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Truckin’

May 25, 2010
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First off…John Besh! John Besh! One of the nicest guys ever to open a buncha restaurants. And he cares about using Louisiana ingredients in his food. And about the environment. *swoon*

plop

Oh, crap, she’s out.

“Hey! Wake up! Get this in your head: he ran a want ad for staff at Luke that had brasserie spelled as ‘brassiere’ for weeks on end.”

Whoa! Okay! Where was I?

“Don’t know, except I don’t think you meant to talk only about John Besh.”

Oh, that’s true. I meant to talk about Janette’s next career move, from out of the upscale restaurant fires and into the streets.

“Well, get on with it. And sit down.”

So she’s had to close her place indefinitely. She’s selling off what she can, taking the money she gets from that, and some other funds that arrived too late, and investing in an operation out the back of a trailer. Taking the show on the road, as it were – but only within the New Orleans city limits. Lower overhead, same mad cookery skills. Can’t keep a good chef down.

Not that running food service ops out the back of a truck is anything unusual…it simply used to smack of something lower class. Check the folks selling stuff out of coolers, the backs of their vans, the trunks of their cars at the second lines. Even some grills resembling the one Janette got are in evidence as a parade passes; it’s just part of street life here when it struts its stuff. Some of that out-the-van food has become legendary in its own right – touted as countering the effects of too much alcohol, perhaps, or as providing a little homemade sweet to help keep your feet in motion. If you feed them in this town and do it well, folks will not only come, they’ll keep coming back.

Of course, there are pitfalls to this approach, and, this being Louisiana, some of those pitfalls show us and our authorities at our prejudiced worst. If someone who got flooded out wasn’t doing it themselves, or if volunteers weren’t doing it, a large number of the people who came to do the nasty dirty jobs of gutting and remediating houses were from south of the U.S. border, and some of ’em got the bright idea to bring the taqueria eats to the hungry workers. Problem is, the taco trucks overstayed their welcome in Jefferson Parish as far as the politicians there were concerned and had to get rolling elsewhere.

And apparently, even the ones that have been welcomed to Orleans Parish by hungry partiers here aren’t having an easy time of it, either:

According to (Ruben) Leite, all he wants to do is operate a food cart, just as Lucky Dog is able to do. City officials have cited him and shut him down so many times he can’t count, and for a wide range of differing reasons.

“One day a guy comes from the Fire Marshal,” Leite says. “He asked me, ‘Do you have a fire suppression system?’ I’ve worked with trucks for more than 20 years; I’ve never see this! In New York, no place! Just New Orleans.”

He had to shell out $2,500 per truck (he has six) to install the systems. He went from having 18 employees to just four. “I fired everybody because I cannot work,” he says.

Another time, a police officer came up and insisted he was selling seafood, and needed to shut down. Apparently, it is illegal in New Orleans for street vendors to sell seafood at night. The problem was, Leite wasn’t selling seafood at all.

Sometimes, police would come up and ask him if he has paid his taxes. He keeps his information handy, just in case. A friend of his owns property on Frenchmen, a little driveway squeezed between clubs. He gave Leite permission to park his truck on the property and sell his food at night, but the city shut this down as well.

Leite likens the city codes to the Bible. “Not to disrespect the Bible; I am Christian,” he says. “But you can find anything in the Bible. You want to kill somebody? Look for something; you can find it. Same thing with city codes.”

The street life is risky, even if a cook looking for work hitches her trailer to places such as Bacchanal and cooks up several storms. Here’s hoping that Janette can negotiate the slings and arrows of slinging her cuisine out of her trusty trailer.

And as for John Besh and all his restaurants…

Oh, crap, here she goes…

…my husband has eaten in all of them. Shouldn’t there be a prize for doing that? Like, say, Besh’s cookbook?

“Or maybe some string-pulling coming from Besh if Janette runs into trouble, huh?” *eye-rolling*

Is it too late to get that into a Treme script?

“Dream on, lady.”

Update: Ray says it’s “You can’t keep a good cook down.” My bad.  But Janette still has the moves.

