When Jazz Fest releases the “cubes” each year, eager beavers begin mapping, plotting, and GPSing their way around the grounds. But real fans of Jazz Fest know the only real planning you need to do is deciding what you are going to eat.
Especially if you are a chef. Jazz Fest crowds can make or break a restaurant’s year, so many chefs can only get out to the Fest for one day if they get there at all. If they make it out, though, they make sure that they make it count in the flavor and calorie departments. They come to eat, and they eat well, so pay attention.
Carl Schaubhut is the New Orleans-born and raised chef who moved to Florida after Katrina, where he opened Fire Restaurant. He knows his way around the festival, but he only gets one day at Jazz Fest a year. While Crawfish Monica and alligator pie are definitely on his list, he must seek out and devour a Cuban sandwich every year. “It is beautiful because it is simple,” Schaubhut explains. “Nicely roasted, juicy pork, salty ham, perfectly melted cheese, crispy bread, and zing of the mustard and pickle.”
Schaubhut’s sandwich of choice goes perfectly with another Jazz Fest staple for him: ice cold beer. Beer also figures prominently in the meal plan of Chris Lynch, chef at Meson 923—a new Warehouse District restaurant— as well. He and his friends camp out near the Acura soundboard and whenever someone gets up, the group collects money and tells them not to come back unless they have beer and something good to eat.
A duck flying south stops to eat in the marshes of the Delta, but when Lynch steps foot on the grounds, he makes a direct assault on six or seven crawfish pies. He will eat them in quick succession doused in Crystal hot sauce. That is his moment in the sun. But Lynch is always looking for a new taste. Seeing Vietnamese offerings like spring rolls and bun last year for the first time reminded him of his first trip to Jazz Fest in 1996, “I had no idea what Jazz Fest was, and I remember being blown away by the food,” he says.
The breadth and depth of food offerings at Jazz Fest is explained no better than by the grand dame of Creole cooking, Leah Chase: “You go to other festivals and they have rinky-dink foods like corndogs and hamburgers. Jazz Fest is unique because it serves food-food.”
For Ms. Leah, that means the absinthe-flavored oyster Rockefeller bisque or a hot sausage po-boy from Vance Vaucresson. Be mindful, though, that calling it a hot sausage po-boy will brand you as an outsider. To Chase, the proper nomenclature for any self-respecting Creole is a chaurice po-boy.
The roux doesn’t splash far from the pot, as her grandson Dooky Chase, also loves the po-boy from Vaucresson. But Dooky, who now runs the kitchen of the restaurant with the same name, cannot go to Jazz Fest without also devouring a crawfish enchilada or fried soft-shell po-boy from the Galley. Dooky likes the latter because “the bread is so soft, but the crab is fried so that it is perfectly crispy.”
About that soft-shell po-boy, Ms. Leah adds, “it perfumes the whole grounds with the heavenly scent of seafood frying.”
Sometimes though, the classics just win out. Jared Missy of La Boca rarely makes it out to Jazz Fest, but when he does, a fat loaf of crawfish bread is a must. The much-loved Jazz Fest staple has legions of fans and has become a guilty pleasure for some. All that bread does help give one the energy to play in the sun for hours on end.
At Aaron Burgau’s restaurant, Patois, the kitchen deftly turns fresh Louisiana products into creative and delicious culinary masterpieces. But at Jazz Fest, he only has eyes for meat pies. The hot and crunchy shell and spicy filling make him wistfully remember high school days spent sneaking into Jazz Fest through the cemetery. Burgau buys a brass pass now, but still reaches for that meat pie. Plus, he adds, “They will always give you heartburn, just a little pain in return for the pleasure.”
To combat that heartburn, Burgau, along with Schaubhut and Lynch, makes sure to bring in a special supply of rum or vodka. That way they can turn the PG strawberry snowball, mango freeze, rosemint or mandarin ice tea into an R-rated beverage. Consider the secret revealed.
No matter what you decide to eat this year, you will enjoy it. For one, you are outside and food always tastes better outdoors. Second, you, unlike Warren Stephens, chef/partner at Cochon Butcher and Calcasieu, are not at work. “Jazz Fest?” he asks. “I haven’t been to that since probably 2002.”