New Orleans revival Bourbon Street

New Orleans Revisited: From Jazz to Jambalaya

Brainy and cheeky. Witty and inventive. Always smoking hot.

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, Susan Skelly returns to a city that is reinventing itself in many unexpected ways. Tap into the Creole/Cajun cuisine, the new French Quarter and see how Downtown is turning into a vibrant metropolis.

Irvin Mayfield has presence, patter and precision. He plays an audience with the same dexterity he brings to the triumphal trumpet over which his fingers float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

It’s Wednesday night at the Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta Hotel. “We’re putting the jazz back on Bourbon Street,” declares the Grammy Award-winning musician, nudging his band into a celebration of “the late, great James Black”.

New orleans irvin mayfield nojo

Irvin Mayfield: jazz man and New Orleans ambassador

Legendary Bourbon Street | New Orleans

Mayfield has been a cultural ambassador for New Orleans since 2003. He has been a kind of musical bridge between the pre-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans and, with the opening this month of the New Orleans Jazz Market, the city’s new world order.

Said to be the first space built for jazz in the Louisiana capital, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) purchased the property in 2013.

Mayfield, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Ellis Marsalis performed at the “groundbreaking” where Marsalis and then 102-year-old trumpeter Lionel Ferbos were named as the first inductees into the market’s Walk of Fame. The $US8m ($10.3m) makeover of a long-vacant department store will provide performance and rehearsal spaces plus a jazz archive. The New Orleans Jazz Market intends to be the bricks-and-mortar embodiment of NOJO’s vision — a home for jazz and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra where the music was created.

“As NOJO artistic director, I wear many hats,” says Mayfield (pictured), “and the Jazz Market will be no different. I worked with the architects on the design and acoustics of the space, and now we are finalising the artistic programs, as well as continuing with fundraising initiatives.”

New Orleans revival city rebuild

New Orleans shapes up as a vibrant new metropolis.

But this is just a sliver of the wealth of development taking place in the city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005.

On the 39th floor of a Downtown high-rise, overlooking a skyline of cranes and lived-in rooftops under a smoking sun, Kurt Weigle, CEO and president of the Downtown Development District, reflects on progress coming up to the 10th anniversary of the hurricane that tore out and stomped on the heart of the city.

“Clearly the most important infrastructure is the $US16b ($20.5b) of federal construction to repair and replace the levees. That is our protection,” he says. “If you look at the one-and-a-half square miles in Downtown alone, we’ve had more than $US6b of private investment since Katrina. I don’t know of another Downtown, save possibly Manhattan, that can boast that level of construction. Within the next five years, we’ll exhaust our entire supply of existing buildings Downtown – everything from that point forward will have to be constructed. Downtown will be more dynamic, a little denser. We’ll be one of the most walkable, bike-able and amenity-rich city centres in the world.”

New bioscience, digital media, and art-based businesses have brought a more college-educated demographic to the city, with expectations of a cosmopolitan lifestyle. The reinvention has also attracted talented, educated people who wanted to be part of the rebuilding, and expats wanting to reconnect with their childhood.

New business New Orleans | Biotech Downtown

“There’s an extraordinarily high demand for Downtown living,” says Weigle. “Occupancy now is 98 per cent. There are 1400 residential units under constructions and another 600 in the planning stages. We’ve doubled the number of people living Downtown since Katrina. In the past three years, we’ve [offered] 1100 high-paying jobs in digital media, and we’ve been rated as one of the top cities in the US for entrepreneurship in general, and for tech-job growth. The part that is really just starting to come on line is the biomedical.”

Weigle points to the new university medical centre on the other side of the freeway. “They’ll be hiring between 1000 and 1500 people on top of those working in the temporary building where they are today. So that’s another influx of folk, creating more demand for amenities, restaurants, shopping.”

Indeed, with the influx of the more well-heeled has come a swag of new restaurants – some 1400 in Downtown alone by late 2014, about 600 more than pre-Katrina. Not to mention a new Tiffany & Co, a hint, perhaps, of luxury shopping to come.

Weigle is particularly excited by the BioInnovation Center, a $US47m ($60.3m) facility that opened in 2011. It’s a technology business incubator that supports life-science entrepreneurs, assisting start-ups that are commercialising cutting-edge research and ideas. The clients have created more than 200 jobs and raised more than $US27m ($34.7m) to develop their technologies.

New Orleans revival BioInnovation Center

The BioInnovation Center is giving New Orleans new tech cred.

High hopes are held for Renaissance RX, a company offering pharmaco-genetic testing that shows how individual patients will respond to specific medications, based on their genetic makeup. The company has made downtown New Orleans its HQ, says Weigle, hiring 425 workers. “That’s a real game-changer for us.”

Film and television producers are moving in, too. Four of the six highest-profile Academy Awards in 2014 went to films shot in New Orleans. A report released in March last year by Film LA showed that the Louisiana film industry in 2013 overtook California as film-production capital of the world: of the 108 major-studio productions released into theatres in 2013, 18 were shot substantially in Louisiana, among them 12 Years A Slave and Dallas Buyer’s Club.

Yet so many locals in this city are war-weary. Seemingly, they just want the 10th anniversary to be over so they can stop reliving the nightmare and focus on celebrating, in 2018, the city’s 300th anniversary. If history will let them.

“New Orleans will always be judged pre- and post-Katrina,” Weigle says. “We all lived it, not for a matter of days or months, but years. And there’s not anyone who lived through Katrina for whom it’s not always there. But you want to move on, to celebrate the good that has come since then, and not focus so much on the sad stories.”

Reporter Chris Rose covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for The Times-Picayune newspaper. In his book 1 Dead In Attic, he floats the New Orleans credo: “When life gives you lemons – make daiquiris.”

Creole/Cajun cooking school | New Orleans cuisine

Amy Cirex-Sins and Mélisande Colomb make gumbo… and jambalaya, bread pudding and pecan praline. The Langlois Cooking School (1710 Pauger Street) in the historic Marigny neighbourhood, is a great way to get under the city’s skin, pick up on some history, hear tall tales, and understand what recipes mean when they say “first make a roux” – the marathon stirring that turns flour and oil into the sludgy, toast-coloured building block of Southern cuisine.

“Finally,” says Cirex-Sins – also a cookbook author, radio host and owner of a B&B in the Tremé neighbourhood – “it’s got to the point where you don’t start every sentence with ‘Before Katrina’ or ‘After Katrina’. It’s taken eight years.”

Concerned Katrina would threaten the South Louisiana way of life, Cirex-Sins decided to preserve the region’s food and culture with a book she called Ruby Slippers Cookbook: Life, Culture, Family & Food After Katrina, celebrating the local food and life after the storm.

To understand the food of the South – and the Creole/Cajun nexus – you need to understand the history. Building on French-colonial cookery, so many nations have contributed to the shopping list. Okra from West Africa, bell peppers from the Spanish, meats and mustards from the Germans, canned tomatoes from the Italians.

new orleans food Langlois Culinary Crossroads

Cooking gumbo at the Langlois Cooking School.

A Creole could be any nationality: French, Spanish, German or African, as long as they were born in the colony. Cajuns were French who had settled in Acadie, the wilds of Nova Scotia, before being driven out in 1755. According to the Langlois team, Creole cuisine is more refined, seafood-centric. Cajun leans more towards the rustic, with wild game, pork and cured and fresh sausages.

Best dining New Orleans | Insider tips

As handy as the recipes and memories you take away from Langlois are, make sure to ask for restaurant tips. There’s nothing like insider know-how. Cirex-Sins’ hit list is: Arnaud’s (813 Bienville Avenue), for the turtle soup and spiced shrimp; Meauxbar (942 N Rampart Street), French bistro meets Louisiana fresh; Peche (800 Magazine Street), a seafood specialist, offering nifty crab claws in chilli vinaigrette with mint, whole fish and seafood gumbo; Square Root (1800 Magazine Street), a pricey, tiny, experimental diner “that’s like watching a food ballet… chefs with paintbrushes decorating your plate – awesome!”; and their mothership, Root (200 Julia Street), “Uptown and more casual, open late. I’d go there for the charcuterie, which is fabulous.”

new orleans Arnauds French75

Toasting the good life at Arnaud’s.

Other rewarding pit stops include Cure (4905 Freret Street) in the now arty Bywater; the Louisiana bistro food of Three Muses (536 Frenchmen Street), whose Aretha Franklenstein signature cocktail comprises a jar of rum, blackberry liqueur, rosemary, grapefruit soda, Rittenhouse rye, and lemon. R-E-S-P-E-C-T indeed!

Add to the list, as much for the theatre and tradition as the food, Antoine’s (713 Saint Louis Street), operating in a former boarding house since 1840, where the owners are fifth generation and some of the staff third generation. A rabbit warren of private rooms includes the McIlhenny Room, a small wood-panelled space where Brad and Angelina are said to dine when they drop by. (Brad Pitt started the Make it Right charity in 2007, committed to building 150 homes in the city’s devastated Ninth Ward.)

Find a table at Tableau Restaurant (616 St Peter Street) on the balcony upstairs, order a rum daiquiri, truffled crab fingers and a plate of fried Gulf oysters with Choron sauce, and watch the music and colour of Jackson Square. Visit the nearby Louisiana State Museum for a history of both Mardi Gras and Hurricane Katrina. And take a stroll the full length of Royal Street for the galleries, psychics, jewellers, voodoo paraphernalia, hats, masks and pralines.

I was last in New Orleans the weekend of August 27-28, 2005. With fellow members of an Australian and New Zealand gospel choir, we hightailed it out of town to Memphis in a fleet of 14 taxis in the early hours of Sunday morning before the storm hit and made lunch out of the levees. It was a memorable weekend: I saw a wedding, a mugging, an arrest. All our gigs had been cancelled because people were nailing shut their shutters, so our choir sang in Jackson Square. We sang The Storm Is Passing Over. We bought stacks of CDs in Tower Records: Dylan’s gospel collection Gotta Serve Somebody, Steve Earle’s Jerusalem, Mavis Staples’ Have A Little Faith.

Expecting to stay put for a couple of days at the Hotel St Marie in the French Quarter, we went out for “emergency” supplies: bottled water, Baileys, paté and brie. We went down to Bourbon Street in search of music and stayed late. It was a freeze-frame weekend. Until you dodge a bullet, it’s hard to fathom the stealth of catastrophe.

New Orleans revival post katrina clean-up

Few were unaffected by the wrath of Katrina and its aftermath.

New Orleans after after Hurricane Katrina

Now, it’s October 1, 2014. On Toulouse Street, in front of the Hotel St Marie, I am sucked back in time to the shady pool where we gathered that weekend in 2005. I can almost see the beer on tap. I mentally replay the stacked Tony Backhouse gospel harmonies – the sopranos, mezzos, altos, tenors and bass men holding their nerve, and their notes.

New Orleans revival french quarter colonial

Great architecture and charm abounds in the French Quarter.

In New Orleans, there’s music anywhere, any time. A nine-piece brass band at Cafe du Monde in Jackson Square to accompany the café au lait and breakfast beignets (fried pastries) with their snowstorm of icing sugar. Horns and hihats are on every second street corner, just like it used to be.

There are afternoon and evening concerts in Louis Armstrong Park, home to Congo Square, where the slaves used to play their music on Sundays. There’s jazz, funk, blues and soul up and down Frenchmen Street (the new groovy alternative to Bourbon Street) and there’s even an art market some nights, from mid-afternoon into the night. Then there are the bookend jazz joints, from the tiny but legendary Preservation Hall in St Peters Street – no bar, no bathrooms, just pews and jazzmen who’ve paid their dues (and will charge you $US20 if you request anything too cringe-worthy such as When The Saints Go Marching In), to the shimmering fabulousness of Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, an island of polish in a sea of ’70s cover bands.

New Orleans architecture | French Quarter

Away from party central, the French Quarter is quieter and the houses achingly picturesque. Bill Coble (of Le Monde Creole) runs a daily three-hour walking tour encompassing courtyards, family histories, stories, old pharmacies, and the crumbling St Louis Cemetery 1, where the most popular attraction is the tomb of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau – and where Nicolas Cage’s pyramidal mausoleum is ready when he is.

Later, Coble points out the house Lenny Kravitz lived in on Dauphin Street. It might look derelict on the outside, he says, but it was a palace inside. “That’s the way people here like to do it,” Coble says.

For all the pain, strain and gain in the past decade, Irvin Mayfield says he wouldn’t describe post-Katrina New Orleans any differently from how it was spruiked before the hurricane trashed the city. It’s a town that still thrills. “New Orleans is my hometown. No matter where I go, I’m always happy to return home. There is truly no place like it in the world. The people, the music, the food and the architecture are all authentic and memorable.”

Source Qantas The Australian Way, April 2015






Editor. Writer. Traveller. Keeping tabs on all things fab.

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