NEW ORLEANS
September 1, 2017

STRANGER: Frank Brigtsen
LOCATION: Brigtsen’s, 723 Dante Street, New Orleans
THEME: Dinner with a Creole chef discussing the menu at his long-running restaurant

“When I put on this white jacket, I’m putting on 299 years of Creole history,” says Frank Brigtsen, tugging at the arms of his crisp, stainless chef’s armor.

Frank and I are sitting at a two-top in his namesake Brigtsen’s restaurant, which he’s run continuously for 31 years with his wife Marna — save for a few months closed in 2005 thanks to Hurricane Katrina. He’s diabetic, he doesn’t drink, and arthritis makes it impossible for him to work on the kitchen line anymore. But he’s happier than ever.

Cooking isn’t a way for Frank to make a living, it is his living, his life. And through his employees and his extra-curricular mentoring, he’s passing on his knowledge to the next generation.

“The chefs I learned from, they learned from their fathers, uncles and grandfathers, and that’s all passed down. And now I’m teaching the next generation, I want to protect and preserve Creole cuisine,” he says, cradling a cup of black coffee.

Next year, the 300th anniversary of New Orleans’ founding, the lease is up on the small cottage that’s housed Brigtsen’s since it opened. Preempting my query, Frank says, “We’re gonna keep going,” full of energy, excited by the possibilities. “You know, it’s a cliché, but it’s true: anywhere else, people eat to live, but in New Orleans, we live to eat,” he says.

Brigtsen’s appears to the place to do just that. Frank and I met at 6pm, and less than 30 minutes later there are happy diners at all the other tables. The place is a draw for visitors and locals alike, and it’s to be expected given Frank’s pedigree, which sounds like a hit list of the city’s best restaurants. He started at Commander’s Palace and then moved to K-Paul’s under the tutelage of the late Chef Paul Prudhomme. Frank says Paul — he always refers to him as Chef Paul, obvious is the reverence for his late mentor — is the reason he opened Brigtsen’s. And his passion for spreading the word about the ever-evolving world of Creole cooking is what keeps him invigorated.

He leans in toward me conspiratorially. “Know what I want?’”

I shake my head. He grins.

“If people visit New Orleans and they ask where they can get good New Orleans food, if someone tells them Brigtsen’s” — he smacks his hands together and then holds them out wide, like a magician saying hey presto — “then I wanna be that person. I wanna carry that torch.”

Our meal is one-sided. Frank’s not dining with me for the interview, instead he’s going to talk me through the menu and explain some of his creations. It’s a perfect set-up for me, because I get to learn plenty about food while listening to this charming, eloquent and engaging man.

Visit New Orleans and you’ll learn the local accent isn’t the overdone Southern drawl like the one characters use in the movie The Big Easy, where locals spoke in strange French-tinged accents and called each other “cher.” Frank’s a lifelong city resident and his accent is almost imperceptible, save for certain words that have the city accent that’s more like something out of Brooklyn — “for” becomes “for-wah,” “better” becomes “bettah.”

He speaks slowly, quietly, answering questions in detail. He’s a self-described “softy” and his eyes will moisten several times during our meal, on topics ranging from his love for Chef Paul to the love the city showed him and Marna after Hurricane Katrina.

Marna greets everyone as they enter Brigtsen’s, a warm, welcoming presence. Within minutes, I’m taken aback by something about the staff. They all appear to be incredibly happy. It doesn’t seem like this is just a job for them. The interplay between Marna, her sisters (they both work at the restaurant), Frank and the servers is too earnest to be for show. Everyone’s smiling, talkative. It adds to the pleasant ambiance, this feels more like dining in someone’s home than an award-winning restaurant.

But this is also the home of a James Beard-award winning chef, an expert in his field after decades of training. And he’s ready to explain to me the finer points of Creole cooking.

