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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.


March 28, 2017

NEW ORLEANS— The New Orleans restaurant population has almost doubled in the decade after Hurricane Katrina. The exact number, according to USA Today is approximately 1,400 current restaurants vs 800 pre-Katrina restaurants. That is a staggering statistic.

In the immediate months after the hurricane made landfall on the Mississippi Coast, and the levies broke in New Orleans, I would have thought it would be a decade or more just to get the restaurant community back to where it was before the storm. The culinary renaissance of the Crescent City, and the doubling of its offerings, is a great thing for the entire region.

Neighborhoods such as Mid City, Bywater, and the Marigny have blossomed in the years after the storm. Heretofore sleepy avenues such as Freret Street have boomed with new, hip restaurant and bar concepts. Personally, I have grown to appreciate the outcropping of new, post-storm breakfast joints such as the Ruby Slipper, Horn’s, Slim Goody’s, Satsuma, and Toast.

Several chefs came down from New York and San Francisco and opened new, hip joints such as Paladar 511 and Red’s Chinese. I love all of the latest concepts I’ve visited, but I get easily distracted by the shiny things to the detriment of the tried-and-true standard bearers.

That was the case for me several years ago when I walked through the doors of K-Paul’s for the first time in, what was probably, a couple of decades. It was a choice of convenience that day, but halfway through my meal I thought to myself— I have forgotten how great this place is, why did we stop coming here?

It’s hard. For someone like me who lives, eats, sleeps, and breathes restaurants, when I am in what is arguably one of the country’s top two restaurant cities, it’s hard to make a choice without eating six meals a day on the three-day sojourn (I have actually done that, by the way).

Last night I was sitting in Brigtsen’s Restaurant at the River Bend with my family during Spring Break. It was around the time that I took the second spoonful of Frank Brigtsen’s crawfish bisque that I had the same thought that had hit me years ago at K-Paul’s  (Brigtsen’s former employer/mentor) I love the food here. I have never so much as had a single course that ever came anywhere close to being less than stellar in this restaurant. Yet why have I stayed away this long?

It’s the curse of the shiny things.

Full disclaimer: This will, in no way, be an impartial or unbiased column. I am a huge fan of Frank Brigtsen. I believe he is unquestionably the current godfather and grand gatekeeper of the New Orleans Creole cuisine scene. When the baton was passed, it landed firmly in his grasp and he hasn’t let go.

Brigtsen got his start working under the legendary Paul Prudhomme at Commander’s Palace. When Prudhomme left to open K-Paul’s in the French Quarter, Brigtsen was again by his side. Regular readers of this column certainly know of my admiration and respect for Prudhomme, and the impact he made in the culinary community across the country, they should all know that I have the same respect and admiration for the man who trained under him for so many years.

Prudhomme invented the pop-up restaurant concept in the early 1980s when he flew his entire crew from New Orleans to San Francisco one summer to set up a temporary restaurant for a month. Legendary concert promoter Bill Graham made the deal and set the team up in a less-than-stellar space. Brigtsen was a assigned to the blackening station, which meant that he was doing most of the cooking as the new cooking technique that Prudhomme had just introduced to the world was all the rage. He was blackening fish, chicken, and veal with a hood system that was working at about a 20% clip. If you’ve ever blackened anything, you know that ventilation is key.

The next morning he went out and purchased a pair of goggles, and worked the rest of the month-long stint with smoked-out goggles that needed to be wiped off every 30 seconds or so.

When Prudhomme opened his next pop-up in New York the next summer, the facilities were perfect, and Brighten was running the show.

In 1986 Brigtsen struck out on his own in a small shotgun house near the River Bend, and has been excelling in that spot for over three decades. Many of those years, he was the main— and only— cook.

Brigtsen got my attention in 1988 just after I had opened my first restaurant. He had just been named one of Food & Wine magazines “Top New Chefs.” I was a self-taught chef who was soaking in everything I could. There were three restaurants in New Orleans at that time that had garnered a perfect five-bean rating from Gene Bourg in the Times Picayune— Commander’s Palace under Emeril Lagassee and his kitchen team, The Grill Room at Windsor Court under Kevin Graham and his staff, and Brigtsen’s with Frank Brigtsen and a six-burner stove, a sous chef, and a dishwasher who also did prep work.

I will never forget the first time I walked into Brigtsen’s kitchen. My wife and I had just enjoyed an excellent meal, and I asked if I could go back and say “hi” to the man I idolized. I am sure I expected to be greeted by a team of chefs and back waiters, prep cooks, line cooks, pastry chefs, and stewards. There was just Frank and his humble, charming- and low-key demeanor. It blew me away.

Brigtsen manned that six-burner stove on his own for more than a decade. During that time he once served 196 covers during a Jazz Fest weekend when soft-shell crab was a feature three times on the menu. Stay with me here. One man, six burners, three soft-shell crab features (no deep fryer), in addition to a dozen other entrees, appetizers, salads, and desserts. Trust me, it’s impressive.

He’s still in the kitchen. More than 30 years later (he’s added four more cooking eyes, and a chef or two), and he’s still touching every plate. You can’t find passion, dedication, and quality like that anywhere.

Do yourself a favor. The next time you are making reservations in New Orleans, don’t get distracted by the shiny things. Go with the tried-and-true, the living legend, and dine at Brigtsen’s, a restaurant that will surely go down in history as one of New Orleans all-time best.

View today’s recipe: Artichoke Tart

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