” Hailey says and shrugs. “They looked like fingers meant to hold something good. And you know what? I actually hate menus. I wish they didn’t exist. Someday I’ll write a menu with just three words: Meat. Fish. Vegetables. What’s the meat? Well, trust me, dammit! It’s about living in the moment. This is the moment when I have some amazing beef or some amazing redfish. Food acts like music: As you eat it, it’s gone. I play this guitar solo now. You taste this meat in this moment.”
At 1:00 a.m., what Hailey calls “the steaking hour” rolls around, a burst of red meat tickets that signals the cool kids’ arrival from other bars. A blonde bursts through the kitchen door yelling: “Heeeeath!”
Hailey turns from fabricating toast points with sea salt and chocolate and a vegetarian Trust Me involving some grilled haricots verts without missing a beat.
“Jessica! Gimme some sugar, girl.”
“Hi,” she says, offering me her hand. “I’m Jessica. I’m trouble.”
She’s a duchess of the twenty-something tatterdemalions, smart enough to realize she needs a steak. After 2:00 the orders come in waves for the next hour and a half: some chocolate toast, four or five steaks, a couple of grilled escarole hearts, some potatoes with a Spanish Creole tomato sauce, a half dozen shrimp orders. At 3:28 a.m. a Trust Me and a steak ticket pop out.
“We’re going down to the wire tonight,” Hailey says. “Somebody’s gonna see that down there, steak and a Trust Me, and they’re gonna order it. We call it monkey-see-monkey-do.”
On cue, the ticker spits out a steak and a Trust Me, which he fashions out of shrimp, roasted peppers, and orange zest. At 4:00 we begin to put the food away and analyze the pile of tickets.
“Two hundred plates,” Hailey says. “I’ve seen more. But not too bad.”
We have a drink after work at the downstairs bar and head for our cars as the sun is coming up.
“Remember, we’re cooking for a party tomorrow, so come in about noon,” he says, laughing. “You know, about six hours from now.
WHAT GROWS WHERE, WHAT DOESN’T, WHO IMMIGRATED to what spot, who fought with whom—our narrative is in our food. The French arrived on the Gulf Coast in 1699 in the form of the Sieurs de Bienville and Iberville, who put a garrison on Biloxi Bay, then quickly moved on to Mobile Bay to establish the capital of the French colony of Louisiana. The Alabama tribes were not hostile until Bienville’s troops began raping Indian women, angering the local chiefs to the point that, Bienville correctly reckoned, he and his garrison would be wiped out. He wrote to King Louis XIV: Send girls.
In 1702, the first group of twenty-four young mail-order brides arrived in Mobile. They began watching what, and how, the Indian ladies cooked. The first Creole cuisine, reliant on the—for them—exotic New World fish, game, and vegetables, evolved from those exchanges. In 1718, as Bienville finally discovered the high bend in the Mississippi that would become what he called Nouvelle-Orléans, he and his colonists brought this kitchen with them.
On a recent Friday morning—295 years after Bienville’s foray up the Mississippi to the Indian portage that would become the Quarter—David Barr Gooch, a seersucker-clad fourth-generation Galatoire descendant, sits smack in the middle of all that Bienville founded, preparing to dispense a great flood of Creole food to a horde of the ravenous. Gooch mans the big worn oak cash desk in the rear of the Galatoire’s dining room on Bourbon Street, beneath the iconic grandfather clock. It’s the epicenter of New Orleans at this moment.
On any given Friday, hundreds of people will try to wedge, cram, cajole, buy, cheat, sneak, or beg their way into the 150 seats in Galatoire’s main, delightful, ground-floor Victorian dining room. The downstairs room has been on a first-come-first-served basis for 108 years. Reservations are accepted for the quieter second floor, but that’s for people who don’t know or don’t want the fight. Among the regulars—the legal, banking, and oil royalty of the Central Business District and the battalions of grandes dames of Uptown New Orleans—there’s a flat-out war, week in, week out.
The unflappable Gooch, who has seen hundreds of mad Fridays, orchestrates Galatoire’s infinitely complex front-of-the house dance today with his colleague Arnold Chabaud. Chabaud is out front, managing the line. Gooch is at the desk, managing the room.
“Jean Galatoire and his nephews came from near Pau, in the Pyrenees. When they opened in 1905, my great-grand-uncle had a boardinghouse upstairs, which…”—Gooch deadpans with what can only be described as Gallic finesse—“well, I think we all know what ‘boardinghouse’ stood for at that point in this town. After that, my great-uncle Gabriel Galatoire, an old-fashioned bachelor who didn’t work and who spent a lot of time going to the opera, lived upstairs. The family didn’t think much of him. But if you think about who goes to the opera, it’s the leading members of society, and those people were his friends. They’re the people you want to come to the restaurant. I think he did more for us than we gave him credit for.”