38 Comments
  1. May 25, 2010 5:06 pm

    Another blogger-derived story? That was what Craig did after his cheese business and before J’Anita’s wasn’t it?

  2. May 25, 2010 5:34 pm

    I thought “Treme” might be referencing the Que Crawl truck, which started to park outside Tip’s after the storm and became the restaurant Boucherie.

  3. liprap permalink
    May 25, 2010 6:56 pm

    Really, fellas, I’m not as interested in what Treme writers could be referencing by tacking Janette’s story in this direction as I am by where this one could go. She could well have an okay time of it, get her finances in order, and reopen her old place, or there’s a whole lot of other shit that could go down while she’s stoking the fires on that trailer.

    However, if anyone does have some insights into culinary success stories or cooking struggles born of the streets of New Orleans, feel free to share.

  4. May 25, 2010 7:09 pm

    We had dinner out back at Bacchanal, Kim, Michael, Robbie & Tricia Vitrano & I. It was Robbie & Trish’s recommendation. It was spring ’08, and I can’t remember a nicer evening, ever. The food was wonderful, but the ambiance was completely off the chain. I almost remember who was cooking (despite my total culinary uneducatedness). It was someone who used to be the chef at ????? (one word, I think) before it closed. Kim might remember (or R or T, if they’re lurking here). Watching that on Treme was strange and made me miss y’all too much.

    The whole high concept mobile food thing is huge in CA, often supported by Twitter broadcasts of locations. Finally, I had no idea Besh was so gorgeous (see above uneducatedness reference), what a sweet face.

  5. May 25, 2010 7:14 pm

    I still don’t understand why the restaurant closed. She was packed. She didn’t flood. Very few places that managed to reopen after the storm closed. In fact, it was shocking how few closures there were.

    Was talking to a chef who also thought it seemed odd. He said loss of business payout coverage was basically automatic and would been paid out by December. Anyone else know if that’s true?

    She did mention a balloon payment, though, so maybe she just got squeezed at the wrong time.

    I know, it’s fiction. It’s just hard to stop comparing “Treme” to reality.

    Boucherie is the main story that I know of chef using a food truck to launch a restaurant. A few taco trucks led to fixed restaurants, but that’s another story entirely.

  6. liprap permalink
    May 25, 2010 7:30 pm

    The man IS easy on the eyes, but he’s already taken. 😉

  7. May 25, 2010 8:32 pm

    Coming from Besh, was his comment “you can’t keep a good cook down” (as opposed to chef) an inadvertent insult? I know some people think it’s a bullshit distinction and some respected chefs would rather be known as a cook first (Bourdain, maybe), but coming from Besh it sounded weird, and Janette kinda hung her head at the comment.

    As far as chefs not making it and having to do something different, didn’t Craig Geisecke struggle a bunch until he paired up J’Anitas with the Avenue Pub? I remember following his story on NOLA Metroblogs but I don’t remember details any more.

    Also, the location where Desautel’s was filmed is the former location of Nardo’s, which went under in 2007-ish, and Felix’s Prytania location right around the corner failed as well.

  8. liprap permalink
    May 25, 2010 8:51 pm

    Nah, I don’t think it was an insult, Ray. He sent the Top Chefs to her place. He’s complimenting her on her ingenuity and toughness.

    And yeah, Craig and Kimmie went from a trailer to the LGD location that just can’t (that block they were in has had so many failed restaurants there, it’s like some eatery nexus of the universe) to the Avenue Pub within a few pre- and post-K years. If it wasn’t the storm, it was the location, or the recession.

    Or it’s just a damn hard life being a cook. Even a good cook.

  9. May 25, 2010 9:07 pm

    Yeah, I also thought there was an insult implied by the “cook” line. Then again, Besh supposedly sent some of the best chefs in the world to Desautel’s, so within the universe of “Treme” you have to think he admired the restaurant and the chef.

    J’Anitas opened some time after the storm. Can’t remember how long after.

