Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
One week after New Orleans hosted the first of two Tricentennial culinary exchanges, San Antonio returned the favor, welcoming chefs from Louisiana to the River Walk.
A brainchild of San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation, the events provided guests with an opportunity to celebrate the history and culture of two of the United States’ most unique cities, both of which are celebrating their 300th anniversary in 2018.
San Antonio was represented in New Orleans by chefs Cariño Cortez of La Familia Cortez Restaurants, Jeff Balfour of Southerleigh, and Jason Dady of Tre Trattoria, each of whom prepared courses that represented their own interpretations of the host cities’ diverse culinary traditions.
On Monday, three chef teams from New Orleans took their turn at the helm, with the San Antonio Museum of Art and Tre Trattoria playing host to the finale of the two-part dinner series. The visiting culinary team included chefs Juan Carlos Gonzalez and Meg Bickford from SoBou Restaurant and Commander’s Palace; Michael Gulotta and Travis Cheatom from Maypop and MoPho; and Will Avelar, Bergen Carman, and Michelle Tanallo from Meril Restaurant.
Highlights of the family-style menu included New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp from Chef Avelar, Asian-inspired red fish in Creole curry from Chef Gulotta and, in an ambitious nod to San Antonio’s culinary tradition, a platter of wildly popular duck leg tamales from Chef Gonzalez.
After enjoying dinner last week in New Orleans, Mayor Ron Nirenberg was again in attendance, this time welcoming the group over appetizers, wine, and Southerleigh beers in the art museum’s atrium.
“We do hope that this will become an annual event, so all of you who are here tonight are experiencing a great exchange of the culinary heritage between the cities of New Orleans and San Antonio in what we hope will be an expanded event for both cities,” said Nirenberg, who was joined by several other local dignitaries including his wife, H-E-B executive Erika Prosper, City Councilmen Roberto Treviño (D1), Cruz Shaw (D2), and Clayton Perry (D10), and Texas A&M University-San Antonio President Cynthia Teniente-Matson.
Also addressing the group from the podium were the leaders of the cities’ respective Tricentennial Commissions. Mark Romig, who serves as president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, and San Antonio’s Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras agreed the events creatively captured the spirit of both cities and the deep-running parallels between New Orleans and San Antonio.
“We are both cities that attract culture seekers, people who want to come experience authenticity and uniqueness,” Romig said. “San Antonio has done that for 300 years,” as has New Orleans.
The event also served an educational opportunity for nine local culinary students from three culinary schools in the San Antonio area, who shadowed the visiting chefs for the evening, “providing invaluable lessons that will stay with them for the rest of their careers, helping to carry on the Tricentennial legacy,” Contreras added.
A noticeable presence in the Tre kitchen Monday, Robert Barker represented The Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus. Originally from Lake Charles, Louisiana, and of Creole descent, he soaked up the opportunity to work with chefs making waves in his home and adopted states.
“Seeing all of these great chefs from San Antonio and from Louisiana working together is absolutely fascinating,” said Barker, who will graduate from the CIA in December 2019. He hopes to find an externship in New Orleans as part of his training, preferably at Commander’s Palace, where Bickford, his “supervisor” for the night, works.
The inaugural Tricentennial culinary exchange laid a strong foundation for what could become a new tradition between New Orleans and San Antonio, which share more than an anniversary – demographically, culturally, and economically they often live parallel lives. A shared appreciation for each other’s rich history and evolving cuisines should give visitors to both cities much to look forward to for another 300 years.
“This has to be one of the highlights of my career,” Avelar said. “… At Meril, we did a series of Tricentennial dinners … but now to be asked to go to San Antonio for this chefs exchange dinner and represent New Orleans cuisine is definitely … going down in the record books for me. I couldn’t think of a better way to end 2018’s Tricentennial year.”