French cooking has always put a strong emphasis on quality ingredients and New Orleans’ French restaurants are no exception. Several French chefs in the city are using local and sustainably grown vegetables, fruit, and meat in their dishes to both enhance flavor and promote sustainability in the restaurant industry.
A former French colony and home to a distinctive creole culture, New Orleans has been cooking up some of the nation’s best traditional and contemporary French food for centuries. However, only recently have chefs started taking the ingredient-driven principles of French cooking and uniting them with the recent movement towards sustainability. The result is a delicious handful of restaurants serving locally-sourced, seasonally-fresh food to the New Orleans community.
Chateau du Lac is located in Metairie, about fifteen minutes from the heart of New Orleans. There, owner and classically-trained French chef Jacques Saleun cooks traditional French cuisine from high-quality, locally sourced foods. “It’s all about getting a good product on the plate and making it as simple as possible,” notes Chef Saleun, whose mission to highlight his ingredients causes him to shy away from the more “frou frou” aspects typically associated with French cooking. Chateau du Lac sources its pasture raised, humanely treated beef and lamb from Two Run Farms in nearby Mississippi. Seafood is procured from gulf waters through New Orleans Fish House and whenever possible, the restaurant purchases produce from a farm just across the lake.
At the moment, Chef Saleun is taking advantage of the creole tomatoes that are in season by featuring them in his daily specials, salads and sauces. “I don’t understand why a product has to travel 1,200 miles to get to the table… but that’s the absurdity of American consumption right now,” shares Chef Saleun. The restaurant also works to minimize its food waste by using any vegetable or meat scraps to make soup stock for the next day.
Another New Orleans French dining institution is Café Degas, which buys fresh local ingredients for both taste and logistical reasons. Co-owned by Jacques Soulas and Jerry Edgar, the rustic, airy café squeezes heaps of authentic bistro charm in an impressively small space. Given the storage constraints, Café Degas purchases all its food fresh from local vendors each morning. The restaurant highlights local seafood and seasonal produce in its daily specials, and has kept diners coming back for more since 1986. LocalEats rated Café Degas as one of the top 100 restaurants in New Orleans, and in 2010 New Orleans Magazine rated it French restaurant of the year. “People think French restaurants are pretentious and snobby,” Soulas said. “We were trying to be simple, accessible and affordable.”
While some restaurants practice sustainability through farm-to-table sourcing, others like Cochon go even further by pursuing the table-to-farm route. Critically acclaimed Cochon restaurant works with NOLA Green Roots to turn their pre-consumer food scraps into compost for use at local community gardens. “It keeps a lot of volume out of the dumpster, for sure,” remarked long time hostess Bambi Ray. “And we just really liked the idea of being a green restaurant.” The restaurant also contributes to several charitable causes, and supports the Edible Schoolyard Program, which helps schools build interactive gardens and plan healthy cafeteria menus.
In July 2013, the New Orleans Green Restaurant Group launched to unite restaurants interested in pursuing sustainability and linking them to resources and to each other. And this past weekend several French restaurants noted for their sustainable practices – including Chateau du Lac, Café Degas, Dijon, Le Foret, and Redemption – were featured at the New Orleans Picnic in Paris Summer Wine Festival organized by the French Chamber of Commerce- Gulf Coast Chapter. As chefs recognize the value in pursing green practices – and as more eaters seek out local, seasonal cuisine – the New Orleans sustainable dining trend looks as if it is here to stay.