I spent a lovely Christmas at home, feeling un-guilty. Sure, I had squandered thousands of dollars of my parents’ hard-earned money, but I knew where my future lay. I told myself, “Other students stay in school, feeling miserable and going through the motions. I have found my way!”
I took the bus south from Vermillion to New Orleans. Because I was not longer going to be in school, I had to have my physical in order to satisfy the Draft Board. I had a 242 lottery number, which in any urban part of the country would have meant “No Vietnam”, but in some parts of the country, especially the countryside, boys were being drafted up to the number 365. I wrote a paper and submitted to the Draft Board, proclaiming myself a Conscientious Objector. They replied, “Do your physical. Then we’ll read the paper.” I did the physical in New Orleans, and then later in Melbourne Village; both times, my urine came out positive for albumin, meaning that I had leaky kidneys. Apparently, leaky kidneys are not suitable for battle, so I was given a 4F.
The first day in New Orleans, I was walking down Bourbon Street, the sin capital of the U.S. (after Las Vegas, of course). A man walked up to me and asked if I would like to have dinner with him at his house. I replied, “Sure”. What was going through my head? I was thinking, “Gee, the locals sure are friendly.”
So, that evening, I went to his house. He made some little appetizer and then sat down next to me. I was reading Life Magazine, looking at pictures of the Miss America finalists. He moved closer and put his arm around me.
This was new. I had never approached anyone else in this way myself, but somehow, I knew what was going on. I said, “You know, I’m not gay.” He responded, “You know, I could have my way with you. But since I’m director of the Port of New Orleans, I won’t”. That was my first practical experience with gayness. Of course, I had never dated or even kissed a girl, so I was pretty much androgynous at that point.
I worked at Commander’s Palace from early January to early February. I had purchased a plane ticket for Luxemburg on Air Icelandic. During those four weeks, I received my first real dose of restaurant work. The restaurant had just passed into the ownership of the Brendan family, and there was some question whether they would employ me. However, they decided that since I had arrived, they would let me stay.
At that point in time, Commander’s Palace was a 1950s establishment. By this I mean that it relied on consumers more interested in drinking hard alcohol than in the food itself. Standards had slipped, and the restaurant was doing things that would never pass muster in any famous New Orleans establishment today.
For example, they sold hundreds of portions of Oysters Bienville and Oysters Rockefeller. These were made as follows: the shells were re-used. After every use, they were run through the dishwasher. The oysters were extricated from 1 gallon cans, not shucked. The sauces were glue. For example, the Oysters Bienville were made in large vats. Milk was brought to a boil and a corn starch slurry was stirred in. This was followed by curry powder and blocks of frozen tiny shrimp. I’m sure they tasted good, but I’m also sure the texture resembled glue.
The Oysters Rockefeller were made similarly, except frozen, chopped spinach was added, as was a bottle of Pernod to produce the requisite licorice flavor. When cooled, both sauces were piped onto the oysters, and sheetpans were stacked in reach-in refrigerators.
To order, the oysters were lined up in pie pans of rock salt and popped in a very hot oven. When just beginning to bubble, they were put under the broiler and served bubbling to the customer. I’m sure they were good, but I’ve made far better Oysters Rockefeller by saving the oyster liquor after shucking, sweating shallots in butter, using only a minimum of roux, heavy cream, and only fresh spinach.
Commander’s Palace also served Red Fish Almandine. These were the days before Paul Prudhomme, so Blackened Redfish was yet unknown. Actually, he didn’t make it popular until after he had left Commander’s Palace. Anyway, the fish was fried, not pan-fried, so the subtle textures were lost. Then, instead of a meuniere sauce made in the pan (which is de rigueur), the sauce was simply melted margarine mixed with artificial lemon juice, Tabasco, and Worcestershire Sauce. Dreadful.
Also on the menu was avocado stuffed with shrimp in mayonnaise that was popped under the broiler. I don’t remember what this tasted like. Upstairs in the prep kitchen, an old man boned out chicken thighs and drumsticks for a Chicken Marchand de Vin. Like so many fancy restaurants, Commander’s Palace used only gallon jug wines—a pity.
In the desserts area, an old black lady (who called me “long legs”, rolling her l’s and her eyes) made Crème Caramel and Bread Pudding with a devastatingly good hard sauce. All the old bread made its way into the Bread Pudding.
Although the restaurant was mediocre in quality (at that time), the employees were fantastic. I had never experienced such a family atmosphere, and the restaurant business, with its egalitarianism, where everyone talks to everyone, seemed like an earthly paradise to my unjaded, innocent eyes.
I did not regret leaving, however, because the next adventure beckoned so enticingly. Even though I have never been back to New Orleans, I loved the place—its people, its fetid aromas, its partying atmosphere. But I was determined to penetrate the world of Grande Cuisine. And in those days, the French were considered to be the culinary epicenter of the world.