Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Mardi Gras Mambo

Mardi Gras Indians
"Down in New Orleans where the blues was born, it takes a cool cat to blow a horn" Those are the opening lyrics to the song "Mardi Gras Mambo" Here is a sweet version: Hawketts do Mardi Gras Mambo. I have a long history with New Orleans and I just woke up and felt the need to share on Fat Tuesday 2012.

I graduated from the University of Colorado in May of 1985, after I went and helped my mom move from Massachusetts to Mill Valley California, the plan was to move back to Philly and find a job. Once arriving, my brother Jon and my cousin Adam had begun crafting a plan to take one of our families restaurant locations in Bala Cynwyd, and turn it into our own place. They made a deal with our uncles, which let us get in for a very small investment, and then they decided that we should do a Cajun-Creole restaurant as the cuisine was very popular, we all loved it, and there was only one other similar place in the area at the time. Also a high school friend, Max Hansen, was cooking at Manhattan's premier Cajun-Creole place, Memphis. The very same Max Hansen who later founded Max & Me Catering. So we drafted Max and began researching how to do an authentic version of New Orleans in Bala Cynwyd. Adam came up with the name Bala Rouge, and we took trips to NOLA to gather art, music, recipes and food and beverage suppliers.

I am pretty sure we opened on November 17th 1985, the date my daughter would be born seven years later. It rained every day the first two weeks we were open, needless to say business was slow. We had planned to open slow to get the kinks out and then begin doing promotions after the New Year. We were very close to pulling the plug, but in January we began to get reviews and they liked us. Daily News, Stan Hochman review
We had live crawfish flown in from NOLA 2x a week! Nice.
We then planned a series of Mardi Gras events leading up to a big party on Fat Tuesday. We started booking live music a couple times a week, Reverie (featuring Gerald Veasley on bass!) and Mitch Williams were two favorites. The good reviews kept coming: Inquirer review, and we were suddenly doing well enough to start drawing small salaries. We served great food and made lots of people happy for almost two years. There was a substantial offer to buy the place so all of us decided to move on in September 1987. Some of the menu items we were known for included: Pecan Snapper, BBQ Shrimp, Blackened Redfish (of course), Catahoula Crab Crepes, Excellent Gumbos, Fried Oyster Caesar Salad, and Adam's great homemade Southern Desserts. We had a long varied specialty drink menu with many New Orleans classics including Sazeracs, Hurricanes and Ramos Gin Fizzes (or as Justin called them "egg thangs"). Oh yeah, we had a friend record us great tapes that we played constantly, our theme song became "Mardi Gras Mambo"

FONO Poster
Fast forward to 2008 and my next major NOLA project. As I was exiting Max & Me Catering in March of that year, I was offered a consulting position to work on two major parties for the Democratic and Republican Conventions that summer. The client was the Friends of New Orleans (FONO), and the parties were to be held at two very special venues, the Fillmore in Denver (2500 guests) and First Avenue in Minneapolis (1800 guests); where much of Prince's Purple Rain was filmed. The purpose was obviously for raising funds and awareness for Katrina relief. The event producer had been a long time client and friend and had the idea that instead of paying a caterer, he would pay me to coordinate all the food that was donated from NOLA, find a kitchen, hire local staff and bring in a few of my best catering folk from Philly to help run the events. I got to work with some great culinary professionals during the course of producing these events including Ralph Brennan a great restaurateur, Pierre Hilzim, owner of Kajun Kettle Products and Cade & Ingrid Nagy from Catering by Design in Denver. Here is a culinary focused press release about the FONO events that appeared on The National Restaurant Association's website: NRA website post. I calculated that we saved FONO close to $150,000 by doing the catering this way.

Minneapolis' Iconic Concert Venue 
The music for these events was an incredible ensemble of the best of New Orleans. One of the musical highlights was Randy Newman doing Louisiana 1927, here's an actual clip from the event: Randy Newman FONO benefit Denver. There was also a reunion of the Meters, Mardi Gras Indians opening the show and singers Irma Thomas, Marcia Ball and Marva Wright, among dozens of other artists. It was a very uplifting project and I was very happy to be a part of it. I have to mention my right hand person for the whole shebang, and I could not have done it without the interpersonal and organizational skills of Jen Stitz. One of the nice by-products of doing these events was it gave me a methodology for essentially creating a catering company outside of my home area. We reproduced this type of arrangement in DC for a few Obama Inaugural events. It also gave me a nice template and resources to create New Orleans themed events.

When in NOLA, visit Ralph Brennan's Restaurants
For authentic New Orleans ingredients and prepared items go to: Kajun Kettle Foods

What other way to end this post than to say, for today, laissez les bon temps rouler!