This past weekend was a memorable one for our family. Our 26-year old daughter got engaged to her longtime boyfriend. His name is Robert (good name), he’s a great guy, and he’ll be a nice addition to our small nucleus of four. Someone counseled me with the ol’ standby, “You’re not losing a daughter. You’re gaining a son.” That may be, but it sure feels like I’m losing my little girl.
He proposed to her on the roof of our apartment building in New Orleans. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the same building around the time they started dating. There wasn’t a lot of fanfare or props in place for the proposal, just his brother hiding in the wings to record the moment.
Once they were finished with all the engagement business on the roof they came down to our apartment where both families and their closest friends were all waiting to surprise them. It was a memorable moment. Tears were shed. Everyone spent the next 30 minutes toasting and nibbling on hors d’oeuvres and then we all went to dinner.
I am well-versed in New Orleans cuisine. I have been dining around that city for six decades. I know a lot of the chefs and I’m familiar with so many of their restaurants. What I wasn’t familiar with was booking large groups. I turned to my friend Chef Eric Cook, who makes my favorite appetizer in town at his restaurant Gris Gris (the Fried Oyster BLT). He also makes one of the best gumbos— not just in New Orleans, but of all the gumbos— anywhere. He had a private space available at his French Quarter restaurant Saint John (another good name) and that’s where we took our party of 18 after the post proposal gathering in our apartment.
The second floor of Saint John was perfect for our group. It was in the French Quarter and a 10 minute walk from our apartment, it had the perfect amount of local flavor, and it had a private bar manned by two excellent servers. Chef Cook was there to greet us, and he and I visited for 20 minutes or so. The evening was a perfect mix of family, friends, and food.
The next day we had brunch at Rosedale, Susan Spicer’s casual joint tucked away on a small street somewhere between the Navarre neighborhood and Mid City. Susan was in there working brunch (usually her one day off) and I started wondering if I had ever been in there when Susan wasn’t there. I don’t think I have. It’s the same with Chef Frank Brigtsen. I have been eating at Brigtsen’s for over 36 years and have never dined there when he wasn’t in the kitchen.
I have often told friends that if someone were setting out to open a restaurant and said, “Let’s design a restaurant specifically for Robert St. John,” it would probably be Rosedale. It’s everything I love in a restaurant— casual, not stuffy, but dedicated to great food, no tweezers, just great ingredients, and great recipes prepared by skilled chefs.
I was sitting there at brunch basking in the afterglow of a wonderful evening the night before, counting my blessings of family and friends and began to think about my chef friends in New Orleans and others I admire who are in the trenches of this business day in and day out facing adversity at every corner and still maintaining their love and devotion for our craft.
I have always been grateful to live 90 minutes away from such greatness. As a part-time New Orleanian I eat around 120 meals a year in the city’s restaurants and admire and appreciate all of the people who work in our industry down there.
Today I began thinking about a relatively small— as American major cities go— city that is blessed with such culinary talent, and I thought about the chefs who are out there on the front lines of these challenging times continuing to persevere and thrive no matter what adversity comes their way.
My next thought was to make a list of my favorite chefs in the city. Here is that list (not ranked and in no particular order, just as it came to me while writing this column).
Frank Brigtsen— I think if you polled most chefs in New Orleans and asked them, “Who is the best chef in New Orleans?” Nine out of 10 would answer, “Frank Brigtsen.” He was a disciple of Paul Prudhomme at Commander’s Palace in the 1970s and was his hand-picked sous chef to join him at K-Paul’s. He’s been serving excellence on a plate since 1986 in his Riverbend shotgun.
Susan Spicer— on that poll of New Orleans chefs, Susan Spicer would also appear very high on the list. She’s a hard working woman with excellent taste, true skills, and an amazing work ethic. I’ve followed her career since her early days at The Bistro at Mason de Ville.
Emeril Lagasse— there seemed to be a lot of misplaced jealousy in the culinary world when Emeril hit it big in the early days of the Food Network. I never wavered. I’ve always admired this guy who was one of the youngest chefs ever to lead the kitchen at Commander’s. He’s got the knowledge, skill, and business smarts and has what would amount to a PhD in cooking.
Donald Link— has the Midas touch when it comes to New Orleans restaurants. I’ve never had a bad meal at any of his places and he’s obviously a skilled operator in addition to being a talented chef. His gumbo is one of my top three in town.
John Besh— I have been friends with John since the mid 1990s and friends stick by friends through adversity. Say what you want, but this guy can cook.
Eric Cook— he’s as humble as he is talented. Gris Gris is always a solid choice for lunch or dinner, and there’s always the aforementioned gumbo and Fried Oyster BLT.
Nina Compton— I got to know Nina during the pandemic as we were on daily Zoom calls with other restaurateurs from across the country. She is one of the most admired chefs in the country and New Orleans is a better place because she lives and works there.
Justin Devillier— La Petit Grocery was on the forefront of the new guard a decade or so ago. It hasn’t slipped one bit. Actually, it’s better today than it was when it opened and he won the Beard. Justine in the Quarter is fun, too.
Blake Aguillard and Trey Smith, Saint Germaine— this is such a great restaurant, and these guys have excellent touch when it comes to fine dining.
Rising Star: E.J. Lagasse— this young guy is going to do great things. He basically graduated high school and was enrolled in Johnson and Wales culinary school the next day. He’s still in his very early 20s and is about to take the reins at the reimagined Emeril’s. He’s as serious about his craft as any twentysomething I have ever known. There are great things ahead for this guy.
It might seem strange to write a column about your daughter’s engagement and include a list of your favorite chefs in New Orleans. But for those who know me, it makes perfect sense. And for those who know my daughter— and her disdain of bringing attention to herself or putting herself out there in the public eye— you’ll know that even the first five paragraphs in this column made her uncomfortable. But it’s my column and I’m a proud daddy.
I love my daughter more than life itself and am happy for her future.
I am also a fan of independent restaurateurs and chefs. It’s a brutal business. But for those who love it, it’s a wonderful life.