Thursday, January 20, 2011

Good, Good, Good Friends (Three New Orleans Chefs)

Artists and chefs share a natural bond. Creating unique art or food, they separate themselves from the pack, or from the yardstick as George would say, recalling a professor who explained,

“Art is like a yardstick (held horizontally), with the Mona Lisa at one end and black paint on a black canvas at the other. Find a spot on that stick and go up (instead of back and forth), making it your own.”

This form of success naturally separates a chef or artist from his peers. The quality of one’s own unique, recognizable style is as important as the basic skills or fundamentals. Finding that style, however, is also the biggest obstacle. George admits his good fortune in this regard. Whether his Oak Trees, Cajuns, Blue Dogs, Hurricanes, or Bodies, he paints in a way utterly unique to him. With every new direction, he paints up.

Whether art, cooking, or any field, he notices people who do the same thing. For George, this is the definition of self-made, the recipe for success and happiness.

Creative types seduce their audience with their confidence, especially when the audience is local and relates to their innovative approach. I saw this happen with a painting of three chefs during “Rodrigue’s Louisiana” in 2008.

In a room full of George Rodrigue’s notable portraits such as Governor Huey Long, President Ronald Reagan, and Jazz Great Mahalia Jackson, it was his painting of three Louisiana chefs, unknown to many outside of New Orleans, which caught the locals by surprise.

Together, Chef Warren LeRuth (1929-2001) of LeRuth’s Restaurant in Gretna, Chef Chris Kerageorgiou (1927-2007) of La Provence Restaurant in Lacombe, and Chef Goffredo Fraccaro of La Riviera Restaurant in Metairie, spent years raising money for St. Michael’s Special School through an annual fundraising event. Their culinary talents, generosity, and on-stage antics endeared them to the people of south Louisiana forever.

“They played off of each other, cutting up like the Three Stooges, especially at this event. On stage they created one chicken recipe, each chef with a prop unknown to the others. One year Goffredo pulled a live chicken from a pillow case, holding the panicked bird up for the crowd.

“The other two got mad, not wanting to pluck a chicken! So Goffredo pushed the chicken back in the bag and pulled out two rubber chickens and a big knife.

‘No Goffredo!’ they shouted. ‘We need a dead chicken with meat on it … and NO FEATHERS!’

“Somehow one always turned up on the table, and they made their French, Italian, Cajun concoction. It was a great time, especially when they called me on stage to stir the pot.” - G.R.

George first met the chefs in 1983 at the St. Michael’s School fundraiser. From the beginning, Warren LeRuth, a New Orleans native of Belgian descent, collected George’s paintings. The two became friends, often meeting at LeRuth’s restaurant on the New Orleans Westbank.

“LeRuth’s was the first 5-star restaurant in the city,” recalls George. “There were always limos parked out front. At the table, the maitre de put a small pillow underneath the feet of every female diner.”

Chef Warren’s good friends, Chefs Chris Kerageorgiou and Goffredo Fraccaro, often joined them. Of Greek descent, Chef Chris grew up in France, eventually settling in New Orleans and opening La Provence Restaurant on the New Orleans Northshore in 1972. Italian Chef Goffredo opened La Riviera in 1969 in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. (photograph by George Rodrigue)

For years before moving to New Orleans, George and I stopped at La Riviera for dinner on every visit to the city. We hovered around saucepans in the kitchen with Chef Goffredo as he and George told jokes and laughed about days past. The boisterous, heavy-accented Italian was a good match for the boisterous, heavy-accented Cajun, and in no time the entire kitchen was laughing. I don’t know which I enjoyed more – the entertainment or the crabmeat raviolis.

“As I got to know all of them, I ate weekly at La Riviera. Goffredo and I became the closest. The restaurant was open only at night, but I would go for lunch if I could wake them up. All of the chefs slept on the floor of the dining room for their afternoon nap. If I got there before 11:30, I could eat with them.” - G.R.

It was Chef Warren LeRuth that convinced his friends to commission a portrait. George painted them in his typical Cajun style, their shapes locked into the Louisiana landscape. Instead of shadowed beneath the oak, the figures glow with the white of their chef’s attire, as well as the happiness that comes from personal success and years of good times together.

