How do we quantify food?
It’s a question I’ve always wanted to have answered, but we’ve found somewhat difficult. Afterall, food is fundamentally not a numbers game. What it comes down to, at the end of the day, is subjective taste, the chef that’s in that day, and a million other factors that cannot reliably be predicted.
At least, that’s what I thought before travelling to New Orleans.
As I crossed the bridge from Lower Orleans into the so-called “Old Quarter”, I was dazzled. I’d been to London, Paris, Brussels, Rome, and even the metropolis of Peking, but all of them paled in comparison to the bustling metropolis of the Big Easy.
The city is built upon a swampy foundation. Keeping the city from going underwater is a daily and titanic struggle, a complex system of retaining walls, reservoirs, pumps, sewers and hydraulic beams keeping water out, and preventing the super-towers from sinking into the mud. It is this engineering marvel that has led to some terming New Orleans “The 8th Wonder of the World”.
19th century brownstone and 21st century steel-and-glass skyscrapers tower on every side, taking up every available inch of land. People of every color and creed sit outside, laughing over coffee outside the bistros that line the street. Providentials, Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Shiaa, Sunni, Jewish, Hindu churches and temples sit happily across from each other - and I could’ve sworn I saw a Priest, a Rabbi and an Imam walking into a bar.
Nouveau Orleans is seemingly at the forefront of modernity, a melting pot of humanity in the shadow of technological wonder. Except, that is, till you come across one small building at the edge of Canal Street. On either side and behind it is a single monolithic building, the Banc de Deux, one of the largest financial firms in the world, all sleek glass and steel. But this building is all wood and brick, with a balcony overhanging the sidewalk. It doesn’t go higher than three stories. This “L’Esprit du Sel”, and it has a line stretching around the block.
A young First Nations woman is waiting for me outside, and happily escorts me in when I show her my press credentials, past the slightly disgruntled looking people in queue.
I’m sat down in a dingy booth across from one of the fattest men I’ve ever seen. Pierre le Rocher is bald, but you wouldn’t know it - he seldom takes off his Chef’s cap, even when outside the restaurant. His magnificent handlebar mustache gives the distinct impression of a walrus, and his stained apron gives the distinct impression of a slob.
Even as I sit down, he’s not looking at me. He’s got his eyes trained on someone way across the restaurant who’s photographing their cellphone.
“Never did like those things” he chimes up in his thick Acajun “Tried to get them banned from the restaurant, but the staff outvoted me.” He chuckled. I asked him what his problem with phones was.
“World’s moving too fast. Technology’s fine, but when folks are spending more time looking at their food than enjoyin’ it…” He shrugs.
Pierre le Rocher seems an unlikely candidate to run the most acclaimed restaurants in the world, but here he was. Under his guidance, L’Esprit du Sel (already the oldest restaurant in New Orleans) flew up the reviews, finally getting rewarded the most coveted prize in the gastronomic world: four Giacometti stars.
The first course is the chef’s personal favorite, sea-food gumbo. He lifts the spoon up, and wafts the steam to his nose. “You smell that? You smell that spice? Used to be that was incredibly expensive, but with the recent Ceylon referendum, they’re dead cheap now.” He takes a sip from the spoon, and closes his eyes, as if to savor it. I asked him what he thought of the referendum.
“It’s wonderful. More flavors out on the street” he laughed. “But when they come here, they gotta remember when they come here: they can’t just take the Old Country with them. Ils sont Louisiane maintenant.” I asked him what he meant by that.
He shrugged his shoulders, and said “Idn’t that the whole idea behind this place? We said “Sucks to the King, we’re not French: we’re Louisianian. We’re French too, but we’re also American, Spanish, German…”
His view of history, while not the most rigorous, is more or less correct. The Louisianians broke with the French crown in the wake of the 7 Years War over taxation and Indian raids, launching a revolution and establishing a republic.After the French Revolution brought many immigrants from the France, Louisiana began a campaign of expansion and settlement. As it grew, incorporating more and more people, and more and more immigrants arrived from Europe and east of the Mississippi, it adopted an identity as a multilingual, ethnically boisterous republic.
Our second course is a rump steak that, I’m told, was cooked by a recipe brought over by first-generation French immigrants 20 years ago.
“It is what makes Louisianian cuisine so magnificent” Pierre explained. “We take in the best from every people of the world, with open arms.”
Something like that may seem subjective and too poetic an explanation as to why the country’s food would be the best, nevermind the idea that it is objectively the best. And yet, the numbers seem to bear out: not only does Louisiane have more Giacometti stars than any other nation on earth, of those that do, the restaurants are disproportionately run by immigrants.
Our final dish, the Napoleon. Named for the third (and some would say best) Consul of Louisiane, this delectable treat was enough to convince me: the greatest food in the world was to be found right here in La Republique de la Louisiane.