'International Influences on New Orleans Cuisine': NOLA History in Six Courses

[Photos: Erin Zimmer]

"We want to tell a story with New Orleans cuisine," said chef John Currence, one of the men behind the phenomenal "International Influences on New Orleans Cuisine" dinner at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival.

"The story of the special crazy-ass gumbo that is that city."

Which means not only the French, Spanish, and modern American elements to the cuisine—but German, Sicilian, African, and Vietnamese, as well.

We talk about America as a melting pot, but in few cities does that ring so true as in New Orleans. So five Southern chefs with deep ties to (and an abiding love for) the city—John Besh (Restaurant August), Michael Gulotta (his chef de cuisine), John Currence (City Grocery), Brian Landry (Borgne), Alon Shaya (Domenica), and pastry chef Kelly Fields (Restaurant August)—put together a tribute to the many cultures and cuisines that've shaped the cuisine of New Orleans and evolved within its traditions.

John Currence (& Cala)

John Currence frying cala on the balcony.

What did that mean, in one meal? Currence paid tribute to Leah Chase of NOLA's Dooky Chase—"one of the most culturally significant African-American restaurants in the country"—with a take on her green gumbo, served over a sweet potato salad rather than rice, "another gift to our cuisine from Africa."

Michael Gulotta, chef de cuisine of John Besh's Restaurant August, grew up in New Orleans "eating hogs-head cheese on a Triscuit," and took that idea in a German direction, from the starting point of a calves' head salad that Besh's culinary mentor served in the South Black Forest. (With lavash crackers because "uh, it's really hard to make Triscuits.") Brian Landry's hors d'oeuvres ranged from fried oysters Amandine to a nod to Italy, tuna over an Italian artichoke salad. Vietnam met New Orleans in a lemongrass-accented crawfish cavatelli.

Alon Shaya introduced me to a hybrid cuisine I didn't know existed—Sicilian–New Orleans Italian. And Kelly Fields brought together the city's Southern all-American roots and its fine dining tradition with the most sophisticated banana pudding I've ever seen.

Blue Fire

Torching marshmallow for the banana pudding dessert.

The wines, poured by Stephen Satterfield (of the International Society of Africans in Wine), told their own story; all South African, that country's history reflected a cultural collision and racial struggle that Satterfield felt paralleled that of New Orleans, wines that "no one in America could drink before 1994, but are finally starting to play a role on the world scene."

Check out the slideshow for a look at the German, Vietnamese, Sicilian, African, and modern American takes on the rich cuisine of New Orleans.