By Lia Picard
Atlantans looking for an easy weekend getaway can find it in New Orleans, just a one-hour flight away. Although the 300-year-old city is deeply rooted in Catholicism, it’s home to more than 10,000 Jews.
Since the rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, New Orleans’ dining and cocktail scene has flourished, and the city is home to some of the most lauded restaurants in the country. Not surprisingly, a few of the hottest establishments are under Jewish leadership.
David Slater is the chef de cuisine of Emeril’s, the flagship of Emeril Lagasse’s restaurant empire. Though he’s a native of Canada and of Russian ancestry, his heart fully belongs to New Orleans after he has lived there more than a decade.
His destiny as a chef wasn’t immediately apparent, and he dabbled in a couple of majors before realizing the traditional university life wasn’t for him. With a look at his upbringing, though, it all makes sense. Slater comes from a family of food enthusiasts and home cooks. His father is the ultimate foodie and is even more up on the trends than Slater.
He’s not the most observant Jew, but Slater finds a connection to the religion through his social network.
“I’m friends with all the Jewish chefs in town. We all migrate toward each other,” Slater said.
His most meaningful experience with the New Orleans Jewish community wasn’t in New Orleans at all. In 2011, he and three other New Orleans chefs, including Alon Shaya, went on a trip to Israel sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.
“The Jewish Federation invited us to cook our way from one end of Israel to the other. So we all went, bonded with each other, and just had an amazing time cooking and getting back to our roots,” Slater said.
The pinnacle of the trip was when they cooked for 300 hungry Israel Defense Forces soldiers in the Golan Heights, an experience that Slater will never forget.
Not content with keeping Israel in his memories, he drew inspiration from the cuisine and brought some of the flavors into Emeril’s kitchen.
“When I was in Israel, one of my favorite things was taking french fries on the street and dipping them in tahini — it’s one of the best things in the world,” Slater said. Now you can order char-grilled hanger steak served alongside tahini roasted potatoes and a cumin vinaigrette.
Emeril’s is in the same spot where it has been since 1990: in a renovated pharmacy warehouse in the Warehouse District, just a bit outside the French Quarter. If you’re lucky, you might see the restaurant’s namesake himself. Lagasse is a foodie at heart and a hands-on boss and has a habit of jumping into the kitchen from time to time.
In a trendy part of town about three miles from Emeril’s sits the sophisticated cocktail bar Cure. Opened in 2009, Cure was the first establishment in what has grown into an empire for Neal Bodenheimer.
Bodenheimer is a native of New Orleans, but, like so many native sons, he strayed before finding his way back. He earned his stripes in New York, working behind the bar of prestigious restaurants, and knew he was meant to create finely crafted tipples.
After Katrina, he said, he was compelled to move back. “I think a lot of people from New Orleans felt that no one was going to rebuild New Orleans for us.”
His return to the city was triumphant with the opening of Cure. Even though New Orleans has a storied cocktail history (you may have heard of the Sazerac), it’s also a city where boozy drinks called Hand Grenades are available on each corner of Bourbon Street.
Cure was different from the type of bars people were used to in New Orleans, and Bodenheimer spent the first year “retraining the guests.” That meant showing patrons there’s more to cocktails than Bacardi and Coke.
“There’s tremendous cocktail history in New Orleans that’s been rediscovered the past 10 years,” Bodenheimer said. Classic cocktails were being made but not necessarily made well. “People just needed a spark.”
Cure was one of the first places to open in a part of Uptown called the Ferret Street corridor. Every friend and family member told Bodenheimer he was insane. “You’re going to lose all your money,” they would say.
The area had been economically depressed since the 1980s, but to Bodenheimer it made sense that it would come back.
If you go, make sure to pair one of the cocktails with the bar snack platter — a delicious spread of duck liver pâté, homemade pimento cheese and marinated olives.
A little bit closer to the Mississippi River but still Uptown, you’ll find Shaya. A modern Israeli restaurant, Shaya received almost instant accolades and culminated its first year of business by winning a James Beard Award (the Oscars of the food world). It’s led by Israeli Alon Shaya, and while he has an interesting story of his own, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Zachary Engel, represents the next generation.
Growing up with a rabbi for a father and parents who lived on a kibbutz in Israel, Engel was bound to love Israeli food.
“My parents always fostered in us a strong connection to Israel,” Engel said. “My dad would make schnitzel and Israeli salad at home and, as much as he could, grill kebabs and shishlikh (skewered meat) on our grill in the summertime.”
After graduating from Tulane University, Engel got his first taste of cooking Israeli food on a professional level at Zahav in Philadelphia. His appreciation for the cuisine and country grew when he took a summer vacation in Tel Aviv and rented an apartment in the Shuk HaCarmel. Wandering among the markets, butcher shops and watering holes left him with an impression of Israel and its people that was nothing short of magical.
What Engel took away from his Israeli trips he brings into the kitchen at Shaya and serves in the form of artfully prepared dishes. The most popular items include the falafel and smooth hummus with unusual toppings such as king trumpet mushrooms served alongside freshly baked pita.
The dish Engel would love to see people order more of, though, is his take on sabich: fried eggplant served with fermented, curried mango sauce and soft-cooked eggs in a pita with all the fixings. “It’s vegetarian but one of my favorite things to eat late night in Tel Aviv after a night out.”
It’s nice to see these food and beverage craftsmen in the small Jewish community standing out from the pack, in part because of the beautiful ways their connections to Judaism spill into their work. Their establishments are just a few shining examples of the dynamic dining scene in New Orleans and are all worth visiting.