Elaine and Scott Harris
New Orleans is a city that beckons visitors with the sense of continuous celebration; a place where laisser les bons temps rouler (“let the good times roll”) is shouted from the balconies on a nightly basis. One of those celebrations, the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, claims to be one of the most “incredible culinary events in the nation, attracting over 7,000 gourmands and connoisseurs as well as art and music lovers.” This popular extravaganza has drawn in a who’s who of the food and beverage world for 25 years. Proceeds benefit the local culinary community. NOWFE is a nonprofit organization that donates 100 percent of its profits to culinary education. This event is its yearly one-of-a-kind tasting experience. Over the years, NOWFE has contributed more than $1.2 million to local nonprofits while showcasing the foremost culinary talent of NOLA. The series culminates with the Grand Tasting, an epic culinary challenge in which the best chefs vie for the Fleur de Lis Culinary Award in five categories: seafood, poultry, lagniappe, soup, and dessert. (Lagniappe, for those not from New Orleans, is a snack, something small to eat and very popular locally.)
In advance of the 2017 New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, which will take place on Memorial Day weekend, we met with Hyatt Regency’s chef Eric Damidot. He is currently preparing for the Grand Tasting, which likens itself to a culinary Olympics among local chefs. An esteemed panel of judges decides beforehand who will don the gold medal in each category, but their selections will not be revealed until the NOWFE awards ceremony. Each dish must be quickly plated for hundreds of festival-goers. As a busy executive chef overseeing multiple restaurants at the Hyatt Regency, Damidot mentors a handful of excellent staff under his tutelage to create the best dishes for the competition. Although these dishes are in the process of being evaluated for flavor components, textures, and the important visual elements that should engage the diner with an exclamation of delight, each dish is still a work in progress.
The Daily Meal: Please tell us what you are preparing for at NOWFE.
Eric Damidot: Every year NOWFE happens at the convention center, and we participate in [all five categories of] the Fleur de Lis culinary competition. Now the Fleur de Lis judges will be coming here in three weeks to judge the competition; however, we will not know the results until NOWFE night where we see who is awarded the gold medal, the silver, and bronze. Last year out of the five categories, we had three gold medals and two silvers, so I want to see how many gold medals we will have this year. The first dish, from the seafood category, is a stuffed calamari; the second poultry dish consists of different poultry plated with quail eggs into a little bird’s nest; the soup will be an oxtail. For the lagniappe, we are doing a bouchée, a small puffed pastry with cheese, while making it into profiterole sandwich bouchée, which will be interesting. The dessert is a combination of citrus fruit pastry.
Aside from your busy schedule here at the Hyatt Regency and preparing for this competition, what are some of your other creative goals?
It really is this competition, but that is the fun part of being a chef by participating in these different events. I’m providing an experience to the customers. People come to New Orleans to experience the warmth, the welcome, the hospitality, so the goal here at the Hyatt is for people to relax, enjoy the food. Let us take care of you, and let us deliver that experience. Over the past 25 years, cooking has been for me a pleasure even in those daily challenges. New Orleans is a food city, and you will have a good time over here.
How many hours does it take to prepare for NOWFE?
It takes days of work. We plan, write it down, and then we even dream about it, and then we wake up and rewrite and do it again until we feel it is correct. Just like preparing to be a chef, it takes years and hours of practice to become skilled at what you do.
What happens when you win NOWFE?
It is good for my chefs to be recognized, and is something that is out of the normal routine of everyday work, and it is good for the community. Large chain hotel restaurants are not usually known for their great food, but we want to prove to the people of New Orleans that the Hyatt Regency does care about what we do, and our chefs do care very much in what they do and have skills to prove it. That’s why I want the community to be exposed to our food at the Hyatt Regency during NOWFE. We have great food that is not boring and is really very nice.
If you win a medal in a category will that dish be on a menu here at the Hyatt Regency?
Silver, probably not, but if we get the gold, I will make sure it gets on a menu.
Tickets to the Grand Tasting are now on sale and start at $119 per person. Only those 21 and older will be allowed access. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.