The chances of being in the presence of genuine, iconic, living, breathing, legends are few and far between, if ever at all. I don’t have many regrets in life, but I had several chances in my late teens to see blues master, Muddy Waters. The same goes for Willie Dixon. I passed at the time because I assumed there would be other likelihoods. I once gave a friend my Stevie Ray Vaughan concert tickets because I wrongly supposed that there would be plenty of other opportunities to see that guitar giant in upcoming decades. He died in a helicopter crash several months later.
There are some artists I could have seen, masters even, who were alive during my lifetime, but I had yet to appreciate their music during their era. I would have loved to have seen Louis Armstrong in concert in the 1960s. The same goes for Miles Davis, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington in the 1970s.
My mother dragged me to see a touring production of “The King and I” in my late teens. If you would have asked me that day, I would have told you there were a few thousand other things I would rather have been doing than sitting in the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans watching a musical. Thankfully, she made me go and I was able to see one of the 4,625 performances of Yul Brynner’s king, in one of the stage’s most iconic roles.
I’ve seen almost every rock act I have wanted to see in my lifetime except the Beatles. Of the people I consider true American icons, I have seen Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, and dozens of others.
In the culinary world, I have checked a lot of chefs and restaurants off my list over the past 40 years from Paul Bocuse to Thomas Keller. I’ve shared a couple of breakfasts with Julia Child and Jacques Pepin and have met and visited with many others. Restaurants and chefs hold just as iconic place on my wish lists as entertainers and musicians.
I have always considered myself blessed to have grown up, and lived, 90 minutes from New Orleans. For the past several years, I’ve been a part-time resident of the city that most consider to be one of America’s top three restaurant destinations.
Though I have often been guilty of chasing the shiny new culinary distractions and occasionally disregarding the classic icons of the New Orleans culinary scene. Early in my restaurant career, when I was in the kitchen every day and working as an active chef (something I haven’t done for decades), all my go-to restaurants on New Orleans culinary research and development visits were places that were on the cutting edge of new culinary trends.
I had grown up eating at all the old-line restaurants, and in the 1980s and 1990s, I was doing everything I could to soak in all the knowledge about where the industry was headed at any given moment. When it comes to food and the restaurant business, looking forward is not always the best move. Sometimes visiting back yields more inspiration and appreciation.
One day in the early 2000s, as matter of time and convenience, my wife and I zipped into lunch at K-Paul’s. It had almost been 20 years since I had eaten there. It was not on my restaurant to-do list as I, at that time— very foolishly— looked at Chef Paul Prudhomme as old news (my close friends will know how painful it was to type the previous sentence). We sat down and ate one of, if not the, finest meals I had ever eaten in New Orleans. It was seriously perfect in every aspect. At the end of the meal, I just sat in my chair, mentally kicking myself for taking such a great restaurant off the to-do list in favor of the newer, trendier, shinier places. In that moment, I revised my thinking and added many of the old-line mainstays back into the rotation.
Over the past 20 years, I have wisely kept those heritage places in my rotation and near the top of my New Orleans Restaurant To-Do list of re-visits. Thanks to that new dining paradigm I ate at the Bon Ton during their final week, I visited with Prudhomme a few months before he passed away, And I dined in the Upperline a few weeks before the global pandemic shut it down. I had always assumed JoAnn Clevenger would reopen. But after learning of the restaurant’s permanent closing last week, I was grateful to have dined in one of New Orleans’ great neighborhood restaurants, run by one of New Orleans’ greatest restaurateurs.
After Ella Brennan’s passing several years ago, Clevenger became the grande dame of the New Orleans restaurant scene. The Upperline, a favorite of mine since the 1980s, was a classic Uptown restaurant whose dining room was skillfully managed by Clevenger. But she was much more than a dining room manager. She was a master restaurateur in every interpretation of the term. One doesn’t have to work a line shift in the kitchen to create a great dining establishment. Most great restaurants don’t put the owner behind the line.
In the months after Hurricane Katrina, our staff and management at The Purple Parrot (another Covid casualty) got to know Clevenger and her husband, Alan Greenacre, as they spent a lot of time at their farm near Columbia. They were Monday night regulars who spoke highly of our soft-shell crab and— according to one of our managers— “ [Clevenger] was just as gracious and effervescent as a guest as she was a host in her own restaurant.”
Every time I ate at The Upperline over the years, her dining room demeanor was always affable, calm, and confident. That’s not always an easy task to pull off in a hectic restaurant environment. She did it with the ease of a pro, which always let me know that everything— from the dish stewards to the chefs, to the bartenders— was being handled and the place was always spinning in greased grooves.
JoAnn Clevenger was— and is— most certainly a genuine, iconic, living, breathing, legend of the New Orleans restaurant scene. The Upperline will be missed, and I am reminded, once again, to never get distracted by the shiny things, lest I miss golden opportunities to be in the presence of greatness.