Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Robert St. John: Legends and Icons

 The chances of being in the presence of genuine, iconic, living, breathing, legends are few and far between, if ever at all. I don’t have many regrets in life, but I had several chances in my late teens to see blues master, Muddy Waters. The same goes for Willie Dixon. I passed at the time because I assumed there would be other likelihoods. I once gave a friend my Stevie Ray Vaughan concert tickets because I wrongly supposed that there would be plenty of other opportunities to see that guitar giant in upcoming decades. He died in a helicopter crash several months later.

There are some artists I could have seen, masters even, who were alive during my lifetime, but I had yet to appreciate their music during their era. I would have loved to have seen Louis Armstrong in concert in the 1960s. The same goes for Miles Davis, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington in the 1970s.

My mother dragged me to see a touring production of “The King and I” in my late teens. If you would have asked me that day, I would have told you there were a few thousand other things I would rather have been doing than sitting in the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans watching a musical. Thankfully, she made me go and I was able to see one of the 4,625 performances of Yul Brynner’s king, in one of the stage’s most iconic roles.

I’ve seen almost every rock act I have wanted to see in my lifetime except the Beatles. Of the people I consider true American icons, I have seen Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, and dozens of others.

In the culinary world, I have checked a lot of chefs and restaurants off my list over the past 40 years from Paul Bocuse to Thomas Keller. I’ve shared a couple of breakfasts with Julia Child and Jacques Pepin and have met and visited with many others. Restaurants and chefs hold just as iconic place on my wish lists as entertainers and musicians.

I have always considered myself blessed to have grown up, and lived, 90 minutes from New Orleans. For the past several years, I’ve been a part-time resident of the city that most consider to be one of America’s top three restaurant destinations.

Though I have often been guilty of chasing the shiny new culinary distractions and occasionally disregarding the classic icons of the New Orleans culinary scene. Early in my restaurant career, when I was in the kitchen every day and working as an active chef (something I haven’t done for decades), all my go-to restaurants on New Orleans culinary research and development visits were places that were on the cutting edge of new culinary trends.

I had grown up eating at all the old-line restaurants, and in the 1980s and 1990s, I was doing everything I could to soak in all the knowledge about where the industry was headed at any given moment. When it comes to food and the restaurant business, looking forward is not always the best move. Sometimes visiting back yields more inspiration and appreciation.

One day in the early 2000s, as matter of time and convenience, my wife and I zipped into lunch at K-Paul’s. It had almost been 20 years since I had eaten there. It was not on my restaurant to-do list as I, at that time— very foolishly— looked at Chef Paul Prudhomme as old news (my close friends will know how painful it was to type the previous sentence). We sat down and ate one of, if not the, finest meals I had ever eaten in New Orleans. It was seriously perfect in every aspect. At the end of the meal, I just sat in my chair, mentally kicking myself for taking such a great restaurant off the to-do list in favor of the newer, trendier, shinier places. In that moment, I revised my thinking and added many of the old-line mainstays back into the rotation.

Over the past 20 years, I have wisely kept those heritage places in my rotation and near the top of my New Orleans Restaurant To-Do list of re-visits. Thanks to that new dining paradigm I ate at the Bon Ton during their final week, I visited with Prudhomme a few months before he passed away, And I dined in the Upperline a few weeks before the global pandemic shut it down. I had always assumed JoAnn Clevenger would reopen. But after learning of the restaurant’s permanent closing last week, I was grateful to have dined in one of New Orleans’ great neighborhood restaurants, run by one of New Orleans’ greatest restaurateurs.

After Ella Brennan’s passing several years ago, Clevenger became the grande dame of the New Orleans restaurant scene. The Upperline, a favorite of mine since the 1980s, was a classic Uptown restaurant whose dining room was skillfully managed by Clevenger. But she was much more than a dining room manager. She was a master restaurateur in every interpretation of the term. One doesn’t have to work a line shift in the kitchen to create a great dining establishment. Most great restaurants don’t put the owner behind the line.

In the months after Hurricane Katrina, our staff and management at The Purple Parrot (another Covid casualty) got to know Clevenger and her husband, Alan Greenacre, as they spent a lot of time at their farm near Columbia. They were Monday night regulars who spoke highly of our soft-shell crab and— according to one of our managers— “ [Clevenger] was just as gracious and effervescent as a guest as she was a host in her own restaurant.”

