By Andrew Hunter
A breakfast treat from New Orleans is equal parts confection and pan-fried comfort food: praline bacon. Elizabeth’s Restaurant lays claims to having invented the delicacy.
— National Public Radio, June 17, 2006
The thing to love about Elizabeth’s is that somebody there tried to make bacon better. The result is praline bacon — a combination of pecan candy and salty pork.
— The New York Times, December 16, 2007
I invented praline bacon. Well, I didn’t invent it. I discovered it in a cookbook, but I brought it to New Orleans, or at least to Elizabeth’s restaurant in the Bywater. Elizabeth’s is the undisputed champion of praline bacon, and it wasn’t added to the menu in 1998, like most articles say. It was in 1999.
Four months after my wife and I moved to New Orleans, where she would attend grad school at Tulane University, a fire destroyed the fine-dining restaurant, Peristyle, where I was working, so I ended up working at Elizabeth’s, a funky little diner.
Before moving down from Nashville, I sent resumes to every restaurant I had heard of in New Orleans. I interviewed all over town. All of the big names. I remember little about meeting with Anne Kearney, the chef-owner of Peristyle, other than when she asked me how much I wanted to make, I said, “$11 an hour.” She was very polite and told me that was a completely reasonable number to ask for, but it would not happen there. She invited me to “stage” (a restaurant term that really means “unpaid internship”). I accepted, and I immediately fell in love with Peristyle. I loved everything about the place. The next day, I took a job working the grill for less than $11 an hour.
I worked harder than I ever had. The food was amazing. The team was great. I stuffed leeks and celery under the skin of the duck Louisiana. I rolled sheep’s milk-cheese raviolis. The air conditioner was a screen door and a fan that led out to Rue Dumaine. There was a pump-spout water dispenser in the walk-in and otter pops were in the freezer. We played a guessing game about how many people we cooked for on Friday and Saturday nights with The Price Is Right rules: The closest without going over got a bottle of wine. We shopped at the farmer’s market and bought kale by the bushel.
It was perfect.
Sometime within the first couple of months I was at Peristyle, Anne let me do a special. I made some type of Gulf fish with wilted spinach, pickled chanterelle mushrooms, and praline bacon.
Before we all left for Thanksgiving that year, I met with Anne about moving to a new station. It wasn’t necessarily a promotion, but it felt like one. Then, the place caught fire. Actually, the apartment above the restaurant caught fire, so most of the damage to Peristyle was from smoke and water.
The health department pulled a big dumpster out in front of the restaurant. We had to throw out all of the food as the health inspectors watched. They worried we would try and serve some of the food, so they had to make sure it was properly disposed. That meant we had to pull out the demiglace we cooked for three days, strained through a china cap, a chinoise, and a dishtowel. We poured it into the dumpster. The raviolis I fought with every day, thrown out. The rice base for the squab with dirty rice, haricot vert, and a port foie gras sauce went into the trash. I stuck a bottle of truffle oil in my bag when they weren’t looking. I also managed to grab a bottle of Jack Daniel's. I could never tell for sure if it had a smoky taste to it or if that was my imagination. They watched us as we cut open packages of duck breast and poured bleach over the meat. It was devastating. I can’t imagine what it was like for Anne and her husband, Tom Sand. They had to buy the bleach.
Anne and Tom did their best to help us find jobs. The local restaurant community went out of its way to offer help. Anne and Tom first thought it was going to maybe be a month or two until we could reopen. That stretched to three, then longer. The murals in the bar and dining room had a rich history and needed restoration. Eventually, it was nine months before we were all back in the kitchen at Peristyle.
I worked for a local catering company for a while. I worked at the Pontchartrain Hotel for three days. Anne put me in touch with Heidi Trull, who then owned Elizabeth’s. It was a breakfast and lunch spot in the Bywater neighborhood, well respected for what it was, with a delicious and filling breakfast and good po-boys at lunch. It was a great neighborhood restaurant. It still is.
