Now let me begin by saying, I am not a food critic. The purpose of my writing this blog is not to analyze the quality of the food or to rate my overall experience by a star system. To each his own, I will make no judgements. My purpose in writing this for all of you is to explain in fine detail the experience I had at Cafe Minh, a hidden gem located at the corner of 4139 Canal and David Street, and to apply that experience to a better understanding of why this restaurant is part of the “restaurant row”. Continue reading
Category Archives: neighborhood
First Impressions at Rue 127
You know when you first meet someone you try to leave a good first impression? You hope to make them laugh or impress them in some way. You certainly don’t want your fly to be unzipped, say something offensive, or have spinach stuck in your teeth while saying it. Well, when I first walked into Rue 127 I thought an XYZ was in order.
I had taken a couple of photos out front before heading inside. I think the bartender spotted me taking pics and shot me a quizzical, if not displeased, look before I entered the restaurant. My appearance was not that of your typical Rue 127 customer, as I was wearing a hoodie and jeans with my flat brimmed ball cap in my hands. Welcomed by the same bartender with a cool, “Can I help you with something?” I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. It seemed a drink was in order as I began my field work.
As an anthropologist, building relationships, establishing trust, and developing rapport is vital to the job description. Needless to say there was some skepticism to overcome as I began to describe the nature of our project. I explained the context of the research: first, as part of post-Katrina recovery and resiliency efforts; and second, in regards to the new business developments and expansions of the Lafitte Greenway. I also assured them we were not reviewers and that our intentions were to benefit the community. That helped.
I think it also helped that I ordered something other than my usual PBR. I ordered a specialty cocktail and we began talking his specialty, specialty drinks. That seemed to lighten the mood. Cisco (the bartender, not the drink!) obviously took a lot of pride in his craft and of the place. He also had just developed a completely new cocktail menu of his own design, including a new batch of lavender infused bourbon (he also does a bacon infused bourbon!). I respected his craftsmanship and began to share a bit about myself and my personal history.
I am a new resident of the Crescent City, having moved here from Seattle some 7 months ago to begin grad school. My previous occupation was as a high-end residential house painter. Yes–interior and exterior; when it’s raining (which is often) we would work inside. It was evident that there was great care and attention to detail in creation of every aspect of this restaurant.
My first impression of Rue 127 was related to my construction background. I commented on the level of craftsmanship unique to the front door. It was the first thing I noticed when I entered; a detailed pane of glass decorating the beautifully stained front door. Somehow these two things, sharing a bit of myself and complimenting the craftsmanship of the door, resonated with the employees and the skepticism vanished. I was then whisked away from the bar by the hostess Ashley and given a tour of the restaurant.
With my background as a painter, she was eager to show off the painstakingly stenciled bathrooms. The owner’s mother hand painted both rooms, including a Fleur de Lis homage to the Saints, the walls of which contained pictures of the Super Bowl championship run and signatures of the players.
I wondered if, because I was an outsider, they wanted to impress upon me their southern hospitality and an authentic New Orleans experience, or if it was a simple connection of recognition and appreciation? Regardless, I was glad to have this new rapport.
I thought of all the tiny things that go on behind the scenes in making a successful restaurant. The personal relationships and community connections that have made up this restaurant row; the history of place and people, and the hard work and love that has translated into every morsel. And I wondered what the future holds for this community and the future of the city’s cultural cuisine. I may not be a native New Orleanian but my first impression is that this is a special place. Rue 127, nice to meet you.
By M. Hendrickson
Establishing Rapport at El Rinconcito
My partner Rachael Horn and I, Mark Paternostro, will be conducting research on three restaurants in the Mid City neighborhood of New Orleans. All three of our restaurants are located on N. Carrollton Ave. between Bienville Ave. and Toulouse St. (refer to the map on the left or here for a larger view).
We chose to carry out research and conduct interviews with three (extra credit, Dr. Beriss?) very different restaurants that happen to be either next to or across the street from one another: a restaurant cluster within a restaurant row, if you will. They are El Rinconcito (218 N. Carrollton), WOW Café and Wingery (231 N. Carrolton #C) and KJeans (236 North Carrollton).
