Jazz Fest’s Coolest Spot
Want a cool seat and great eats? Don’t miss the Food Heritage Stage.
One of the best-kept secrets at JazzFest, is a spot just inside the Fairground’s Grandstand where festival-goers avail themselves of air-conditioned, comfortable seats and free food provided by some of New Orleans’ greatest chefs. That’s what you’ll find at the Food Heritage Stage.
Although the festival was originally intended to preserve and promote New Orleans’ music heritage, food was part of the scene from its earliest days. By 1988, many of the event’s food vendors had acquired a cultlike following among fairgoers. Everyone has a favorite item, whether it’s a Vaucresson hot-sausage poor boy or cannoli from Brocato’s, that is an integral part of their festival experience.
That same year, festival director Nancy Ochsenschalger tapped Steve Armbruster to create a new stage showcasing New Orleans’ food heritage. Armbruster had been involved at the festival for years, cooking onsite to feed festival workers during set-up and even serving crawfish pie and file gumbo from a booth of his own for a time.
The original concept was for Armbruster to conduct interviews while vendors demonstrated their festival dishes. Incredibly, the first location was a small outdoor tent erected to the left of where the soft-shell crab poor boy booth is located today.
Although the vendors agreed to appear onstage at specific times, many were too jammed serving food from their booth to be able to steal away, forcing Armbruster to improvise several “demos” at the last minute so the show could go on. The following year, the festival reached out to New Orleans restaurant chefs for cooking demos and the format that continues today was created.
Chef Frank Brigtsen, who was there from the very start, said he remembers cooking in that outdoor tent in a wind so strong a speaker blew over, but the show went on. Thirty years later, Brigtsen is set to return.
“It’s my favorite demo of the year, he said. “I see the same people there year after year and often I see them later for dinner at Brigtsen’s.”
Brigtsen believes a correlation exists between his booming Jazz Fest business and the Food Heritage stage. “The two weeks of Jazz Fest are our strongest of the year,” he said. “The restaurant completely sells out two or three months in advance of the festival. For many, it’s their first stop when they arrive in town.”
Chef Susan Spicer, another longtime Food Heritage participant, had just opened Bayona when she was tapped for her first Jazz Fest cooking demonstration back in the 1980s. While Armbruster’s demos concentrate on Creole classics, Spicer always tries to do something new. In fact, she’s cooked dishes for the first time on stage, a brave feat considering that cooking for the required 100 tasting portions is done on propane burners, without an oven.
Spicer said her restaurant Bayona also receives an attendance bump from her annual Food Heritage appearance.
“They’re a special crowd, more relaxed, with money to spend who love to eat and drink,” said Spicer of Jazz Fest’s crowd. “Bayona’s relaxed dress code has always allowed festival-goers to enjoy a fine meal while dressed in fest attire.”
For its 50th anniversary, visitors to the Food Heritage stage this year will have a real treat. From 1995 to 2005, the cooking demos were videotaped and stored at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest archives in the French Quarter. This year, between demonstrations a compilation of video excerpts will be shown at the stage. Thanks to the magic of video, famed chefs like Austin Leslie and Jamie Shannon will appear again, along with priceless bits from the Krewe of Nutria and the dynamic duo of Goffredo Fraccaro and Chris Kerageorgio, who clowned their way through a giant pan of paella.
So, don’t miss out! Once again seats at the Food Heritage Stage will be cool and comfortable, and the food will be free!
Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, Louisiana Eats! Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM