NEW ORLEANS part 1: The film set


So it’s around 9pm and I’m sitting at a bar chatting to the friendly mixologist when a crashing clap of thunder interrupts us. As we turn to watch the downpour we just about make out the thump, thump, thump of a jazz band approaching. ‘Oh, it’s a wedding party’ explains the barman in a relaxed tone. Sure enough, a parade of two hundred or more drunken revellers dance past us, led by a well-drenched bride (pun intended) enthusiastically conducting the band with her sodden lace umbrella. This was my welcome to New Orleans.

I’m here because New York’s food fanatics can’t shut up about the place. New Orleans regularly comes top of the ‘best cities for food’ lists and its influence is impossible to avoid. There’s a new wave of Creole cooking emerging, apparently, and I don’t want to miss out.


It doesn’t take long to get a grasp on NOLA’s place in the US. It may be one of it’s oldest cities but it has never really belonged here. Locals like to say that the ‘deep south’ is well north of Louisiana and it’s easy to see why they’re described as the northern-most point of the Caribbean. They don’t even speak with that slow southern drawl we all like to imitate, probably because the place such a cauldron of cultures, having ping-ponged between the French, English and Spanish for about two hundred years.

N’awlins is in many ways an island, an enclave that has barricaded itself from the rest of the US. This is one place that can never be called a clone city. Sure, Starbuck’s, H&M and the rest of them are here, but very much in the background. At the epicentre, in the famous French Quarter, people are permanently primed for celebration. As if at any moment a street party will burst into life, tuba players and marching bands appearing from nowhere. And they do.

With buskers, beggars and banjo-ers at all hours of the day and night the streets are alive with music. But the sound that so evocatively reminds you of exactly where you are, is the slow, haunting whistle of the mile long freight train as it makes its way alongside the Mississippi. This city really is a living film set.

Too many cities pay homage to their history and heritage. Not so here; they live it. The gas lamps that light the streets are the real thing and you can visit the workshop where they’re still made. The local char-broiled oysters (grilled with cheese) are not some tourist bait, it’s what they eat, everyday. I watched as a young waitress knocked back a dozen on her break, standing at the counter whilst chatting on her cell phone. The masks and hats you see are (mostly) made locally and on a Sunday, Royal Street looks a little like Ladies Day at Ascot. Everyone smokes handmade cigars here, even the babies, and you can watch them being made, and smoked, at the Cigar Factory on Decatur Street. Even the touristy Voodoo stores are a clever distraction from the real Voodoo stuff that goes on underground. But that’s way too dark for this blog.

I’m not sure that the architecture in say, Hamburg, Rome or Madrid tells us much about the local cuisine. Maybe I’ve just not noticed, but here it’s blindingly obvious. The ‘shotgun’ symmetry of the French and Spanish style cottages all dressed up for the parade in their fancy finials and crocheted cast iron, the wooden shutters lacquered in clashing Caribbean colours. This, just like the food, is pure Creole.

In the same way, the history of the food is a crazy French, Spanish and Caribbean tale written by those that had to make very little go a very long way. Seafood is the focus but poor man’s seafood, crawfish not lobster, mixed in a giant pot with sausage and chicken. It’s fried oyster po’boys with pickles and rich French style gravy. And there’s a natural rhythm to it with dirty rice, (rice mixed with chicken liver, beans and lots of pepper) always on Monday’s menu. Everything, of course, is served with a respectful splash of hot sauce: there’s an obsession for it. Stop by The Pepper Palace to witness the thousands of tongue-numbing flavours, if you don’t believe me.

But away from the touristy areas, bright young restaurants, bars and coffee shops are popping up to make sure the city doesn’t lose its cool. This is where hip, reverse-cap wearing young chefs strip Creole food back to its roots in their stripped back warehouses and brick barns. There is no food-truck culture here to speak of, simply because the rents in the suburbs are still affordable enough for start-ups. Just. That nemesis of cool, gentrification, has spread ever faster in the aftermath of Katrina. Probably because all those Hollywood volunteers told their friends what they were missing.

It’s much clearer now why New Orleans has become the foodie’s latest crush. It not just vibrant, it’s authentic. There is nothing wannabe about New Orleans and it’s happy with its peculiar place on the planet. And that’s the urban obsession at the moment: authenticity. As the fast food chains and big brands struggle to reinvent themselves and convince us of their authenticity, here is a city steeped in food culture that never once thought about it.