One of the goals of the Restaurant Row Recovery Project (RRRP) is to understand why there are so many restaurants clustered together in this one area. In class, we also noted that, within the Restaurant Row, all of these restaurants collectively seem to be serving a continuum of cuisines that would make the United Nations proud.
On the Row, one can dine at New Orleans’ institutions like Mandina’s, Venezia’s, and Angelo Brocato’s or mix it up at fusion restaurants like Café Minh or Canal St. Bistro or try out some of the newcomers like Yummy Yummy and El Rinconcito (neither of these have websites, sorry bloggers!).
We hope to find through our research if the sheer volume and variety of restaurants on the Row are representative of those who live in the surrounding neighborhood and/or of any demographic changes in the city as a whole.
By researching the history of the area and conducting interviews with the owners of these restaurants, we hope to find out what role they play to the surrounding community and New Orleans as a whole. We also hope to find out in what direction this already dynamic neighborhood is headed with regards to the near-future construction of both the Mid-City Market and the Lafitte Corridor.
February 15, 2012 – Establishing Rapport at El Rinconcito
Rachael and I, Mark, had made plans a couple of days prior to have lunch at El Rinconcito. I arrived first and, in some ways, this was probably for the better because our server, Rosalba, did not speak English and I was able to use my intermediate Spanish to order my food and later ask a few questions.
At first, I just took in the atmosphere of the place itself. There is a sign that lets customers know that to get into the restaurant area it is easier for one to enter in on the side of the building and that’s just what I did. When I entered, a group of Latino men were playing pool to the right of me and there was a very large dining area that was on the left. One of the men that was sitting down handed me a menu and I decided to seat myself.
A few moments later, Rosalba came to ask me what I would like to drink. I asked for horchata but it was not ready so I took a Coke instead. She gave me time to look over the menu and it was during that time I took in some of the material culture found around the restaurant. There were sombreros hanging from a large pillar in the dining area, an outstretched flag that said “Colombia” above the bathrooms, and a few Mardi Gras decorations to be found hanging from the walls and fans. The menu was also a mixture of different types of Latin American foods. The whole menu was in Spanish and I saw everything from huevos rancheros to enchiladas to quesadillas to carne asada and then some.
I decided to go with the Carne Asada (literally translated as “grilled steak”) which also included corn tortillas, lettuce, tomato, queso blanco (I don’t want to call it cheese because that word conjures up a particular image to most Americans. It is literally translated as “white cheese” but its texture and taste are much different than say Cheddar or American. I think it is made from goat milk.), beans, and rice (I list them separately because they were separate from one another unlike the local variety of “red beans and rice”. They also had a much different texture and taste than that New Orleans’ favorite.)
Throughout the meal I had asked a couple of questions of Rosalba. I mentioned to her that I’m a student who is interested in El Rinconcito and the surrounding restaurants and neighborhood. She told me she was new to the restaurant and was from Honduras. She also told me that many of the clients were from many different Latin American countries. I wanted to know if there was someone I could talk to about the history of El Rinconcito in English. She said yes and, later, this became helpful.
As I was thoroughly enjoying a meal that was larger than I had imagined, Rachael and her boyfriend came in to join me on the dining experience. One of the men opened the door for them and they came and sat down next to me. I had told Rosalba that I had two friends on their way earlier and soon enough she came by to get their orders.
Rachael mentioned to me that she liked the relaxed almost homely atmosphere of the place. I wholeheartedly agreed with her. There is something about the light pastel colored walls in each of the dining rooms, our friendly server, the Spanish music coming from the bar, and the group of Latino men playing pool and drinking that seemed to separate us from the busy traffic found right outside the front of the building. After Rachael’s observation, I began to appreciate the fact that the dining area was located in the back and lent itself to this homely environment.
While Rachael and Mac were working on their meals, another lady approached us. She began to ask us in English if we had any questions about the meal or service. I told her that we were students who were researching the restaurants in this area including El Rinconcito. She was very kind and helpful. She told us she would give us the boss’s number and that he would most likely be happy to give us an interview.