    It’s true that Nardo’s is a rare example of pre-storm place that reopened and then closed. I never went after the storm, but it was shaky before. I gave it a mixed review in Gambit. After the storm it changed concepts and approaches a few times, if I remember.

    Felix’s was planned pre-storm but opened after.

    Not to get bogged down in details, but I do think there is a larger point. How much of a duty does “Treme” have to faithfully represent New Orleans? Although it became a bit of a cliche, the strength of the restaurant industry after the levees failed was extraordinary. Lots of people wrote about it. In fact, if memory serves Lolis himself wrote a story with that theme for either Gourmet or Food Arts.

    Desautel’s, because it’s the only restaurant we really see in “Treme,” inevitably makes a larger statement about the fate and struggles of New Orleans restaurants after the levees failed. Does it matter that the story it’s representing doesn’t square with reality?

    It’s really hard for me to approach “Treme” as just a TV show and judge it purely as fiction. Maybe it’s just because I live here and lived through those times. Or maybe it’s because “Treme” is fictionalizing a story that is still very much unfolding.

  10. The Central Scrutinizer permalink
    May 25, 2010 9:48 pm

    Not an insult at all when among friends. A thousand years ago I worked a saute station, and remember that “cook” implied that the person was all about the food; “chef” got trotted out when ego or status was involved.

  11. May 25, 2010 9:55 pm

    It might have been ’07, and I’m just looking, in my dotage, anyway.😉

  12. May 25, 2010 10:04 pm

    You talking about Pete Vazquez, Sophmom? His Brazilian stuff was Goooooood.

  13. greg p permalink
    May 25, 2010 10:42 pm

    I just came here to suggest it might be referencing Pete Vasquez and his restaurant, Marisol, which never reopened after the storm. Pete did exactly what Jeanette is doing, but I can’t remember where he did it. I believe he’s in Colorado now.

  14. brueso permalink
    May 25, 2010 11:07 pm

    Doubt ‘cook’ was meant as an insult- the casualness of it was actually a reflection of how much it was meant in the opposite way.

    The thing I thought was going to happen was Davis was going to lend her some of that fat cash he was getting for his CD to get her re-opened.

    As far as the person who said “Can’t understand why she closed”, someone else has pointed out that there isn’t always a huge amount of profit involved, and she was already $70k in the hole for a new roof and walk-in fridge. As far as ‘paying the staff’, though, I did wonder how much she’d be paying anyone besides Jacques- for the restaurants I’ve known, the help got minimum wage and their real $$ was in tips. But all the same, I’m willing to simply accept that it wasn’t working.

  15. liprap permalink
    May 26, 2010 6:54 am

    Sometimes, the shit just happens. “Hurricane Katrina changed all that”:

    http://www.noodlepie.com/2006/01/chef_wants_job_.html

    And yeah, Soph, Vasquez was cooking at Bacchanal, but only on Sundays. Not really a way for a cook to pay the bills. His ultimate farewell to New Orleans is here.

  16. May 26, 2010 8:15 am

    I think Pete Vasquez grilled outdoors at a French-named place in the Marigny on Sundays(?).

  17. May 26, 2010 8:38 am

    Pete Vazquez and Marisol. Forgot all about them. Marisol wouldn’t really be a model for Janette’s restaurant, since it never reopened. But Pete was the original chef with a grill, wasn’t he?

    If I remember correctly, he started the Sunday meals at Bacchanal.

    Liprap, if you’re looking for clues to where Janette might go, Greg is right. Things didn’t work out for Pete. If they actually take a cue from Pete Vazquez, the story could get weird. Last I heard, he gave up cooking and trained to be some kind of armed bodyguard. Janette is a bad ass, but it’s hard to imagine her with a gun.

    In the week just after Katrina, I remember talking to Pete by phone. He stayed through the storm and was in Algiers Point. I can’t remember the details, but he was trying to get the word about some need they had in the city. I was trying to find out what was up and leverage some national media contacts I had to help him our. It’s a little fuzzy now.

