Paul Freedman, Yale history professor and author of the new book Ten Restaurants That Changed America, appears on the 6th episode of our podcast: Fullness. We spoke with Paul about epic feasts at Delmonico's in Lower Manhattan, what Schrafft's restaurant meant to its female clientele in New York City and how restaurants fostered social change nationally. One of the influential places from his book that did not make it into our discussion is the venerable and fascinating New Orleans French Creole restaurant Antoine's. So, with Paul's permission, an excerpt from that chapter follows.
While not quite the oldest restaurant in the United States, a distinction enjoyed by Boston’s Union Oyster House founded in 1826, Antoine’s is by far the oldest grand restaurant in continuous existence. Over its long history, the restaurant has been run by a single family, descendants of founder Antoine Alciatore. Established in 1840 in the French Quarter of New Orleans, close to its present location on St. Louis Street, Antoine’s exemplifies the magnificent but endangered regional culinary heritage of America. It has described itself as a French restaurant for almost all of its history, but has actually created dozens of original dishes and made use of the unique ingredients and cooking style of New Orleans.
With fifteen dining rooms, Antoine’s size is surpassed in our list of ten restaurants only by that of Mamma Leone’s and the Rockefeller Center branch of Schrafft’s. Its décor and culinary style are historically evocative, and the restaurant occupies a conspicuous and striking four-story edifice, the oldest part built in 1790. Thin columns support an ornate wrought-iron fronted balcony in what we think of as typical French Louisiana style, which is actually much more Spanish. Large glass windows in wooden door-frames run along the front of the building which is considerably more deep than it is wide. Although it extends quite some distance along St. Louis Street between Royal and Bourbon Streets, Antoine’s doesn’t immediately look as if it could house so many dining rooms and seat more than 700 people. Over 175 years, the public and private spaces of Antoine’s have witnessed a multitude of New Orleans celebrations, but it has also played a part in tragic aspects of the city’s always intriguing history.
Only eighteen when he opened his restaurant, Antoine Alciatore was already a successful chef. Born in 1822 at Alassio in Liguria, he began work at the Hôtel de Noailles in Marseilles. Like Chef Ranhofer of Delmonico’s, Antoine was a kitchen apprentice whose precocious talents were quickly recognized. Prince Talleyrand, the great courtier, diplomat, and gourmand, was so impressed with Antoine’s marinated beef tenderloin, cooked rare enough to be slightly bloody, served with a sauce of beef stock, sweetbreads, and chicken livers, that he summoned the cook. Recovering quickly from his surprise at the chef’s youth, Talleyrand praised his skill and asked what the dish was called. Antoine had not thought of naming it, but in a gruesomely comic bit of quick thinking, he told the prince “Beef Robespierre,” thinking of his father’s eyewitness recollection of the execution of the French revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre in 1793. Beef Robespierre would be listed on the Antoine’s menu as a specialty until the 1960s.
Arriving in America in 1838, Antoine Alciatore spent two years amidst the crowded labyrinth of downtown Manhattan. It would be nice to think that he crossed paths with the Delmonico’s and became acquainted with their restaurant, but nothing is known about his time in New York except that, as was the case for most off-the-boat immigrants, it was frustrating. Antoine set out for New Orleans, a booming city with a substantial French cultural influence. He worked briefly at the new St. Charles Hotel, one of the most luxurious in the United States, but soon tired of the huge establishment and decided to start a boardinghouse and restaurant (what is known in French as a pension) in the old colonial French and Spanish district of New Orleans.
The initial fame of his restaurant was based on Dinde à la Talleyrand, turkey à la Talleyrand, an invention of Antoine’s that he brought over from France and named after the astute statesman, the first of many celebrity clients. Word of this apparently marvelous dish spread rapidly in the Crescent City, and Antoine started making it available to the public from a takeout window. Alas, we have no idea what made Dinde à la Talleyrand special, because the recipe somehow disappeared into the mists of culinary history and legend sometime after 1914.4 What is significant is that the early success of Beef Robespierre and Dinde à la Talleyrand, along with puffed potatoes (pommes de terres soufflés—still on the menu), induced Antoine to turn the pension into a public restaurant.