(pictured at the top of this post and below, Good, Good, Good Friends, oil on canvas by George Rodrigue, 1985, 40x30 inches)

The original painting remained with Chef Warren LeRuth until his death in 2001, and Chef Chris enjoyed it until his passing in 2007. It was Chef Goffredo that loaned the canvas to the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) for the two-month Rodrigue exhibition in 2008.

On opening night Goffredo announced a surprise. The three chefs agreed years ago that the nostalgia belongs to the people of New Orleans, the people that supported their restaurants and embraced their unique talents. Upon his death, NOMA’s permanent collection receives this special painting, a lasting gift from good, good, good friends.

Wendy

Pictured above, The Chef’s Table, 2011, edition 90, 32x26 inches, a new silkscreen by George Rodrigue, inspired by his chef-friends

For a virtual tour of the New Orleans Museum of Art’s exhibition “Rodrigue’s Louisiana: Forty Years of Cajuns, Blue Dogs and Hurricanes” visit here

For a related post see "Chef Paul Prudhomme and the Great Cajun Omelet"

This week’s story in Gambit’s Blog of New Orleans: “West Jeff: Passing the Hours”

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10 comments:

  1. So much to comment on here, but I'll leave it to art. George certainly has his amazing style and is recognizable from anywhere. The painting with him and the chefs is simply amazing, not only for the wonderful art, but for what it symbolizes. I guess that a lot of Georges' work is like that, deeply entrenched in heritage, therefore is important to so many. To be able to achieve a place in one's art career where one develops a recognizable style, for whatever reason, is important. In fact, this post is timely. For the first time tonight, an esteemed artist colleague said a piece of mine was recognizably my style. I am thrilled to finally start having to hit this new level in my art.

    Wonderful post Wendy. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Hi Carole, Thank you for your comments. I can't tell you what this friendship has meant to George. It is truly important to him that others recognize the significant cultural and community contribution of these great chefs.

    I so appreciate your reading, and I sincerely congratulate you on your artistic break through!
    Wendy

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  3. This post really hits home for me. I was excepted to art school but wound up going to The Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary arts. (still paying for it!) For ten years I slaved in kitchens. Finally after I moved to New Orleans and had it, my last job was doing pastry at the Ritz Carlton, I decided to work for myself in the art biz. It's been a long hard road and still is because that's where I make my home. But I'm doing what I love and cooking out of my minivan, following the intelligent migrating birds. In Key West the chickens don't cross the roads, they own the roads. 

    A couple years back I was set up on Pirates Alley and made a tribute to your husband. Jealous of his success but unwilling to make a "red cat" I made a few Blue "lucky" Dogs, that is a blue hotdog in a half eaten bun with catsup and mustard as legs running out in the familiar blue dog pose.

    I gave it to Mr. Rodrigue and he gave me a signed copy of his book. Pretty cool! I was worried He might take offense but I think he got a kick out of it. I do my best to paint vertically, not laterally. ;)

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  4. Hi Robert --

    What a great story - and certainly inspiring when it comes to following one's own course. I read your message to George and he sends his regards. Thank you for writing in-

    Wendy

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  5. It is no surprise that George was a fan of La Riviera and Chef Goffredo. Please ask George if he recalls Mr Arthur who was the kitchen manager or some other title like that at La Riviera. Mr Arthur ran the kitchen or something like that in the '80s. Mr Arthur used to stop at the 7-11 where I left sitting a pot of old black coffee every night for his ride home after the restaurant closed. He treated me to many a meal at the restaurant and when I was able I would go often as a paying guest. Mr Arthur taught me some great life lessons and some 25+ years later the lessons still rings true, NEVER judge a book by it's cover. I wonder what ever happened to Mr Arthur.

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    1. Hi Paul- Yes, George remembers Mr. Arthur fondly; however, he does not know his whereabouts. Thank you for your comments; they added some charming nostalgia to the post!

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  6. Awwwh~ I love this! These three are Gentlemen in the finest sense.

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  7. What a wealth of Louisiana history Wendy. You and George stay safe just in case Debby's wind and rain comes you way.

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