I delegate the menu selections to Frank, and even though he doesn’t drink, he remembers wines from his drinking days and knows what to pair with which course. While I defer to his choices, he sips at the black coffee, his drink of choice every day.

“I quit drinking alcohol about 25 years ago,” he says. I ask why.

“For my loved ones. I have lots of responsibility here. It was very easy to have a lot of drinks after service. It’s the chef syndrome. You work hard, you reward yourself. I never thought I could say goodbye to that. But,” he shrugs, a broad smile opens up, “I did and I’ve never been happier.”

And no hangovers is an extra perk, I suggest. He laughs. “That’s what I said! It’s not that I haven’t had a drink in 25 years, it’s that I haven’t had a hangover.”

Not drinking doesn’t affect his menu because few of his dishes are done with alcohol, and for the handful that absolutely require beer or wine, he’ll still taste them to make sure they’re perfect. I’ll try one of those dishes shortly as my second appetizer. Yes, New Orleans is a place where having two appetizers isn’t abnormal, the city that calorie counters forgot.

Appetizer one is a two-parter: A butternut squash and shrimp bisque, and a chicken and andouille gumbo.

“Try this one first,” says Frank gesturing to the banana-colored yellow bowl of bisque. “I tell people if they’ve never eaten at Brigtsen’s, this should be their first taste, because then they’ll understand us a little better. Taste it, and you’ll see why.”

It’s a simple dish with only a few ingredients: shrimp, butternut squash, onions, shrimp stock and cream. Frank’s recipe calls for cooking the squash down to a “mush” with the onions, then adding the shrimp and cooking the whole thing down to a grainy mixture, then pureeing it all. “This has been our most popular dish for 31 years,” says Frank, smiling as I take my first spoonfuls.

I can see why. It’s delicious. The cream is noticeable from the start, it’s a rich bowl with an undercurrent of fresh-tasting shrimp — the texture is incredibly fine, the shrimp and other ingredients cooked down to a smooth soup that’s irresistible.

Like most of Frank’s repertoire of dishes, the soup came about from experimenting. He remembers its creation as vividly as if it were happening right in front of us. It was in the early 1980s, when Frank was working at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. They took a trip out to California to explore the food scene. “Chef Paul was a student of food, and whenever we traveled we always learned something new,” says his former student, smiling at the memories. “When we got back from California, Chef Paul ordered about five different squashes, we weren’t familiar with any of them — we’re talking butternut squash, sweet dumpling, we didn’t know about these, so we started experimenting.”

One of the more successful efforts was using shrimp, butternut squash and a veal glaze cooked down to a sauce. When Frank opened Brigtsen’s, he recalled loving the taste of that sauce and wanting to turn it into a soup. So he did, and although his menu changes daily, the soup’s always there. “I could make soup and gumbos all day long and go home happy, it’s really my thing.”

His comment leads us to part two of the first appetizer: a dark, swamp-brown gumbo with chicken and Cajun andouille sausage. Frank says it’s his favorite dish, but that it’s not a traditional New Orleans gumbo even though visitors might identify it with the city. A true Crescent City gumbo is fish-based. “My ma’s gumbo had okra, and oftentimes it had andouille and chicken, but it always had shrimp and oysters. An all-meat gumbo was really foreign to me.”

Chef Paul didn’t live by any restrictions on what to do or not do in the kitchen, and his rural Cajun upbringing meant he’d use whatever was handy for a gumbo. That’s how he developed chicken and andouille gumbo, serving it at K-Paul’s. When Frank first tried it, he wasn’t a fan, it was antithetical to everything he knew about the dish. But the delicious flavors eventually won him over. “Now all these years later it’s my favorite dish in the world, I eat a cup almost every day.”

Again, it’s a simple list of ingredients: chicken, sausage, onion, peppers, seasoning, flour and gumbo filé — dried leaves from the sassafras tree. “What makes our gumbo different is the filé is cooked into the broth,” explains Frank. “Filé is a strange ingredient, if you sprinkle some into a hot liquid like a pot of gumbo it gets stringy and ropey and very unappetizing. So most people add it at the table. But what we do, when we’re cooking our aromatic vegetables — the onions, the pepper — then we add our seasonings, our garlic and the filé. If you sauté it dry before you add liquid, it’ll get pasty but it won’t get stringy, it dissipates so you get the flavor of the filé in the broth.”

The elaborate steps for making gumbo don’t end there, because Brigtsen’s also seasons and partially fries the chicken first and uses the leftover oil to make the roux for the gumbo. “So now that oil has a little chicken flavor, and the chicken simmers in the broth and gets tender.”

These extra steps elevate the gumbo to a whole new level, and while Frank rightfully takes credit for a fantastic dish, he also heaps praise on the tutor that got him here: Chef Paul.

Long before the “bam!” televised antics of Emeril Lagasse or the sardonic travel diaries of Anthony Bourdain, Chef Paul was among the first household names in cooking. His portly, bearded image was, and is, so recognizable it graces the supermarket jars of spices that bear his name. His upbeat personality made him a hit on television screens, the quality of his food made him a star, the combination makes him a culinary god for the citizens of New Orleans.

Chefs Paul and Frank would become lifelong friends, but it wasn’t predestined that Frank would end up in the restaurant business. In high school, he excelled at math but was also very creative, particularly writing poetry. In 1973, he was set to study architecture at Louisiana State University, but changed his minds a couple of weeks before starting the course. Instead, he wanted to do fine arts painting and print making to indulge his creative side. His dad did not approve.

“He cut me off, he was furious, he didn’t want to pay for that,” says Frank, thinking back on his college years. It was a tough time at home, he adds without wishing to elaborate, so school was a chance to get away from that situation. His mother would sneak him some money to help with expenses, but Frank was largely on his own and so took on some work to pay his bills. One job was at a sandwich shop, his first paid foray into the food world. After that he took a job at a small pasta place, eventually becoming a night manager as he grew his experience. He credits Julia Child’s “The Joy of Cooking” with teaching him the rudimentary basics in how to cook.

“I grew up with Julia, but I survived on sandwiches,” he says with a laugh.

Some time later Frank moved back home, and by then he realized he now loved working in kitchens. So he got a job as a prep cook at a small restaurant — ordering the restaurant’s produce, chopping it up, doing some cooking. When that job ended, Frank started perusing the classified ads and found Commander’s Palace was looking for Creole cooks, or people willing to learn Creole cooking. It was already a famous dining establishment, in operation since 1893 and a regular award winner. “That was me! I wanted to learn and to work in a real restaurant,” he recalls.

It was 1979. Frank was one of 50 applicants who met with Chef Paul, who had already earned a stellar reputation heading Commander’s Palace’s kitchen. The two chatted for an hour, and Frank was invited back to a second round with 20 applicants. Another hour-long chat, an invite back to another meeting with just three remaining applicants. Frank got the job. “Even though I didn’t have real experience, he saw something in me and he gave me that chance.”

His eyes glistening at the memory, Frank tells he thinks Chef Paul gave him an opportunity because “he saw somebody with raw ability and an eagerness to take the next step.”

Chef Paul gave Frank a choice: either he could work on the front line on the broiler station for good money and high expectations, or he could start in the pantry making salads for minimum wage but Frank could expect to learn a lot from Chef Paul. He chose the latter, and even in that role he was slammed from the start as Commander’s Palace was inundated with diners all the time. “They didn’t tell me it was a two-man station and I’d be doing it myself,” he laughs.

Eventually Frank moved up to working on hot appetizers after the guy who had that role was fired for drinking on the job, and then on to working Sunday brunch — the busiest shift. There he learned about sautéing and other types of cooking, all under Chef Paul’s tutelage. “He lived up to his promise and then some. I made mistakes but they gave me a chance,” says Frank. “I was at Commander’s Palace for about six months and I worked every station.”