Antoine Alciatore established a dynamic for the restaurant that would endure for about 100 years: innovative new dishes against a background of traditional French cuisine. As a chef, Antoine was resplendently inventive. In addition to the specialties just mentioned, he created Toast St. Antoine (crabmeat in wine and Béchamel sauce, breaded and served on toast with anchovies); Toast Balthazar, named after a now forgotten French painter (oysters and cheese on toast with pimentos); and Pompano Montgolfier, a predecessor of his son Jules’s famed Pompano en Papillote. This latter fish entrée was baked and brought to the table in a parchment paper bag whose balloon shape led Antoine to name the dish after the Montgolfier brothers, developers of the first functioning hot-air balloons shortly before the French Revolution.
All this creativity notwithstanding, Antoine’s, like Delmonico’s, was a resolutely French restaurant and described itself this way rather than claiming to provide “Creole,” or “New Orleans” cuisine. Until the 1990s the menu was in French without English translation or explanation, as if the hauteur of Paris had been transmitted to Louisiana. In its early decades, the style of food was international French rather than being particularly identifiable with New Orleans in terms of either basic ingredients or cooking methods. The menu featured dishes that would have been perfectly at home at Delmonico’s: Filet of Sole Joinville (poached sole with a white-wine sauce with mushrooms, truffles, and shrimp); Filet of Beef Périgueux (with truffles); Bouchées à la Reine (a puff-pastry shell like a vol-au-vent, filled with diced meat, usually sweetbreads, and a white cream sauce); and Becassine sur Canapé (snipe, a small game bird, on toast). By the 1880s, Antoine’s had become more regional, offering turtle, pompano, redfish, shellfish, and other natural bounty of the Gulf of Mexico and its shores, but the manner of preparation continued to reflect a French aesthetic, especially with regard to sauces. The only cookbook ever issued with the Antoine’s imprimatur, written in 1980 by its then owner and chef Roy F. Guste Jr., follows the Byzantine demands of old-fashioned French cookbooks for complex, time-consuming, interdependent sauces: one makes Bordelaise sauce, for example, by heating butter; then sauté-ing green onions, garlic, and parsley; and then adding Marchand de Vin sauce, which itself requires cooking a purée of mushrooms, onion, and garlic in butter and then adding Espagnole sauce, a complicated master-sauce that involves beef or chicken stock and tomato sauce.
The owners of Antoine’s did not propose to serve what we think of as typical Louisiana cuisine, such as jambalaya or crawfish étoufée. In fact, its menus barely mentioned gumbo among the soup options. For much of its history, Antoine’s has presented itself first as a French restaurant and second as a place that served hundreds of its own unique dishes. It was not alone in asserting a French identity: on a 1954 menu from Brennan’s, another New Orleans institution, the establishment is typified as “Bren- nan’s French Restaurant,” and the only two explicitly Creole dishes mentioned are gumbo and cheesecake. A menu from about 1948 for another well-known eatery, La Louisiane, describes it as “One of the Oldest World Famous French Restaurants.” To understand the complicated nature of the French heritage and Creole cuisine requires some account of the history of New Orleans and the setting of Antoine’s in its early years.
Text excerpted from Ten Restaurants That Changed America, published by Liveright Publishing Corporation. Copyright: Paul Freedman, 2016
"A completely new kind of American history as well as a revelation about restaurants and society." --Danny Meyer, from the introduction
"The most important and entertaining book on the subject of food that I've read in years! Paul Freedman paints a portrait of a culture whose cuisine is only beginning to emerge. Witty, sensitive, surprinsgly sensuous--more, please!" --Molly O'Neill, author of One Big Table
"Pleasure without snobbery: Paul Freedman's book is itself exactly what the very best American food has always been." --Joyce E. Chaplin, Professor of Early American History, Harvard University
Esteemed by medieval scholars and, now, avant-garde contemporary chefs, Yale professor Paul Freedman stepped out of the Dark Ages and into the New World through his groundbreaking study, just out this month, Ten Restaurants That Changed America. Freedman explains to Howie Kahn how restaurants promoted tolerance, contributed to a more sexualized society, and why eating in the 1800s reminds him of Game of Thrones.