Heidi had contracted to do the staff catering for Jazzfest that year, and she needed someone to help run the kitchen at her restaurant while she was busy at the fairgrounds. It seemed like a good fit for me. My friend Ike, a food runner from Peristyle, was the head server there and lived in an apartment behind the restaurant. Heidi’s mother lived in an apartment above the restaurant. I had to go in early every morning, get the grits started and make the biscuits, and then I’d go wake Ike up when it was time to get started. The restaurant was decorated with a bunch of local folk art, some of which came from a guy with a studio just around the corner. He was famous for his pieces that said, “Be nice or leave,” but the artist himself didn't live by his words. We bought liver for the Wednesday liver-and-onions special from a neighborhood grocery store we all referred to as the “stinky store.” We made great gumbo and hand-cut fries. There was a ridiculous breakfast po-boy called the Lula Mae. I learned how to make grillades and grits there. We made roast beef po-boys by roasting whole top rounds in the oven overnight at a low temperature. One night, I couldn’t remember if I had turned the oven down. I was terrified I might burn the place down and catch Heidi’s mom in the fire. I drove back to the restaurant, but I didn’t have a key. I hung out for an hour or so, just to make sure the place didn’t burst into flames.
We served brunch on Saturday. I don’t remember what differentiated brunch from our regular breakfast service. I can’t imagine we had a separate menu. I started serving the praline bacon for brunch, either with a pain perdu special, or maybe as a side. I don’t know. I served it just about every Saturday. Heidi didn’t like it so much, because I burned too much bacon in the process. I’d get distracted by prepping something else and forget to set the timer the second time I cooked it — or I wouldn’t make enough. We’d sell it all and have to scramble to make more. But, it was well-received. I think Tom and Anne came in and had some. It was much better received than the ham salad po-boys I tried to serve the crew out at Jazzfest.
The praline bacon became kind of a thing. The specials were written on a menu board, and it often appeared there as “Andy’s praline bacon,” but not as a compliment. Maybe more of an accusation. Put the emphasis on “Andy,” and say it like you are disgusted. Heidi got really upset with me one day during Jazzfest because we sold all of the food before closing, and I locked the doors early. There was no food left. I didn’t know what else to do. But Heidi helped me in a million ways, and she really saved me when I was looking for a job. After I left Elizabeth's, I went back to Peristyle for four years.
A few years after leaving Peristyle, I was cooking in Chicago at the House of Blues. I was driving to work and listening to NPR when I heard the story (quoted above) about this great breakfast place in New Orleans and their world-famous praline bacon. I called my New Orleans buddy, Kris, who had moved to Louisville. He heard it, too. Soon after, there were mentions of the praline bacon in USA Today, The New York Times, and other outlets. Emeril Lagasse himself made praline bacon on Good Morning America.
After Anne and Tom sold Peristyle and moved back to their native state of Ohio, I found myself again in Nashville, interviewing a cook who had worked for Anne and Tom in Ohio. He told me Tom had told him to ask me about “the bacon.” It's now listed as one of the 20 most iconic New Orleans dishes on Eater.com.
If you Google “praline bacon,” it’s almost guaranteed that Elizabeth’s will show up in your search. I Google it about once a year, just to see if there is some new press. I am a little bitter, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. I fantasize about the day when someone will come into my restaurant and comment on the praline bacon we serve here vs. Elizabeth’s, just so I can tell them the story. It stings a little that at some point it stopped being called “Andy’s praline bacon,” even though that was never a term of endearment. I don’t begrudge Elizabeth’s their success with the recipe I found in a Best of Gourmet cookbook. I remember when I found the recipe. I knew it was something special.
My wife says that when you live in New Orleans, art is a part of your everyday life. That’s the best description I’ve ever heard for what I love and miss most about New Orleans. I didn’t create praline bacon, and I don’t own the recipe for praline bacon, but I did put it on the menu at Elizabeth’s. It’s not so much about the recognition. It’s about knowing my work left a mark on the city that shaped so much of who I am as a chef and a man.