Frank was happy, but Chef Paul had other plans for him.

In 1980, Chef Paul had one foot out the door from Commander’s Palace and had opened the French Quarter restaurant K-Paul’s, specializing in Cajun cuisine, the K in the title standing for the chef’s wife Kay. Chef Paul still had some of his contract with Commander’s Palace to work out, but would soon make his own venue his full-time job. To do that, he needed employees, and one day asked Frank if he’d like to come work for him — it took seconds for him to accept the offer.

While working at K-Paul’s, Frank was exposed to a truly Cajun dish: blackened redfish. Chef Paul came in one day, put a black iron skillet on the stove, seasoned a piece of redfish, passed it through butter and put in the skillet. “I was skeptical, I’d never seen anything like it before,” Frank recalls. But after tasting it, he was instantly won over. And so were the diners at K-Paul’s, and soon the rest of the city and then the nation, as blackening — a Cajun style of cooking — became a national sensation.

After several years of constant learning from his mentor, Frank had found his groove. Things were going well, he was happy. He’d gone from trainee at Commander’s Palace to the executive chef at the always-packed K-Paul’s. Then one day, he thought his career was over.

Chef Paul ran the operations from a table in the back of the dining room. He and K called Frank over. He gulped. “I didn’t know what I’d done, but I thought I was going be fired.”

It was 1986. Frank’s instinct was true, in a way. Chef Paul and K were letting him go — but with their support to open his own restaurant, including cutting a check for $120,000 to help launch the venue. I couldn’t imagine a chef in a successful venue voluntarily urging a top employee to branch out on his own, but Frank says that’s exactly what made his mentor so special.

Frank was overwhelmed but ready to act on the Prudhommes’ good faith. He searched for properties outside the French Quarter and eventually found a cottage that used to house a restaurant called Dante’s By The River. “When I opened the front door, I literally said, ‘This is me,’” he recalls. “The ambiance, the New Orleans feel of the place, the manageable size, it was perfect.”

Brigtsen’s opened in that cottage and is still there today, on a lease that’s up for renewal in 2018 and which Frank is quick to add he’ll re-up and keep his restaurant going.

Frank knew nothing about the business side of running a restaurant, but Chef Paul had his attorney and accountant help out until Frank was able to do it himself. “Opening your own restaurant is a big step, it’s scary as shit, but these guys all held my hand,” he says.

Staffing the place started out as a family affair, with Marna working as greeter, and her sister Sandy working as waitress while her other sister Rhonda ran the bar. Chef Paul even let Frank poach K-Paul’s sous chef. Running his own place meant Frank had to use all the skills he’d developed to craft his own menu, and some of those dishes — including the butternut squash and shrimp soup — are still around.

The arrival of part two of my starter course gives Frank a chance to explain how he combined what he learned from Chef Paul with his own natural talent.

Our friendly, informed waitress sets down a large plate of “barbecue” shrimp — yet nothing in the dish was cooked in a barbecue. The dish originated at the New Orleans restaurant Pascale Manales where large shrimp are served with the heads on in a big bowl of sauce, diners dunking chunks of French bread in it. It’s a messy eating experience that requires bibs. Frank tried selling that dish but the sales quickly dropped off, and his servers told him that people didn’t want to get messy at dinner. “I got mad, threw my towel down and said I’d never serve it again,” he recalls.

“Then next year when the shrimp season came around I wanted to try again” — so this time he decided to downsize. He committed what’s seen as a local heresy of peeling shrimp and serving them heads-off, ready to eat whole. The shrimp heads are gone, but Frank says that’s where the fat is, so they’re used to make the stock to retain that flavor.

My plate doesn’t look like I’ll need a bib: three plump shrimp arranged in a dark brown sauce, one of them sitting atop a rice fritter known as a calas. “I wanted something starchy to soak up that buttery sauce, so that’s where the calas came in,” Frank says. He points to my plate. “This is a good example of how my food looks, brown food, that’s what you get here. I’m the king of brown food. If it looks good, fine, but it’s all about taste.”

It tastes fantastic, the sauce smoky, tangy, buttery. The tongue experiences a progression of flavors, all by design. “You see there’s a sweetness from the shrimp, and the Worcestershire sauce we use, but the high heat we cook at gives it a smoky charred flavor, almost a slight bitterness, and the beer we add to the sauce is also a little bitter,” Frank says as he explains the dish. “So you get this balance of sweet and bitter, it’s a progression of taste and sensation. And that’s what I go for in a lot of my dishes, this progression, that’s what Louisiana food is all about.”

Dishes like the bisque, the gumbo, and the barbecue shrimp all helped to earn Brigtsen’s a glowing review from a local food critic few months after opening, and from there business took off, and ever since it’s been a full house most nights. Eventually he had earned enough to pay Chef Paul back the $120,000 loan. “I went over one day with a check, and that meeting was sad because in a way it was like we were cutting the strings, it was very poignant,” says Frank. His voice wobbles and his eyes glisten at the memory, I can’t help but get teary-eyed with him.

“He was my second father and I was a son he never had,” Frank says about his mentor, who died in October 2015. They kept in touch over the years and toward the end Frank remembers a phone call with his mentor. Chef Paul didn’t say much, so Frank just talked and talked, expressing his gratitude for everything he’d learned and received from him. A few months later Chef Paul passed away. “I’m so grateful for that phone call,” he says, wiping at his eyes.

After the mourning, the next few days were full of joy because it was like a K-Paul’s reunion. “Those were some of the best days of my life, because I was getting connected again with all these people from my past, my phone and email were blowing up. It was very uplifting because it showed how much he did for people in this city.”

Frank smiles when he tells me the K-Paul’s alumni are planning a first-ever reunion at Chef Paul’s restaurant sometime in September. “Oh god,” he exhales with joy at the thought of that party.

I grin for another reason: the arrival of my entree.

Frank again chose for me, and I was about to have roast duck in a tart cherry sauce, served with “dirty” rice. I’ve never heard of the latter, but apparently it’s a Cajun dish. “I want you to try this because it’s such a good example of Cajun cooking,” he says. “I don’t view Cajun food as cuisine, I view it as cooking because it’s not originally restaurant food. It’s home cooking.”

Cajun cooks hate waste, so they utilize everything — that’s how dirty rice came about. People would cook down the giblets, the gizzards and liver from poultry with vegetables, onions, pepper and seasonings then mix that with rice. Frank’s take on dirty rice uses ground beef and chicken liver for the meat component, blending it with aromatic rice from his home state.

“I didn’t go to culinary school, I learned on the job. But I’m born and raised in New Orleans and I have this unique food heritage. A lot of my recipes and flavors derive from that sort of a sensibility, rather than some sort of analytical approach to it,” Frank says.

Dirty rice is a perfect example — he’s been trying to make the dish for decades. One of his earliest food memories is five-year-old Frank at a barbecue out in Cajun country, where they served dirty rice with chicken. “I can still taste that first bite,” he says, almost salivating at the memory. “My recipe derives from that, chasing that flavor, trying to get that taste.”

The duck is moist, plump, outstanding. Brigtsen’s slow-roasts it for four to five hours, rendering out the fat but retaining a crisp skin. In a deglazed pan Frank then makes a tart dry cherry sauce with a drop of rice vinegar for a sweet and sour combination. It’s served boneless, because he knows people don’t want to be picking bones out their entree.

“I try to support people who are doing things the right way”

So if this is Cajun cooking, does Frank consider himself a Cajun chef?

He shakes his head. “Creole. Cajun comes from the Acadian settlers in south Louisiana. Creole, we’re the cuisine and culture of New Orleans,” he says. The city’s history is a virtual gumbo of race and ethnicity: Spanish, French, Haitian, German, Irish, Native American. More recently, another ingredient was added to the gumbo with Vietnamese immigrants. “Creole cooking is constantly growing and transforming, it takes from all those vibrant cultures.”

I wonder what the next big Creole dish will be, whether there’s something on the horizon to rival the runaway success of blackened redfish in the 1980s. “I don’t think you’ll be able to single any one thing out,” he replies. “It’s more a philosophy about how to use what you’ve got.”

Frank designs his menu daily, keeping on many favorites but switching out dishes based on what his suppliers have — if the farmer who sells him greens has an unusual vegetable, Frank will work out some creative dish based off it, using his Creole knowledge to inform it. “I try to support people who are doing things the right way. I know where my fish is caught, in some cases I know who caught it. The guy who catches my catfish was in the restaurant yesterday delivering it. If I can’t get his catfish, it’s not on the menu. It’s wild caught, the way I like it, and that’s how I serve it.”

Chef Paul was just like family to Frank and so are his suppliers. “This is a food business but it’s really about people, about the guests that dine with us, the staff that works with us, and the people that supply us. To be successful, you have to develop and nurture those relationships. I only do business with nice people who are doing good things,” he says. “I’m the nicest guy in the world until you cross me, then I’m the meanest son of a gun you’ve ever met,” he adds with a hearty laugh.

Frank sees his duty now as passing on the recipes and the knowledge of Creole and Cajun cooking to the next generation. He does this in part through mentoring, as an adjunct professor at The John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University, and as chef-in-residence at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. “My growth comes through teaching,” he says, and he sees great promise in his students who he calls “sharp,” “creative” and “incredible.”

“It’s powerful man, I can’t tell you,” though he tries his best to explain the pride he takes in teaching students in their teens about his style of cooking and the history behind it. 299 years to be exact, with the city’s 300th birthday on the horizon. “This is a continuum, an evolution. What Chef Paul taught me, I want to pass on the next generation — they need to understand how important it is to make filé gumbo and things like this,” he says, waving a hand toward my almost-demolished duck. “I want to protect and preserve this cuisine.”

I suggest that his students one day might think of Chef Frank the way he thinks of the mentoring he gained from Chef Paul. “I hope so. People need a chance, young people need an opportunity, somebody’s got to open that door, somebody’s gotta give them a template to grow. Chef Paul did that for me, And that’s what I’m now able to do for others.”

He’s also working on what he calls his “mythical cookbook,” saying he’s jotted down some of it but just needs to find the time to sit down and finish the thing. I’m sure it’ll be a bestseller.

“I’m happiest when I’m [in the kitchen] with my crew”

An hour zips by, and yet I’ve not a heard a single note of negativity or cynicism from my dining companion. Surely there must be some drawbacks to this life?

Frank shrugs. He says Marna is an amazing partner who gets him through any struggles. Running a restaurant is a “special commitment,” one where you can say goodbye to the friends you knew before because the hours are so different from people with 9 to 5 jobs. It’s a big adjustment to make, and it’s one that Frank is grateful he had a loving wife to help get through. “This industry is a tribe, but every kitchen has its own personality” — and many of the staff at Brigtsen’s have been there for many years, including Larry Herbert, who’s run the kitchen for almost three decades.

“I’m happiest when I’m back there with my crew,” says Frank, gesturing with a thumb over his right shoulder to the back of the house that contains the small kitchen.

Together with his beloved staff, Frank has scooped several awards over the years including the 1998 James Beard Award for American Express Best Chef: Southeast, and named Chef of the Year by New Orleans Magazine’s 1994 poll of local chefs and restaurateurs.