    What I do remember quite clearly is Pete telling me about the Algiers Point residents forming armed posses to “protect” the neighborhood. Maybe he’ll be back in town soon as a witness at a federal trial.

    http://www.thenation.com/article/katrinas-hidden-race-war

  18. May 26, 2010 8:44 am

    Marisol wouldn’t really be a model for Janette’s restaurant, since it never reopened.

    Fiction, people, fiction! Remember? Janette could be 50% modeled on 17 different chefs, 20% modeled on Kaiser Wilhelm, and 30% pulled out of Eric Overmyer’s ass during a malaria dream.

  19. May 26, 2010 8:46 am

    Labor costs rose dramatically after the storm.

    On the one hand, the low-income population had the hardest time coming back for a host of reasons. They were the people who worked a lot of restaurant jobs. I seem to remember stories of even dishwashers getting $8 an hour at some point.

    On the other hand, the resiliency of the New Orleans restaurants also drove salaries up on the higher end. As I said, it was astounding how few places closed and how many kept opening. There was a lot of competition for talent. One prominent chef told me that he had to give a big raise to his sous chef so that he wouldn’t leave. The sous had been with him for years before the storm, but loyalty alone wasn’t going to keep him in the kitchen.

  20. liprap permalink
    May 26, 2010 9:06 am

    Frolic, we do have to keep in mind that, ultimately, this is fiction. Got to just watch and learn at this point.

    But that last link in my last comment is an adieu from Vasquez in 2008 saying he’s heading back to D.C. It’d be hell on wheels to hear he’s coming back to testify about the citizens’ posses in Algiers…it wouldn’t be the way I’D want to come back here.

  21. May 26, 2010 9:09 am

    Not an insult at all when among friends.

    Yeah, I thought that might be the case, that’s why I asked. Figured there are enough cooks/chefs reading that y’all would straighten me out.

    Thanks.

  22. greg p permalink
    May 26, 2010 10:05 am

    “Good cook” just sounds better, too. All those nice hard ejective K sounds. Put “chef” in there with those sissy silibants and it just flops around like gasping goldfish.

  23. May 26, 2010 11:15 am

    You’re right. Fiction. Fiction. Fiction. It’s hard to remember that sometimes.

    At the time, I didn’t know whether to believe Pete or not. Didn’t know him well. And even at that early date, it was clear that plenty of people that stayed were blowing smoke about how bad ass they were (Sonny wasn’t the only one).

    Of course, he didn’t say the groups were targeting African-American, as it alleged by that Nation article (not sure, but I think there is also a federal investigation). But I was not surprised when reports came out about armed bands of residents patrolled the area. That squared with what I’d been told.

  24. May 26, 2010 11:33 am

    S’all right, it’s easy to get it all tangled. Even the WSJ today said that Susan Spicer is based on Janette:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704113504575264393038546032.html?mod=WSJ_hpp_sections_lifestyle

  25. virgotex permalink*
    May 26, 2010 12:29 pm

    Running a restaurant – any restaurant – anywhere – is a risky business. In most markets, your chances of failure are higher than your chances of success.

    Someone at Besh’s level probably has a group of investors underwriting his enterprises, cushioning him from the kind of economic turbulence that sank Janette, whose only investors appear to be her parents.

  26. May 26, 2010 1:26 pm

    The “cook” vs. “chef” insult discussion is further evidence that the Food Network has now strayed into MTV territory in affecting popular culture. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

  27. May 26, 2010 1:39 pm

    The restaurant industry is very, very turbulent. Most don’t survive 5 years – and that’s being packed almost every night with locations in cities without a massive flood and overnight depopulation to worry about.

    If you order too much food, you’ll have to throw some away. If you order too little, your menu gets scuttled in the middle of dinner. Your menu may not be priced right to create the margin you need over cost to keep the business running. Some nights you have to close because the power goes out or the gas stops coming under the burners. Costs are never stationary. There is nothing approaching “routine”…

    So. Many. Things.

    Matter of fact, I’m twitching just reading this thread.