After we had finished our meals, Rosalba came back and handed us an El Rinconcito keychain. The keychain has two numbers: one to reach the owner and another for the restaurant. It also says this about El Rinconcito: “No somos los mejores del mundo pero si los mejores del rumbo”.
Before we paid, I had to ask Rosalba one more question. I had no idea what the word “rumbo” meant so I asked Rosalba. She mentioned it’s a Latin American word that is hard to translate to English. I asked her if it meant like the aesthetics of the place or a certain feeling of a place and she said she yes.
Later, we decided to look up the word for ourselves. “Rumbo” actually has many different meanings, but I think the best loose translation would be this: “We’re not the best in the world, but we are the life of the party.”
More to come on WOW Cafe and Wingery and Kjeans… until next time!
Continuing The Restaurant Row Recovery Project
Contributed by: Deyna Cimino
In 2010 David Beriss began the Restaurant Row Recovery Project with a small group of grad students in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Orleans. Two years later Beriss is continuing the research on just what the cluster of restaurants means to Mid City, New Orleans. Our Applied Anthropology class, consisting of mostly undergraduates and a few zealous grads, are once again tackling the question: “What makes it work?” Our class has been paired into groups of two. Each team responsible for two-three restaurants from Little Tokyo to Juan’s Flying Burrito and from Mandina‘s to Café Minh successfully covering the Canal/Carrollton dining possibilities (in case you’re like me and need a visual here’s a map-courtesy The Times-Picayune and Erin Kinchen).
It is our aim to use whatever weapons necessary, whether they are guidebooks, written archives, or our fellow 2010 researchers to do our best in finding out why the restaurant row exists and what keeps it ticking. I, Deyna Cimino, have been paired with Jenny Frerirchs. Our assignment is to research Venezia’s (located at 134 N. Carrollton Avenue) and Lemonade Parade (4709 S.Carrollton Avenue).
Photo borrowed from InthekNOwla.com
Lemonade Parade is a brightly colored shack-styled one-stop-shop for drinks and desserts. Their menu has a bunch of refreshing items to offer so check them out. Venezia’s is an authentic red gravy savory Italian adventure. Looking forward our fieldwork so that I can try their Eggplant Vatican.
Photo borrowed from: hickswrites.blogspot.com
While researching the area for our initial post, I’ve enjoyed the pictures and history that we’re unearthing. My parents have deep connections with the area—as children, young adults, and also during their professional careers. Talking with them about their take on the block, what it used to be and what it is now, has definitely reinforced that New Orleans’ food culture is ever-changing yet manages to take its own comforting shape in past, present, and hopefully future generations. Lemonade Parade used to be Manuel’s Hot Tamales (est. 1933). It was a small roll-down stand where both my parents remember anticipating a hot batch of Manuel’s finest.
So far in our research, we’ve looked at reviews from the Virtual Tourist where user Virtous_Tourist describes Venezia’s as “softly lit and not terribly fancy […]white table cloths share space with plain vinyl chairs, [where] decades old wall hangings set the stage.” Looking at articles about Manuel’s, the restaurant is almost always described as nostalgic, a legend, or as definitively New Orleans. Lemonade Parade feels like their famous “Rising Sun” (a tangerine, orange, banana smoothie) tastes. Their building is bright and screams summertime and sprinkler fun—even in the winter. So far, it looks like they’re living up Manuel’s reputation. GoNola describes them as “nostalgia for all ages.” In a Restaurant Spotlight by InthekNOla.com, Mike and Lori Bettencourtt, owners, explain that they originally intended to make the shop a po-boy shack called The Porch. With smoothies this good, I feel like they made the right choice going with Lemonade Parade.
