When it comes to food, the old cliche of the United States as a melting pot rings true. Nowhere, however, is it truer than New Orleans. There are Haitian, Vietnamese, Italian, Cuban, and Chinese influences in the food of this eclectic city. Classic French dishes get a Southern twist and are then punched up with spices from India and West Africa.
“[New Orleans is] a big beautiful mixture of all these different cultures and ethnicities,” Lopez says, comparing the city’s makeup to one-pot dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, and etouffee. “Food is the big uniter. It’s the thing we can carry through to any conversation; whether it’s mourning a loss or celebrating, it always happens around food.”
Lopez is a New Orleans native but grew up in a military family and has also lived in Europe and on the East Coast of the US. The New Orleans flavors he remembers from his childhood came from his mother’s co-workers: Cuban medianoches, Punjabi spices, and Vietnamese phở. He moved back to New Orleans in 2004 and began exploring the city’s culinary identity.
By the early 2010s, the rest of the country began to take note of Lopez’s efforts to elevate New Orleans’ cuisine: He was named “Chef to Watch” by the Times-Picayune, “Rising Star” by StarChefs, “Chef of the Year” by Eater, and was a three-time nominee for Food & Wine’s “Best New Gulf Coast Chef.” He opened restaurants focused on innovation and molecular gastronomy and, for a time, ran the most expensive tasting menu restaurant in New Orleans, Square Root. Lopez joined Galatoire’s, a classics-first restaurant open since 1905, in 2018.
Lopez’s decade-plus career working with food in New Orleans gives him the inside intel that locals and first-time visitors alike will find useful during a culinary adventure around a city flush with exceptional restaurants.
“There’s so many different flavors across the world that I can bring into New Orleans [cooking] and it works,” Lopez says, later adding, “for me, [New Orleans food tells] a story to not be afraid to reach outside, but also to know who you are and where you’re from.”
That change is evident in the restaurants popping up in New Orleans.
“It’s a constant living, breathing, and evolving city,” Lopez says. “Over the past 20 years, we’ve been known for Creole-Cajun. In one of the episodes of Good Gumbo, we talk about the Vietnamese people who settled in New Orleans after the fall of Saigon and how those influences have tremendously reshaped our idea of what New Orleans is.
“The po’ boy here is a sustained everyday sandwich, but the banh mi is side by side with that,” Lopez continues. “Those flavors and ingredients that you find — Thai basil, all these different spices, chilis — Vietnamese food is so fresh and is also influenced by French culture, so it works so well here.”
Vietnamese influences along with dry spices from India have changed the way New Orleans chefs think about and prepare food, Lopez says. “A lot is going on that a lot of people don’t realize.”