Coming soon, Part 2: The Food

  Howard Saunders   Jun 01, 2015   Blog, Food, Gallery, Retail   0 Comment   Read More

PETROLHEDONISM: NEW YORK’S AUTO SHOW & THE AMERICAN SPIRIT

Here’s the thing: Manhattan men don’t like cars. I know because they say so loudly in bars accompanied by an effete salute. ‘I know NOTHING about cars’ they chime, as if just breaking sexual stereotypes instantly elevates you above your peers. Women here say the same about cooking. ‘I wouldn’t know HOW to turn it on!’ they proudly chortle in a display of inverted arrogance. So, to hold an international motor show in a city that largely despises the car may seem somewhat odd until you get a grip on its significance. The New York Auto Show is not just a petrol-head convention for out-of-towners, it is the annual visit when America comes to Manhattan.

This show has become a kind of annual barometer that measures how America feels about itself. Obviously, it was never a market for selling practical modes of transportation. The Auto Show is a brazen display of fuel-injected testosterone: who this year has the fastest, biggest, most daring etc. The romantic view of the driver as adventurer on the open road has never really waned in the US, partly because the country still has an awful lot of open road. In Europe our cars have huddled down and ‘hybridded’ up in an admirable attempt look discreet, unassuming and eminently sensible. Not here. The rocket-ship aesthetics of the 60s and 70s may have been tamed over time but the stars of the show in New York still have plenty of mirrored chrome, provocative bulges and yards of leather piping.

The American Automobile carries a weight and significance in its homeland unlike anywhere else and it has retained an openly glorified status that has yet to be quashed by those that know better. The retro-roadsters are not, as in Europe, a tongue-in-cheek design quirk, rich in urban irony. Here they are steeped in meaning. Just uttering the names Corvette, Mustang, Shelby, Buick, Dodge, Cadillac, Lincoln and Chevrolet has a tangible, reverberating resonance that rumbles the gut of America like a Chrysler 8 litre V10 with 640hp at the back wheel.

And just as hem lines rise when the economy perks up, so the dropheads step into the limelight like forgotten Hollywood starlets, and there are plenty to choose from in 2015 with the Ford GT 50th Anniversary edition (yes, 50!) as Queen Bee.

But I like to watch the crowds, the families failing to control their hyper-active children and the old men reminiscing loudly over distant four-wheeled love affairs. For this show gives us a glimpse into the soul of America where, despite a myriad of failings and broken dreams, there still purrs an engine of optimism, primed and ready to hit the open road.

  Howard Saunders   Apr 09, 2015   Blog, Brand, Gallery, image, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

CHRISTMAS SHOPPING IN NEW YORK

No city drinks in the festive spirit like New York. December is when Fifth Avenue can be herself once again, overdressing for the party with glittering lightshows and dancing crystal to out sparkle the world’s best. Here, Christmas starts the morning after Thanksgiving, so with only four weeks to go shoppers don’t become holi-jaded like in other cities that have been decked out since late August.

And a million shoppers also remain remarkably good humoured. As they battle through the crowds in the brittle-bright winter sun to the soundtrack of the Sally Army bell ringers (in full sidewalk jive) it’s as if everyone is just happy to be here. The Book of Mormon need not have tried to convince us (so hilariously) that this is the true promised land, for New York has become the very heart of Christmas. After all, so much goodwill was forged right here on the streets of Manhattan beginning with ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ via ‘Scrooged’ and ‘Trading Places’ right up to ‘Elf’. If New York is the heart of Christmas then at the foot of the Rockefeller Center, overlooking a thousand furry-hatted skaters, the hundred foot shimmering spruce is surely its epicentre.

Perhaps it’s because New York is still young enough to believe, for there is little trace of cynicism here. Every store joins the party and the avenues are ablaze with seasonal celebrations and world class windows. From chain store campaigns and luxe-brand displays of artsyness, through to the finely sculpted creativity of Bergdorf’s, Saks, Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Fishs Eddy, ABC and many, many more, New York at Christmas is, ultimately, a month long festival of optimism. Long may it reign.