Jenny and I will work with the rest of our classmates to see how this Restaurant Row fits with the current plans with the Laffite Greenway Project and the Mid-City Market scheduled to break ground as soon as this month and reach completion in 2014. We plan to ask the following questions:
1. What neighborhoods contribute/are affected by the Restaurant Row?
2. How does the Laffite Greenway Project and Mid-City Market compete/assist the established area?
3. Why is this a Restaurant Row?
4. How did it get to be a Restaurant Row?
5. What is the future for the area?
6. How are the restaurants related with the community/ with activists inside the community?
Jenny and I are working up interview questions and are planning to visit both places this week. Hopefully we’ll have interview results for the next blog post (depending on owners schedules). That’s all for now. Handing the torch to Troung. Good luck you guys.
Testing the Waters on the RestRow Blog
This seriously makes me feel as though I have been thrust upon a stage and told to sing a song I have never learned. This is my first blog for anything, ever, so please do not judge too harshly ladies and gentlemen of the classroom.
Hello all, I am Haley and I have teamed up with Claire to focus our part of the Restaurant Row project on Juan’s Flying Burrito, http://www.juansflyingburrito.com/ and Wit’s Inn, http://witsinn.com/. Juan’s is located @ 4724 S. Carrollton Ave. and Wit’s can be found @ 141 N. Carrollton Ave. on each side of Canal St.
In doing research for this first post, I have found lots of interesting information on the immediate Canal and Carrollton area. However, specific information on my buildings has been proving to be more difficult and time consuming. I had hoped to have all kinds of neat and interesting facts to share with you all. Claire and I have already gotten to do our first visit to Juan’s. It was quite fun and we got to speak with some of the staff, take photos, enjoy some of their wonderful quesadillas (I had the Luau, sub chicken for shrimp – to.die.for.!), and enjoy some of their in house margaritas. Juan’s has placed in the top 3 for multiple categories in Gambit Weekly’s Best of Lists for multiple years, Wit’s has even found its way into the press as well.
Pre-Katrina I was a resident of the area. I lived in a duplex at the corner of S. Bernadotte and Cleveland streets. Thinking back on it now, I wish I had been aware of what was to come. Although I did patron several of our assigned locales, I wish I had spent more time at the locations that did not return once the city began to revive its self. I did find a good pre-Katrina website, http://www.gnocdc.org/orleans/4/45/snapshot.html. Perhaps some of you have already seen it. I also found a city tour guide from around 1935! http://www.archive.org/stream/neworleanscity00writmiss/neworleanscity00writmiss_djvu.txt Some of the descriptions of city night life may be giggle inducing. I included it because it does mention a few Mid-City establishments plus it is an interesting read. Good luck to all and I look forward to seeing what all of our research produces! Till next time guys.
Mid-City Development Will Affect our Restaurant Row
A greenway called the Lafitte Corridor (one may read extensively about the project here) will connect five neighborhoods along an abandoned rail line. The greenway will start with a trailhead at Louis Armstrong Park in the Tremé neighborhood and will run in a long line up towards the lake, finishing in a trailhead in the Lakeview neighborhood on Canal Boulevard. It is intended to provide paths for pedestrians and cyclists. It is hoped that it will appeal to commuters and recreationalists, locals and tourists alike. As the greenway appellation suggests, it will also provide more public green spaces within the city of New Orleans, connecting the project to ecological development. The project also hopes to stimulate economic development along the corridor in areas that have lost vitality either post-Katrina or that have malingered for decades as industries moved away from the area.
The Lafitte Corridor will pass directly by our area of research. The planned greenway crosses Carrollton Avenue at St Louis Street, between Conti Street and Toulouse Street. It is at this junction that the Mid City Market is breaking ground for development in the coming months. The Mid City Market will take the place of a defunct car dealership and an abandoned strip-mall style shopping center. It is owned by the Sterling Properties real estate company, and construction will be done by Donahue Favret Contractors Inc. The projected opening is for the first months of 2013. Its anchor store will be a Winn-Dixie grocery store, designed after the company’s model store in Covington, Louisiana. Other businesses that will occupy the shopping center include Office Depot and the local chain Jefferson Feed. Potential restaurants in the shopping center include the semi-local Felipe’s Burrito, Pinkberry frozen yogurt, and Five Guys Burgers and Fries. After negotiation with the mayor’s office, it has been determined that there will be one crossing between the overflow parking lots and the Mid City Market. This crossing will intersect the Lafitte Greenway. The Mid City Market will be working to complement the greenway by including landscaping and bike racks as part of its construction plan.