Every time I ate at The Upperline over the years, her dining room demeanor was always affable, calm, and confident. That’s not always an easy task to pull off in a hectic restaurant environment. She did it with the ease of a pro, which always let me know that everything— from the dish stewards to the chefs, to the bartenders— was being handled and the place was always spinning in greased grooves.

JoAnn Clevenger was— and is— most certainly a genuine, iconic, living, breathing, legend of the New Orleans restaurant scene. The Upperline will be missed, and I am reminded, once again, to never get distracted by the shiny things, lest I miss golden opportunities to be in the presence of greatness.


Crawfish Cardinal

A staple from my catering days. This can also be spread on slices of French bread, topped with shredded cheese, and baked.

3 Tbl unsalted butter
1 /4  cup shallots, minced

1 /2  cup onion, chopped fine
2 tsp minced garlic
3 Tbl all-purpose flour
2 Tbl tomato paste
2 cups heavy cream
1 /4 cup white wine

1 /4 cup sherry
1 Tbl lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1 /2  teaspoon salt
1  tsp Creole seasoning

1 /4 tsp black pepper
1 pound boiled crawfish tails, rough chopped
1 /4 cup green onions, chopped
1 Tbl parsley, chopped

In a large sauté pan, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add shallots, onion and garlic and cook, stirring often, until soft, about three minutes. Add flour and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add tomato paste and cook one more minute. Add the wine and sherry and cook 3-4 minutes. Whisk in the cream, lemon juice, salt, and Creole seasoning and cook for 6-7 more minutes. Stir often to prevent sticking. Add crawfish tails and cook until warmed through, 2 to 3 minutes.

Sprinkle with the green onions and parsley just before serving.

Serve with French bread croutons for dipping.

Yield: 1 quart


Anonymous said...

Do you have any BB King?

Anonymous said...

Got to see Altar Bridge at the fair a couple years ago by chance. Never figured that ! I would recommend to anyone who loves "rock" music to check out Mike Tremonti's band. Good gawd ...what a talent in every way !

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy these columns.

Stuff About ZeroBear PolyBear said...

Great dish and story Robert. I too, have missed incredible opportunities to see performers I later regretted missing through my own stupidity.

Chicken and Crawfish Rolls with Spinach and Mushrooms:

- 2-4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, pounded flat (put fully thawed breasts between pieces on plastic wrap and beat then with the bottom of a flat bottomed pot until they flatten out.

- 12 ounces Crawfish (Frozen crawfish in a bag work well as long as the are USA product and not from China. Chinese crawfish taste like muddy ditch water.

- 1 cup raw baby spinach leaves, chopped

- 1 cup whole mushrooms, sliced very thin

- 1/2 cup shallots, diced

- 1 cup parmesan cheese

- 1 cup mozzarella cheese

- 1/2 cup cooked pork sausage, crumbled and well drained

- Splash of white wine

- 1 Tablespoon minced shallots

- a few slithers of fresh mushrooms

- 1 Tablespoon butter

- 2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

- Some butcher's string

- 2 or 3 servings Angel Hair Pasta


Season breasts with pepper and a little Lawry’s garlic salt and then layer mozzarella cheese, spinach, shallots, mushrooms, sausage and parmesan cheese on top of the flattened breast.

Season with a light dusting of Creole seasoning, carefully roll the breasts and tie with a piece of string.

Cook the rolled breasts with a little olive oil in a hot sauté pan, rolling them as the sides brown until all sides are cooked. Cook slowly enough that the inside ingredients cook. This was not difficult as all of the ingredients cook quickly and the sausage was already cooked.

When the portions are cooked, remove them from the pan and deglaze with a little white wine, add a tablespoon of minced shallot, a few slithers of mushroom and a pat of butter.

This makes a good sauce to go over the chicken, which is plated on a little angel hair pasta.

Serve with crusty bread, a cold beer, and a green salad.

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy Robert's column and recipes. New Orleans is a shadow of what it used to be. Husband and I spent a day there last week. Many restaurants are closed, perhaps to never reopen. Damage from Hurricane Ida is evident everywhere with lots of blue tarped roofs and closed streets. Even Central Grocery is closed and boarded up. Orleans Parish requires a Covid vaccination card to enter restaurants which is fine with us since we are vaccinated. It was depressing.

Anonymous said...

Upperline was soooo good. Very much missed.

Recent Comments

Search Jackson Jambalaya

Subscribe to JJ's Youtube channel


Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS.

Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS