Out-Of-Town Chefs Make Mark On New Orleans' Restaurant Scene

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Mani Dawes and Sean Josephs started to seriously consider leaving New York City five years ago. The birth of the couple's second child triggered a reappraisal of their living quarters: a two bedroom, fourth-floor Manhattan walk-up.

         "You have to schlep everything up and down those stairs, your kids, your groceries," Josephs explained. "Eventually, we had a car, but you couldn't park in front of our building."

         Josephs paused. "I'm not saying any of this in a complaining way," he said. "It's just that it's a challenge. And here, we have a drive-way."

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         "Here" is Uptown New Orleans, walking distance from Dawes and Joseph's restaurant, Kenton's. Open for just a month and a half, Kenton's belongs to a growing genre of New Orleans restaurant. Members of the tribe are united not by cuisine type but by owners who established themselves in other markets before deciding to open up shop here.

         The restaurants range in style from Caribbean-Creole (Compère Lapin) and punkishly inauthentic Chinese (Red's Chinese) to California-Italian (Paladar 511) and southern-accented New American (Kenton's). Next year, Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman, successful chef-restaurateurs from Memphis, will open an Italian-focused restaurant in the new Ace Hotel in New Orleans.

         "New Orleanians are always looking for a great meal at a great restaurant," said Dawes, a New Orleans native who built her professional career in New York with Tia Pol, a 12-year-old Spanish tapas place in Manhattan. "We just felt that that is a contribution we could make (in New Orleans), that people could come to (Kenton's) and get those things."

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         Of course, New Orleans has always attracted non-natives. It's how the city became home to so many hyphenates (French-Creole, Creole-Italian, NOLA-Vietnamese), and to a dish (gumbo) often held up as multi-culturalism in a bowl.

         New Orleans also has served as a launching pad for plenty of chefs born elsewhere, most famously Emeril Lagasse, a native of Fall River, Massachusetts. And transplants are hardly strangers to the ranks of chefs and owners connected to the Top 10 restaurants in New Orleans over the years.

         Until recently, however, modern history offered relatively few examples of culinary professionals moving here to reproduce success achieved elsewhere, especially without first earning stripes working in the kitchen or dining room of a traditional New Orleans restaurant.

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         Celebrity chefs have never been as attracted to New Orleans as they are to other tourist hubs, notably Las Vegas, and perhaps for good reason. Remember Riche, the Todd English restaurant that opened in Harrah's New Orleans Hotel in 2007 – and didn't last a year? How about Belle Forché, the pan-Creole restaurant opened in the Marigny by a hard-driving chef from Sante Fe (with financial backing from Robert DeNiro) in 2001?

         Rick Tramonto, a James Beard winner from Chicago and co-owner of Restaurant R'evolution, and Aarón Sánchez, a multi-platform chef-personality from New York and partner in Johnny Sánchez, have both ingratiated themselves with locals. They've also both partnered with name-brand Louisiana chefs: John Folse in Tramonto's case, John Besh in Sánchez's.

         Nina Compton fell in love with the city while a contestant on "Top Chef: New Orleans" for many of the same reasons as long-tenured transplants: the joie de vivre, the festivals, the po-boys.

         "It's just packed full of personality," is how Compton described her adopted home.

         Compton is aware that unofficial local custom calls for non-native chefs and restaurant operators to gain the imprimatur of an established chef or business before striking out on their own – the path of John Harris (Lilette), Justin Devillier (La Petite Grocery) and Michael Stoltzfus (Coquette), to name a few.

         Compton and Larry Miller, the chef's husband and business partner, kept in mind the local reverence for tradition, and for the local folks entrusted with upholding tradition, while conceptualizing Compère Lapin, which opened in the Warehouse District earlier this year.

         The menu blends New Orleans and Caribbean influences, the latter a natural for Compton, who was born in St. Lucia and rose to prominence working in Miami. The stylistic marriage allows Compton to own her food and pay allegiance to New Orleans cooking without trying to compete with dishes locals have eaten all their lives.

         "That's why you'll never see gumbo on the menu," Compton said with a laugh. "I will not go there. I don't want people to think, 'Here's this TV hot shot.'"

         She added, "When you grow up with that stuff, it's a very personal thing."

         Tobias Womack opened Red's Chinese in Bywater for personal reasons of an entirely different sort. The Washington native was working in New York in 2008 when Kirsten Brydum, his former girlfriend, was murdered in New Orleans.

         "I had a lot of anger when she passed away," Womack said of Brydum. "We were very, very close. She was a really awesome person."

         Womack, a 2015 New Orleans Chef to Watch, said he spent years in chemically addled despair over Brydum's killing. Finally, Amy Mosberger, the chef's current partner in business and life, came up with the idea of channeling that energy into a New Orleans restaurant, through which he could teach at-risk, unemployed locals a marketable trade.

         The result is Red's Chinese, whose food is inspired by Tobias' days working at Mission Chinese, an influential restaurant with locations in California and New York. One of the three formerly down-on-their-luck staffers working at Red's spent 17 years in prison, Womack said. "Right now he's making crab Rangoon," the chef said.

         Jack Murphy and Susan Dunn came up with the idea to open Paladar 511 over repeat trips to visit Ed Dunn, a longtime Marigny resident and New Orleans restaurant professional, as well as Susan Dunn's brother.

         "It's just a place we felt comfortable," Murphy said of New Orleans.

         Murphy and Susan Dunn had built a success with Pizzetta 211 in San Francisco. With Ed Dunn already entrenched in the local restaurant scene, and ready to sign on as a business partner, the trio saw an opportunity to fill a niche with a more expanded menu of seasonally focused, California-style cooking here in New Orleans.

         "There are a lot of great options for higher-end fine dining in this town, and a lot of great po-boys, but there aren't a lot of options in the middle," Murphy said.

         The transplanted professionals behind restaurants like Paladar and its ilk are fueling the growing diversity of dining options in New Orleans, where the notable opening of traditional remoulade-and-meunière places has slowed considerably in recent years. Their arrival mirrors the city's altered demographics. According to the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University, more than 25 percent of New Orleans current residents have arrived since Katrina.

         And judging strictly by trends in the local restaurant scene, those numbers don't appear likely to reverse anytime soon.

         Both Dawes and Josephs continue to make regular trips to New York to look after their business interests there. (Murphy also makes return visits to San Francisco to look after Pizzetta 211, but less often.) Josephs still operates Maysville in Manhattan, along with chef Kyle Knall, who does double duty as chef and partner of Kenton's here in New Orleans.

         But Dawes and Josephs, who welcomed a third child to their family two years ago, are enjoying the easier life in Dawes' native city. Dawes' mother lives close by, and Josephs' parents are in the midst of an extended stay.

         "Now they're starting to think they want to live here, too," Josephs said, referring to his parents. "Everyone is getting sucked into the New Orleans dream."

         – by AP/ Reporter Brett Anderson with NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune

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