How will the restaurant row be affected by these two major development projects? Our professor and fellow blogger, David Beriss, has suggested a few outcomes: The local restraints on the Carrollton/Canal Street intersection may see an upswing of traffic as more people are drawn to the area. Conversely, the shopping center’s food court may take business away from our local eateries. It may be possible that the success of the shopping center may drive our neighborhood restaurants out of business as rents rise and more corporate chain restaurants move in.
We will lay the groundwork with our research this semester. These questions will be answered as time moves on – and I sincerely hope that our familiar favorites will continue to cook long into the future.
Information from the following webpages: http://www.stirlingprop.com/site.php?pageID=85&newsID=377 ; http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2012/02/work_on_mid-city_market_is_sla.html ; http://folc-nola.org/
Blogosphere Realizations of a Noobie Blogger
As some of you already know, an on-site (and online) exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum is going to accompany our Restaurant Row Recovery Project. We are working on the possibility of publications in scholarly journals as well. All of this seemed relatively standard for this type of project, but as to how blogging fit into this, I was clueless.
On August 28th I discovered that we had at our disposal an entirely new media format for our project to tap into: blogging. I know this sounds odd since we have been blogging about our project for weeks now, but I never really understood the potential of such an avenue until I attended the 5th annual Rising Tide NOLA New Media Conference. Until that rainy Saturday I thought of our blog as simply a method of providing some chronological feedback on our progress, and as a possible source of topics for further exploration.
Prior to this project I was not a blogger. Until this conference I never truly understood the power, and access, blogging could provide. The new media conference (subtitled A Conference on the Future of New Orleans) changed that.
What I am somewhat familiar with is the jambalaya of emotions that go along with doing field work in New Orleans. Self doubt gets sautéed with shyness and preemptive humiliation to create the perfect discomfort food, and I had a feast before me. What did come as a surprise were the jitters I had about making our project public. The bloggers I met at the conference seemed immune to such thing. In fact, they actively strive to be public.
At this point in my life all of the conclusions and analysis of my previous work remained in a closed academic system, thus lessening potential shortfall fears. The final outcome resulted in grades in a grade book, some brief experiences and encounters with the public, and a new semester of classes. In other words, no harm, no foul. But this project is different; this project is not just for a grade. This project is for adding to the knowledge base of Anthropology, for shedding more light on the role restaurants play in New Orleans culture, and for contributing to the understanding of a New Orleans post Katrina neighborhood recovery. All of this sounds fantastic on paper (and in theory), but how can it become practical? How do we add our findings to the elusive knowledge base? How does our research, and academic fantasizing, make the way from bits of collected data to printed literature and disciplinary journals to public knowledge and discourse?
The bloggers and conference attendees– active and aware citizens – are providing us an alternative answer: new media. Part of the same media some the restaurants on our Row use to tell their own stories (a topic covered on this blog by David Beriss). Key note speaker Mac McClelland of MotherJones.com and author of For Us, Surrender Is Out Of The Question: A Story From Burma’s Never-Ending War, went so far as to say that the rise of “citizen journalist” was evidence that new media was a forerunner to pushing for cultural change and cultural awareness. I came away from this event in agreement.
McClelland also spoke against the recent government, and BP, reports on the amount of oil still present in the Gulf. She argued the oil is not gone and that the seafood and restaurant industry are going to be reeling from this for a long time, a sentiment echoed by two of the restaurant owners I have interviewed. McClelland praised the blogging community of New Orleans for its dedication and passion for the city. The New Orleans blogosphere (and now us, the RRR team, to a lesser extent) are creating transparency and focus to a city in recovery.
Taking this one step further it is now apparent to me that new media can be tremendously useful for future academic recovery projects like this one. Gone are the days of the lonely anthropologist heading off to some far away exotic locale with a notebook and pencil. Technological advances like new media allow us to not only document our ongoing work, but also to achieve a level of transparency previously unattainable. Analysis and conclusions can be viewed as a process instead of an event. Consultation can come from a variety of far away sources, and perhaps most importantly, our study subjects can be involved like never before.
