There is no avoiding Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. One version of the city existed before the disaster and a demonstrably different one does now. Thirteen years have passed, and yet it remains part of the city’s daily conversation, intrinsic to its character.
There are three things that New Orleans has always done exceptionally well: food, liquor and music. The city's appetite for embracing – and talent for delivering – these pleasures seems to have taken on additional meaning in the post-Katrina years. New Orleans’ focus on fun is its way of celebrating the here and now, taking comfort in the realisation that nothing lasts forever.
As New Orleans’s celebratory 300th year draws to a close, I spoke with three people leading the charge in its continuing evolution. This is what they had to say.
Isaac Toups, chef and owner of Toups Meatery
“Oh yeah man, you can fly the freak flag all you like.” Isaac Toups, chef and owner of Toups' Meatery and Toups South is candid about the city’s liberal attitude. “When I arrived in New Orleans, I fell in love. I could be weird, listen to Marilyn Manson – no one cared.”
Isaac is a ‘full-blood Cajun’ from small-town Louisiana. His food-obsessed family have been in the state as long as New Orleans has. “The Toups are like cockroaches – only we can cook,” he quips with rehearsed fluidity. Something he’s honed, perhaps, in the limelight on TopChef, a reality TV cooking competition.
Chef Isaac Toups
I meet Isaac for dinner at Toups Meatery in the Mid-city area, where he wastes no time giving me the bare-bones story of how got to where his is. Following years working in fine dining, he says he decided to go it alone with a restaurant that serves ‘Contemporary Cajun’ food in a zero-fuss environment.
“Dress however the f**k, leave your fancy clothes and come and get some advanced charcuterie. I want a casual atmosphere. Dress code: wallet,” he says.
His attitude, he explains, is synonymous with the new post-Katrina New Orleans attitude. “People don’t want to get all fancied up anymore. They just want something to eat that’s good. When people came back [after Katrina], they were a little bit more appreciative – there was less snootiness.”
He animatedly admits that when he started out he wanted to sell T-shirts printed with the slogan ‘Foie gras in your flip flops’. His restaurant is best known for its $25 meatery board. Among the myriad bites, there's fresh, Cajun-style charcuterie, chicken-liver mousse, crackling and candied chunks of pork belly.
The food bar at Toups South © Denny Culbert
For those watching their cholesterol it’s devastating. “You’ll leave here with gout,” he jokes as I use my hands to snarf everything in sight. On the palate though, this is glorious stuff: packed with big American flavours, but delivered with a deftness you’d expect from modern European cooking.
Isaac is never more animated than when defending his borrowing of cooking techniques and ingredients from other cuisines. “I try to stay local, but I have an aged soy sauce from Korea that I use. Is it Cajun? F**k no! Is it delicious? Yes.”
He has a friend ‘down the road’ who’s just opened up a Vietnamese place and says, “Nobody cares that he’s not Vietnamese. It’s delicious.”
Isaac’s no-nonsense attitude to mixing quality and informality is symbolic of modern New Orleans, and yet there is also something of the old guard in him that embraces the coalescence of cultures – just as his ancestors did. “New Orleans is a melting pot,” he says. “We’ve got the culture of food in this city – and we’ve kept it.”
As we round up our evening together he contemplates what it is to be a New Orleanian today. “We live to eat,” he says. “If you don’t like to eat, we won’t hang out with you. You’re no fun.”
Abigail Gullo, head bartender at Compère Lapin
Abigail Gullo at Compère Lapin
“I dare you to find anywhere else in the world where you can go to 17 places, all within walking distance, and get a decent Mai Thai,” says Abigail Gullo, as she proudly expounds on the density of quality cocktail bars in New Orleans. “This is the most prolific, delicious and concentrated cocktail city on the planet.”
I quickly learn that Abigail is not shy of superlatives. In fact, she’s not shy at all. A ‘New York mutt’, as her mother described her, Gullo spent her formative years in the Big Apple as a ‘teacher and performer’ before going into the drinks trade. “90% of acting is reacting, so in order to be a good performer you have to be a good listener – and that is the ultimate skill of a bartender.”
I meet her at Compère Lapin, an upmarket restaurant in New Orleans’s warehouse district. Abigail is in charge behind the bar here. After a short consultation, she has her colleague prepare a variation of a manhattan for me using Corsican vermouth. She seems jubilant when I tell her it’s my favourite cocktail – and that my father’s Corsican.