Compared with Hailey’s operation—no front of the house, no separate stations—Galatoire’s can best be understood as a battle-ship. There are fifty kitchen staff, thirty waiters, and hundreds of moving parts. The front of the house is staffed by people who have mapped the occupants of the social strata of the Deep South with the granularity of the CIA mapping the tribal areas of Pakistan. Culinarily speaking, this ship’s job is to go nowhere, except in leisurely circles as it exchanges groups of diners at different times of day. Galatoire’s is not supposed to innovate. It’s supposed to be. That takes work.
The fuel that propels the boat is the customer base, as passionate, quirky, and richly demanding a group as one could find. Galatoire’s regulars aren’t restaurant-goers so much as they are clients whose wallets and eccentricities of appetite drive the work of the place. Brobson Lutz, a prominent New Orleans internist, has been a patron since he was a Tulane med-school student in the 1970s. A longtime resident of the Quarter, Lutz is a storied Katrina hero who created and manned an ad hoc clinic for hurricane victims throughout the ordeal. He’s best known in Galatoire’s-watchdog lore for bringing a bucket of baby snapping turtles as a centerpiece for his Friday lunch table during Mardi Gras, to protest a suspected lack of turtle meat in the restaurant’s famous turtle soup. On a recent Sunday night, as Lutz and I dined on excellently grilled redfish fillets smothered in crabmeat, he whipped a twenty-five-foot retractable Stanley tape measure out from his beltline under his fine madras jacket.
“I’ve just heard,” Lutz explained, “that they’ve resized the tables along the walls, much like the airlines adjusting the ‘pitch’ of the seats so that they can cram more people in. We need to watch this.”
“We’ve put in a few new tables along the walls that are a couple of inches shorter to give the waiters more passage when they’re carrying a lot of plates when everybody’s table-hopping,” explains a bemused, dark-suited Chabaud just a scant hour before Friday lunch. “Since Mr. Galatoire’s day, we’ve not taken reservations for this dining room, yet some of the regulars have managed to be here every Friday for decades.”
Chabaud and I sit at a table in the back in that fine, tense moment of calm, as when an orchestra settles into a pit before a performance. Some of the waiters, tuxedo jackets off, are folding big stacks of napkins under the old beveled barbershop windows lining the walls. Busboys in white mess jackets glide through the room quietly putting out stemware.
“The Friday lunch thing is recent,” Chabaud says, “which means within the last forty years. It began with some ladies uptown who were coming downtown to do some shopping on Fridays. They got friends to meet them. To this you have to add that this is still a French town, so any excuse to take off on Friday afternoon was a welcome one for the businessmen. It grew from there.”
Chabaud is the awe-inspiring priest of the Friday gate, whose seating edicts the high and mighty of New Orleans must obey, at least for those few hours on Fridays as they queue in front of 209 Bourbon. A queue may seem a rational thing, but this queue has taken on many colonial French curlicues. Chabaud controls the admission of the queue but doesn’t really control the making of the queue. The passionate Galatoire’s diner can, in fact, game the queue, which almost never works, but which doesn’t stop thousands from trying.
Because customers of Galatoire’s are not accustomed to having to wait anywhere, for anything, especially in the heat, they began sending servants and hiring proxies to sit in the Galatoire’s line. Inevitably, for important parties, the proxies started coming on Thursday nights.
“You may be on the list, but I can’t let you in till I see the whites of your eyes,” says Chabaud, smiling and adroitly mangling William Prescott’s admonition to his troops at Bunker Hill.
“The most desirable Fridays are those before Mardi Gras and Christmas, so they started coming Wednesday nights, and then on Tuesdays, if you can believe that. We decided to put a stop to it for those two Fridays a year, so we auctioned off the tables for charity. We’ve raised just under a million dollars over the years.”
Chabaud pauses with an exquisitely un-spoken whiff of distaste. “So, the rest of the year, it’s proxies.”
The proxies are working out front right now. To the right of the door sit two men in camp chairs and a third, fair-to-middling drunk, sitting on the sidewalk. The first one, who introduces himself as “Mikey,” looks like a recently fired accountant. The second, “Provenzano,” is a bit more appropriately sleazed-up in purple sunglasses, a heavy silver neck chain, and a wifebeater, like a gigolo out of a Tennessee Williams play. Our jolly blitzed fellow, sipping a sixteen-ounce off-brand, introduces himself as “Jackass.” “Hey,” he says, flashing the peace sign, “buy us a drink.”
Giving me his number in case I want to reserve, Provenzano, well tanned by his long hours on the sidewalk, explains, “You call my cell, and we put you on the list.”
How long has he been sitting for this lunch?
“Not bad,” he says. “Just since last night.”
photo: Christopher Testani
Back in the kitchen, all is calm. Resplendent in his jet-black sous-chef’s jacket, Murray Thomas, a twenty-five-year veteran of Galatoire’s, is the expediter this Friday. Now thirty-eight, Thomas started as a night dishwasher at fourteen. He knew “Mr. Leon” Galatoire and was taken under the wing of the retired chef de cuisine Milton Prudence. Thomas is the brain at the center of the operation—the conductor of the orchestra, keeping time, pushing the line chefs to deliver so that each table can be served whole. Thomas will see every plate today. There will be hundreds.