New media is a powerful tool. I am honored to have been invited to the conference, and am inspired to further utilize this avenue for my future anthropological and social justice work. I would like to say thank you to all those who continue to provide the community with an alternative voice.
This House Believes
I dropped in to Kjean’s a few weeks ago to conduct a follow up interview with owners Kenan and Jamie. When I had visited Kenan at the start of our project he told me about all the changes that were coming. He told me that Veal Parmesan was being added to the menu and that he was on his way out the door to go and pick up daiquiri machines. These were his new weapons in the crusade to battle against the affects of the BP spew. I was eager to see how he was doing, as well as a little apprehensive about discovering who had thus far been winning the battle.
When I walked in the door Jamie was taking orders behind the counter. There were customers in line waiting to be helped. I could hear Kenan in the back shuffling fish. There wasn’t a daiquiri machine in sight. In short, nothing had changed. Then I noticed the menu on the wall. When I had first visited Kjean’s the menu had been unmarked, and now it stood as a testament to the affects of the spew.
At first the prices had been marked up. Everything that included either shrimp or oysters was raised in price by several dollars. The menu looked like the sort that had been posted thirty years ago by chintzy owners who had Sharpie adjusted the prices as decades wore on. The problem is, Kenan had had these new menus created just several weeks before the spew. The story of how things went was most clear when I glanced at the oyster platter. First it had gone from $13.95 to $16.00, then it disappeared entirely as Kenan’s oyster supplier closed his doors in early July.
I asked Jamie where the daiquiri machines were. She sort of rolled her eyes and smiled and told me that Kenan does things on his own time. I was a little disappointed, but then I realized that they didn’t seem to need them. Business was strong, customers were in line, and Kenan was so busy that he couldn’t come out for an interview.
As I looked around the seafood house (it really isn’t a sit down sort of place) I noticed the counters that Kenan had shellacked with Saint’s memorabilia. When the Saints had won the SuperBowl, changing decor had been a priority. It was nice to walk the counter and see the photos of our city’s most recent victory.
I also noticed that Kenan and Jamie have a sign hanging over the kitchen door that says “This House Believes”. As a New Orleans establishment that is still battling on, both post Katrina and post BP, this sign takes on a whole new meaning. This establishment obviously believes in the continued success of New Orleans as a whole and as I see happy customers leaving with bags of crawfish to take home for parties, I can’t help but think that the spirit of believing is reciprocal.
Exploring Their Connections
One of the objectives of our Restaurant Row Recovery Project is to try to better understand how restaurants have played a role, if any, in the relationships with, and within, the neighborhood and the Greater New Orleans area.
Obviously, as businesses, they compete to provide a service in exchange for an established price. From the other side, the consumer provides the restaurant owner and his employees a means of financial support. Bottom line is that these are businesses, and profitability is fundamental to their survival. But these local establishments seem almost as dependent upon their relationships as their bottom line. After interviewing some of the owners, employees, and customers of the Row it quickly became apparent that there was much more to this story.
For starters, most of the restaurant owners interviewed by my colleagues and I have described a type of local connection fundamental to their supply chain. Some, like the owner of EcoCafe, actively engage in more grass roots community networking, by striving to buy from local farmer’s markets as much as is absolutely possible. Others like, Paul Ballard, founder and CEO of WOW Café and Wingery, as well as PJ’s Coffee, are supplied by larger firms, but are nonetheless local. Frank, owner of Rinconcito, went so far as to express a sense of loss when he mentioned decreasing his seafood order from local supplier Vincent Piazza, Jr. & Sons Seafood Incorporated due to the BP oil spew plunging the demand for seafood. These all serve as examples of restaurants playing the role of consumer and local patron, but also express how each strives to maintain a connection to place.