Compère Lapin's South Paw Swizzle cocktail © Josh Brasted
Explaining her decision to move to to the city, Abigail says, “Someone told me once that to live in NYC you have to be successful, to live in LA you have to be good looking, but to live in New Orleans you just have to be yourself. ” She describes the city as a place whose small-town feel (the population is less than 400,000) marries with a close-knit community of quality bar tenders. “I love classic cocktails and [thought] no-one knew how to make them anymore – until I came to New Orleans.”
Abigail goes on to explain how the culture of sharing drinks in New Orleans is woven into daily life, connected to the city’s rituals and annual events. “At Mardi Gras everyone drinks ‘go-cups’ of daiquiris on the parade route,” she says.
Daiquiris might be fun for parties, but the most quintessential New Orleans cocktail is the Sazerac, a strong rye-whiskey based concoction whose ingredients systematically tell the story of the town’s mercantile past. “Before the US was even a country, whiskey came down on flatboats from the north, while bitters were coming from Europe or the Caribbean. Everything went through New Orleans,” she says.
Cocktail buffs keen on the full story will love taking a French Quarter drinking tour with local expert (and good friend of Abigail) Elizabeth Pearce, who wittily paints a picture of Nola’s booze-hued past as guests get merry on her pre-made drinks.
While Katrina isn’t a subject she’s keen to stick with for long, Abigail seems certain about one thing: “How close we came to losing this city made us hold onto our traditions tighter. The cocktail scene here is better than it’s ever been.”
Winston Turner, trombone player in the Brass-A-Holics
Winston Turner of Brass-A-Holics
It’s dusk and I’m sat on park bench with Winston Turner, a hotshot trombone player with the Brass-A-Holics, major players on the NOLA jazz scene since 2010. We’re in Washington Square. A few metres away is legendary Frenchman Street, home to a concentration of bustling bars that still play ‘true jazz’.
I ask him what music means to New Orleans. He looks up through the swarming mosquitos at the darkening sky and very slowly says, “Man, it’s like… the correlation of the moon to the earth. If the earth doesn’t spin properly, there’s going to be a problem.”
New Orleans is the only place Winston knows where he can make a ‘proper living’ playing an instrument. “I’ve had friends – phenomenal musicians – leave here and have to come back. The way it’s embraced here is unlike any other place.”
Jazz music was invented here at the beginning of the 20th century. Among its myriad influences was the music of marching bands, the likes of which can still be seen and heard in parades snaking through the French Quarter on any given day of the week.
“As a kid, I saw the Mardi Gras parades coming down the street. If you were in a marching band, you were like a football player. In fact, you go to a football game here, and most people actually go to see the band,” he says.
Winston cut his teeth in his high school marching band, before moving onto a brass outfit. “Then you realise that from the brass band there’s a whole other level – jazz. You can’t perfect that. There’s always so much room to improve.”
The Brass-A-Holics ©
After 30 years with a horn in his hand, Winston is still obsessed not only with playing, but listening. I ask him if he has a vinyl record player at home, but he lost it – and everything else – in the ‘hurricane’.
“Suddenly everything that you know in your world is gone. We tried to bring our culture to other places, but it wasn’t really supported. We knew we had to get back to New Orleans as quickly as possible or we felt it [the music scene] was going to die.”
Fortunately, when they returned, their audiences were hungry. “People from New Orleans, we’re like spoilt brats. We don’t understand [the words] ‘The night is over’. It’s Carnival and Halloween everyday here! It’s not like that anywhere else [in America].”
Any rivalries or divisions within the music fraternity disappeared after Katrina. With numbers down, they needed each other to form new bands, which is how Winston’s own Brass-A-Holics came to be.
Winston explains how his band apply well-known pop lyrics to original jazz compositions, making the music more accessible. “Competition’s hot again now. I need to get you to like me immediately – and then tell everyone else,” he says.
A few day later, I go to see the Brass-A-Holics play a fantastically entertaining set at the upmarket Jazz Playhouse on Bourbon Street. I walk in and sit down mid-way through their first song. Over the mic, Winston hollers, “Kiki, do you love me?!”
Damien was a guest at B on Canal New Orleans, where rooms start at $149 per night. For more information on the destination visit neworleans.com.