“This is Galatoire’s,” he says, “so people like to come in, enjoy themselves—it’s Friday, the end of the week, they got a table, which is hard. So they got to have a little somethin’ to drink. We don’t get hit with tickets till about thirty, forty-five minutes after the seating.”
The huge kitchen has three basic lines. Along the left wall are the cold salads, where the seafood remoulades originate. Farther along the left side are the fry, grill, and broil stations, respectively. Protruding from the right side of the room is the sauté and saucing station, twelve massive burners and a griddle that produce the bordelaise, béchamel, hollandaise, and beurre blanc, as well as the étouffées, egg dishes, all sautéed fish, the sweetbreads, and not least, Crabmeat Yvonne, which is sautéed with artichoke hearts, a favorite of Madame Yvonne Galatoire Wynne’s back in the day.
The sauté station is the classical Creole heart of the kitchen, producing the center of Galatoire’s menu. The fish and meats that come off the grill, broil, and fry lines get dressed here. The expediter’s post is at this line, like that of an artillery lieutenant on the battleship—Thomas needs to be close to his sauté line chefs as he tells his other gunners when to fire.
Out front, the madness is firing up. Chabaud is out on the street shaping the line with his clipboard, registering those he knows personally or by proxy, and fending off last-minute supplicants. Proxy Provenzano and Proxy Mikey are trying to calm down some of their customers. A lady in a fetching red dress has decided to turn her considerable charms on to the imperviously polite Chabaud. It’s like watching her try to scramble up Everest in her heels as she realizes she has no traction. Chabaud scribbles an iffy waiting list.
“Might be a second seating,” he says to me, sotto voce. He opens the doors, and the charivari moves indoors, dresses and hats aflutter. I count twelve seersucker suits scattered around the room, not counting Gooch’s, a good show even for the South, nearly outnumbering the blazers. The cocktails ratchet up the decibels and ignite the table hopping—here’s a big oilman, here’s a sub-mafioso gambling magnate and his drinky wife. Back in the kitchen, tickets begin to pop out for trout amandine, sautéed redfish with crabmeat slathered on top, fried oysters en brochette, and pompano after pompano after pompano.
“It grills well, carries the sauces well, carries the crabmeat well, and it wouldn’t be Galatoire’s without it,” Thomas says. He turns to his sauté line and shouts, “Pickin’ up on Crabmeat Yvonne, pickin’ up on trout amandine, where’s my crabmeat ravigote? It’s fairly busy,” he adds to me, “but if you come in to cook on Friday at Mardi Gras, you gotta be ready to do a thousand people. Today we’ll do three hundred.”
They grind for two hours, tickers spitting out tickets of staggering length. Remoulades, gumbos, turtle soups, and pound after pound of smooth, sweet Louisiana crabmeat, slung on the fish, drenched in béchamel, stuffed atop eggplant. The room is eating the Gulf.
“We go through five hundred pounds of crabmeat a week,” Thomas says. “At Christmas or Mardi Gras, six or seven hundred pounds.”
At three, with the kitchen past its peak, I cut a deal with Thomas to set up a tasting—whatever’s in his head. He slings me a chunk of sautéed lemonfish, the delicate whitefish with a slash of beurre blanc. Crabmeat Yvonne, with the chalk of the artichoke hearts cutting the sugar of the crab. Crabmeat au gratin, as rich as Croesus, cradled in béchamel and hollandaise. The sharp shellfish remoulades. A fillet of grilled pompano that tastes as if the fish had been chowing down on baby shrimp a couple of hours ago.
“I’m just hittin’ you with the classics,” Thomas says, “the things that I think speak for Galatoire’s.” He says to the grill station: “Gimme an eggplant.”
Of the really ancient Creole twists, this is my favorite. When the little plate of five thin slices of perfectly grilled eggplant comes, Thomas spins a ramekin of powdered sugar at me across the counter.
The nineteenth-century French take on aubergines was that they were bitter. With the exception of a few old families that do this, the habit of cutting the bitterness by dipping the slices in powdered sugar has come down to this one preserved gesture in this one institution—two hundred years of history in the flick of Murray Thomas’s wrist.
The dinner shift trickles in. It’s hard to know what it means for Thomas to have spent his entire adult life in Galatoire’s, doing many things but doing one big thing, grooming the classics, serving this old, complex narrative in this old, complex place. I want to know if he thinks the Creole kitchen will ever die. Much as Louis Armstrong did, Thomas speaks in the weathered iambic of the streets of New Orleans, without bluster but forthright and full of force.
“Listen, man,” he says, “I’m standing in a long, long line. It’s humbling to work here. I had the good fortune to work with people who taught me the old ways. I’m gonna put this credit right out to the other chefs who knew so much, who brought me along. There’s nothin’ better, no better way to cook than this. I try to tell this to the younger guys comin’ along in the kitchen. I try to, because the people who could really cook in the old way told it to me.”
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