The bartender and daughter of Delmy Cruz, owner of Fiesta Latina, echoed what Paul had said about being there not just to make money, but to serve a community in need. This got me thinking about what we, as consumers, need to have in a restaurant relationship. What is it we expect to get out of a restaurant beyond a quality meal? How are those expectations met? I know I enjoy going to the places where I know the staff. Making a connection to the people who work in my favorite haunts is fundamental to it actually becoming one of my favorites.
Paul talked about his amazement with the response to first opening after the storm. He said he had never heard so many heartfelt thank you’s in his life. He recalls seeing people piling their MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat distributed by the military in the wake of Katrina) on the table while they ordered their first familiar meal in weeks. Paul says he will always remember how happy people were to be in one place eating wings of all things. To them, the folks at WOW were heroes. They brought back something familiar. They brought back a little bit of normality and Americana: beer, wings, and college football.
Above all, these examples go to show how restaurants can often play a much larger role in the neighborhood beyond providing substance to an already nourished population base. They can serve as counselors, organizers, entertainers, neighbors, and sometimes friends. Of course, for our study group it doesn’t hurt to have a tasty baseline from which one can operate.
Telling Their Own Story
I will start with the obvious: chefs and restaurants are trendy. Above all, chefs in fancy white tablecloth restaurants have become important players in the making of the symbolic economy (that is the one in which you buy things—a sports car, a zucchini, a house, shoes—because it means something to you, not just because you need it). Eating in their restaurants, reading and watching their interviews and TV shows and buying their cookbooks and other products are all part of the process by which we consumers make ourselves into the kind of people we think we want to be. Through all of the media they create, these restaurateurs tell their own stories and make themselves into who we think they are…and help give meaning to our own dining and cooking experiences.
The process through which some of the more savvy chefs define themselves is fascinating to watch. One of the difficulties faced by social scientists who want to study restaurateurs is precisely that they are great at telling their own stories. They are good at connecting with the desires and ideas that permeate our societies. The stories of chefs’ lives, of the highs and lows of kitchen life, of the creative process in the restaurant, of difficult customers or unusual settings to prepare a meal all help create a kind of template that the rest of us can use to frame our lives, culinary or otherwise.
There are no famous chefs or media stars in our Mid-City restaurant cluster. But there are stories to tell, as we have already documented here. Perhaps more importantly, the restaurateurs are, in many cases, already telling their own stories. They use web pages and social media, along with more traditional media, to create this narrative. Restaurants like Mandina’s and Brocato‘s have quite elaborate web sites, outlining their histories, including pre and post Katrina events, details about rebuilding and links to outside writing or video about them. Of course, they also include menus, addresses and hours as well as contact information. Not all the neighborhood restaurants have web sites (we list those that do on the right side of the blog) and not all of them have extensive information. Some of the restaurants also have Facebook pages and some may also use other social media as well. I am linked to several of them in this way and mostly get regular—and mouthwatering—reports of daily specials.
Still, the media are there and the restaurants are beginning to employ them to do more than simply announce specials. They are using them to tell their stories and thus shape the way we think about them. This is rapidly becoming an important part of how we can think about forces shaping the neighborhood and city. The manner in which the restaurant owners represent themselves through their web sites and social media shapes our knowledge about them and will eventually help contour our understanding of the neighborhood beyond their doors. All of this raises a lot of questions: why do some restaurants pursue this while others do not? (In our study, restaurants catering to recent immigrant populations seem less likely to have extensive web sites, for example.) Who reads the sites and what do they take away from that? As restaurants reach out in this way, are they fundamentally changing the dining experience?
The fact that the people we are studying are telling their own stories through these public representations raises another set of issues as well. What kinds of insights do anthropologists (or other social scientists) have that might be different from or complementary to information presented by the restaurants themselves? If we are going to make our work useful, we have to be able to put the restaurant stories into a broader context. We have to show how the restaurants in our cluster fit into and shape the contours of the city’s broader culture and history. As the summer winds down and we start to look closely at our data, we will be concentrating on this. The restaurateurs continue to tell us their stories, both directly and through their public representations. Our job is to put this together and see if something emerges that gives us new ideas about restaurant clusters, neighborhoods, Mid-City and New Orleans. Stay tuned!