All the accolades and the constant high demand for a table makes me wonder whether Frank and Marna have ever thought about opening a second Brigtsen’s. He shakes his head. They’ve had offers, and for a while had a second restaurant called Charlie’s Seafood, which was an attempt to revive one of their defunct neighborhood favorite places to eat. It got rave reviews, but eventually closed when Frank wouldn’t give in to an extortionate rise in the lease. So instead he just operates Brigtsen’s, and he vows the restaurant is here to stay, come hell or high water.

High water was the one time that rumors surfaced about Brigtsen’s closing, when Hurricane Katrina shuttered the building for four months in 2005. Seeing so many other local landmark dining venues close for good after the storm, Frank knew he had to continue in order to preserve his favorite type of cooking and cuisine. They reopened on December 29th 2005 to a packed house of locals. A few days later it was New Year’s Eve and Frank went out on the porch with Marna at night. They heard the sound of a second line, one of the city’s famous jazz parades. Almost 100 people came marching up to the front door as a way to welcome Brigtsen’s back to life. “Marna and I, we just cried, embraced. We said this, this is why we came back,” says Frank.

With food like my meal tonight, it’s not hard to see why diners are so loyal to Brigtsen’s.

I finish with a tantalizing dessert “storm,” giving me a small sample of several fantastic sweet treats. Before me is a tres leches cake, a strawberry shortcake, a miniature pecan pie with caramel sauce, lemon ice box crème brulee, and a slice of banana bread pudding.

“I’m jealous,” says our waitress as she sets the plate down.

They’re all outstanding, as I’ve come to expect during my time at the restaurant. Frank singles out the bread pudding as another example of how he takes a Creole staple and then uses whatever he has on hand to give it his own twist. “Bread pudding is a quintessential New Orleans dessert, but I don’t want to serve the same one every day. So it becomes a format for creativity.”

Frank happened to have the right materials on hand to make banana bread pudding for tonight’s diners. In the summer, he experimented with blueberry and peach versions. As the weather cools off, he’ll switch to a sweet potato recipe. “We have fun with it. It’s a very traditional dessert that people feel comfortable ordering, but it gives us the avenue to be creative. Get people to knock on the door of what they know, and I’ll show them into the room of a different twist on it.”

I polish off the entire plate of however many thousand calories and then Frank helps me exercise with a walking tour of the restaurant. The kitchen in back is small, staffed by five or six of the team that the chef adores so much. And it’s quiet. Much quieter than other kitchens I’ve visited. That’s deliberate, Frank says, as he prefers a quiet, smoothly running kitchen.

In my quick hellos to the staff, I’m again struck by how content everyone seems.

“My real reward is through food,” Frank says. “Here, myself and my team, we can make a difference in people’s lives, giving them joy and happiness for a couple of hours.”

It’s time to part ways. I’m leaving Chef Frank behind in the kitchen, the place he loves, surrounded by people he loves. As we shake hands, I see out the corner of my eye more plates being prepped for dinner, more Creole and Cajun food living on, about to excite the people who will receive it. Frank was animated throughout dinner, but he has an even livelier vibe when in the kitchen.

“I’ve never been happier, 31 years, I love it,” he says, and I can tell he means it.

He has things to take care of in the kitchen, it’s time to go. I head out into the night. Frank returns back to his beloved team, already plotting the next day’s menu, thinking of new ideas to contribute to the ever-changing face of Creole cooking, chasing that flavor.

3 thoughts on “#101 Brigtsen’s

  1. Reeny Shannon Reply

    What a wonderful story! I love New Orleans (my brother serves in the Quarter) and I am seriously considering moving back. Its been many years since i’v lived there but may return to the service industry in your wonderful city. I will definitely try to get in to your place for dinner. Who knows…maybe you’ll need a waitress!
    Thank you for sharing your incredible story!

  2. Jcbjr Reply

    Great story of a great guy and his wonderful wife and family who are culinary legends in a city filled with many, and many wannabees! Brightens is the real deal with success many only dream of!

  3. Mike Reply

    Frank and Marna Brigtsen are both very special people. I consider myself very lucky to be friends with them and their family. ❤️

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