  Howard Saunders   Dec 16, 2014   Blog, Brand, Gallery, image, Retail   0 Comment   Read More

THE EATALY PHENOMENON

Back in 2007 I was lucky enough to witness the beginnings of a quiet revolution. On the edge of Turin, in the Lingotto district, an old vermouth factory had been transformed into the very first slow-food supermarket and all very seductive it was too. Every section of the old factory had become a local food specialist: pasta, pizza, cooked meat, deli, fishmonger, cooked fish, vegetables, gelato, wine and cheese rooms all stitched together with some elegant architectural glazing to create a somewhat chaotic but authentic Italian whole. Eataly was born and I don’t think that truthfully anyone understood its importance.

Once the crowds started to arrive it made much more sense. This was no gourmet supermarket, this was a giant eating space, a foodhall. Hundreds of locals rushed in like the tide to sit at the various bars, watch the food being cooked and chat to their friends over lunch. Ridiculously simple and yet somehow unique. And then, within an hour or two they had all rushed out again, only to return in the evening. Each food counter would have a choice of two or three dishes (at most) and everyone glugged on either water or the local Barbera wine. ‘Can we have this in London please?’ I remember saying to my foodie companion.

The next day we were taken on a tour of the Slow Food University (actually called the University of Gastronomic Sciences founded by Carlo Petrini) and watched in awe as bushy tailed students leant their retro bicycles silently against the ivy clad walls.

The slow food movement is a gentle but reactionary backlash against fast food culture and the commercialisation of food and yet it has given birth to one of the most ferociously ambitious food brands ever.

Three years later we came to the launch of Eataly New York. ‘How can you possibly graft this gentle concept of local food onto Manhattan’s crazy fast-food grid filled with pizza and burger joints?’ I asked myself. I did not wait long for an answer. Like the first gush of espresso steam any doubts evaporated almost instantly.

Yes there are tourists, lots in fact, but they rub shoulders with the locals and the out of town visitors and the business lunchers standing at the high tables and at the food counters. They pack tightly into the central ‘piazza’ because they all want exactly the same thing: real food. They want the reassurance and the satisfaction that they are eating as good as it gets, and they’re happy to pay for the privilege.

Eataly oozes quality, authenticity and expertise so after a couple of decades of health warnings its timing is perfect. Don’t get me wrong, it can also be a hell hole when at peak times there really isn’t enough room to wave a small salami above your head, but that’s exactly the reason we must try and understand it.

 

As the supermarkets wage yet another discount price war at one end of the market and as the fine dining tablecloths look increasingly out of place at the other, Eataly offers us something real. And what’s more we want to share it with other like minded, slightly frustrated souls. Look at a supermarket. What does it tell us about what we truly want? It tells us we want it cheap and quick. Eataly, by contrast, reminds us that alongside quality we also want something the supermarkets long ago forgot: community.

The supermarkets still expect us to struggle up and down their silly long aisles before we get to unload onto the conveyor belt, pack, load into the car and unload again. No wonder online grocery is doing so well.

For the sake of balance, it’s not perfect at Eataly. The sense of it living right on the edge of chaos still pervades, as if at any moment, like a highly strung Ferrari, it might just go pop. There are signs too that the single minded Farinetti vision has become slightly blurred: the wine lists are over-long, the menus seem to get longer too. Some of the staff have even started to show signs that dealing with the crowds has become a bit of a chore…and this can be very dangerous.

Barely a block from Manhattan’s Eataly is the brand new Fairways supermarket. On the plus side it has an instore baker, a fabulous selection of cheeses, an olive oil bar and even a lunchtime sandwich counter. The problem is that the staff are so miserable that it’s difficult to use. Let’s hope that as slow food gathers momentum it stays happy.

The news that Eataly will be taking a big slice of Westfield’s food space at the new World Trade Center means New York will be the only global city with two Eataly stores! I’m assured that it will not simply replicate the Flatiron offer so it will be fascinating to see how the brand develops and what else they bring to market.

And so, the Eataly train just keeps on rolling: Rome, Chicago, Istanbul, Milan and despite all the cultural differences, the various diets and doubters there is one very reassuring, binding factor that simply must be true: the love of real food is universal.

  Howard Saunders   Jun 24, 2014   Brand, Gallery, Retail   0 Comment   Read More