  28. May 26, 2010 2:09 pm

    Virgotex: It’s actually a myth that restaurants are particularly risky business. About 60% fail in the first three years, which is in line with other small businesses.

    http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/apr2007/sb20070416_296932.htm

    It’s interesting that this report says the primary reason restaurants fail is lack of attention from owners. They cite issues like family turmoil, but I figure rebuilding a house would also count.

  29. Scott Harney permalink
    May 27, 2010 10:38 am

    Just in case it’s not clear to folks reading this thread. J’Anitas reopened as the kitchen inside the Avenue Pub and that combination seems to be working quite well. Seriously, if you haven’t had the “Redfish Sammich” or “St Chuck Duck” you are missing out big time. The fact that you can have them with any one of dozens of craft beers doesn’t hurt either.

    Is it lunch time yet?

  30. liprap permalink
    May 27, 2010 10:43 am

    Dammit, Scott, you’re making me hungry, and I already had breakfast. Sheeit.

  31. May 27, 2010 11:08 am

    Oh yeah. Off topic, but J’Anita’s at the Avenue Pub rocks. I was there Monday for lunch.

    In fact, the food is even better than when it was on Magazine Street. Craig has some old favorites from the original location (like that fish sandwich), but he just keeps coming up with killer and creative bar food. And Avenue Pub has the best beer in town.

  32. May 27, 2010 2:47 pm

    Oh, that fish sandwich is divine. Fell in love with it the first time I walked into old J’anita’s. I❤ the Avenue Pub (w00t Shiner Bock), too, but once had a bad encounter in the ladies' with a roach bigger than me and have flashbacks each time I go back there. (I love all creatures great and small, but can't stand roaches. Will sprint for miles to get away from one.)

  33. greg p permalink
    May 27, 2010 4:01 pm

    Yeah, I’m afraid I’ve seen a few more roaches than I’m completely comfortable with at the AP. Big Palmetto types, which generally wander in by accident, but still GHAAA JESUS HELP

  34. May 27, 2010 5:28 pm

    Marisol is exactly the name I couldn’t remember. It was Pete Vasquez. It was an exceptional evening.

  35. Craig permalink
    May 28, 2010 7:14 am

    To set the record straight, I pulled my BBQ trailer up at Harrison and Canal Blvd. at the end of October 2005 and served six days a week until just after Carnival 2006, when they started cracking down on permitting. We moved operations to our destroyed cheese-smoking operation, which flooded and had lost its roof, on Lafitte Ave. in Mid-City for a couple of months. The out-of-the-way location (plus the fact we had no interior walls and only intermittent electric power) didn’t last long — and we ran into permitting problems again because there was no way to keep the place secure and as clean as the law requires.

    We cleaned up, got the permits and tried to bring the cheese-smoking back but just didn’t have the cash flow. It cost like $2500 to fill a $6K order and we just couldn’t front that kind of money even though we had plenty of backed-up orders. I signed on with Dick & Jenny’s until about the end of ’06, then nailed down the location for J’anita’s in the spring of ’07. We opened J’anita’s on Magazine in Dec. ’07, the moved it to The Avenue Pub in April ’09 because the overhead was too high at the Magazine location.

  36. liprap permalink
    May 28, 2010 7:21 am

    Thanks, Craig! Good to see you over here. And, as you can see from the comments, we’re damn glad y’all are still cooking. Be well.

  37. brueso permalink
    May 28, 2010 1:24 pm

    When I lived in N.O., the Palmettos always threw me, and especially my wife at the time who was from N.Y. and was particularly wigged out by the bugs since in NY if you see them, it means you’re probably in a somewhat messy area. We were living in a shotgun uptown, and every morning before she would step out of the bedroom, I used to have to do a quick ‘sweep’ of the premises to see whether any dead ones were lying around so I could dispose of them before she saw them. I used to bombard the area pretty well with bug spray.

    I noticed when I visited last March that the Joy Cinema on Canal is closed- I remember going there once and seeing a palmetto through the glass in the popcorn bin.

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