While the past year has been rough on restaurants, New Orleans chefs are embracing the challenge of celebrating Mardi Gras safely.

Broussard’s King Cake
Credit: Courtesy Broussard’s

In New Orleans, February means Carnival and of course, Mardi Gras. But, like everything else this year, Fat Tuesday celebrations will look a little different. True to form, New Orleans refuses to let obstacles interfere with a good time. This city is experienced, after all, at overcoming challenges and coming out smiling. Though the pandemic has hit restaurants hard, places like Dooky Chase's, Broussard's, Jack Rose, and Cochon are working hard to pivot, offering their fellow New Orleanians a Mardi Gras to remember.

Brian Landry, chef and owner of Jack Rose in the Pontchartrain Hotel, says that while they'll miss their usual celebration–the restaurant is located on St. Charles, a major parade thoroughfare–they're looking forward to a more "homegrown" festivity. He describes it as an opportunity for restaurants to showcase their talents, providing a touch of the usual excitement in a season that's not quite the same. "There's a good time to be had," he says. "New Orleans is a city that loves to celebrate."

While that will look different this year, in typical New Orleans style, they're determined to keep the party rolling no matter what. Edgar L. "Dook" Chase IV, chef of the famous Dooky Chase's Restaurant, believes their newfound takeout market will translate well to the Carnival season; the restaurant is doing a special meal-to-go, but they're also taking the celebration online. "The Zulu parade passes in front of the restaurant," Chase explains. "We have a tradition of toasting the king and queen; this year, we're celebrating past events virtually." They'll also carry on their usual display of the previous year's costumes in their dining room. "It's different, but we're going to have fun," Chase says. "We enjoy a good festival, but we also enjoy putting in the work."

Dooky Chase's Restaurant Mardi Gras
In years past, Dooky Chase Restaurant has been a vital part of the Zulu parade route.
| Credit: Courtesy Dooky Chase's Restaurant

Jimi Setchim, executive chef at Broussard's Restaurant, knows the city's ethos and looks forward to applying it to this year's Carnival season too. The restaurant's planned centennial in 2020 was largely swallowed up by the pandemic; rather than mourn the year that wasn't, Setchim plans to keep the party going into 2021. He's focusing on menus that highlight popular local ingredients in ways that are sometimes unexpected. The current citrus menu, for example, includes a Meyer lemon variation of the traditional King Cake; spring will focus on spices, and summer will be a tribute to berry-forward dishes.

Stephen Stryjewski, chef and co-owner of Cochon Restaurant, is grateful that the holiday season was profitable through meals-to-go and Goldbelly delivery, but he's looking forward to unveiling some new ideas as well. Cochon is featuring a Carnival around the World menu, highlighting weekly a different country where Carnival is celebrated. "Most of the dishes have been centered in traditional items from that country," he says, but some are more interpretive takes on the usual, such as a veal and pork doner kebab served on a focaccia-style loaf with a slightly spiced sauce.

The restrictions of a pandemic have given way to some silver linings. For one thing, stay-at-home mandates led to a rediscovery of local businesses. "There are more locals coming in," Setchim says. While Mardi Gras usually means less exploration because of street shutdowns and neighborhood-based celebrations, this year's adjustments have the unexpected plus of encouraging a more inclusive approach. "People will see different parts of the city, different celebrations," Setchim predicts, adding this could also include people from nearby states who are seeking a change of scene without lengthy travel. "Creativity, expression, and community have come out of the pandemic," he says, noting the citywide flood of houses decorated like floats. "We've gotten to know each other again."

That sense of community and closeness will help to carry residents through this season, along with the belief that better days are coming. "This year, I still haven't figured out what we will do. But my elderly parents are getting their second round of vaccine this week, so three weeks from now we will be in the mood to party and visit with them even if it is only in the yard," Stryjewski says.

And in true New Orleans style, people are already looking ahead to the potentially epic party of Mardi Gras 2022. Landry anticipates it will be "the biggest and best it's ever been. People will be itching to celebrate as we once did." Chase agrees, seeing a parallel to another era when the festivities returned with a vengeance. "Next year will be huge, like the year after Katrina," he says. "We'll be back, bigger, better, and stronger than we've ever been. When people come back, we want them to be blown away. We want them to fall in love with New Orleans, just like we have."