November 26, 2004
Carol J. Schlueter
Count Arnaud Cazenave would be proud of the restaurant that still bears his name at the corner of Bienville and Bourbon streets. Right down to the Happy Meal. The Count, as he was known, passed away in 1948 but his legacy of fine Creole dining continues at Arnaud's in the efficient hands of Jane (NC '68) and Archie Casbarian.
Now in their 25th year of running the restaurant, the Casbarians recall how they researched the old restaurant menus and "boiled it down to 100 items" they wanted to offer. (Consider: The Count's menus had nine oyster appetizers, 51 seafood entrees and 40 vegetables, including potatoes prepared 16 ways.)
Still, diners--both New Orleanians and visitors-- often steer toward tradition. "We call it the Happy Meal," Jane says. Over the 87-year history of the restaurant, "everybody who came here had to get the Shrimp Arnaud, the trout meuniere with the brabant potatoes, the caramel custard for dessert. To this day people still do that."
The Casbarians acquired the famed restaurant from Germaine Cazenave Wells, daughter of the Count, in the late 1970s when Archie developed "this entrepreneurial itch" while serving as regional vice president of Sonesta International Hotels in New Orleans. As Wells was casting around for a successor, many of the leading family restaurants in town expressed interest.
"She wanted someone to keep up the tradition of Arnaud's. Eventually she decided I ought to be the person to receive the property," adds Archie, a native of Alexandria, Egypt, who came to New Orleans in 1966. And so began a family enterprise that includes Jane, who has always been responsible for buying wines and now handles all purchasing ($2 million of merchandise each year); son Archie Jr., who runs the family's casual restaurant, Remoulade, that is around the corner on Bourbon Street but connects to the Arnaud's kitchen; and daughter Katy, who is in charge of the service staff, dining rooms, and special promotions.
"We thought this would be a wonderful adventure, and it turned out that way--along with a lot of tears," Archie says. "And a lot of hard work," Jane adds. Their early years running the restaurant were a challenge. Arnaud's had 12 connecting properties covering most of the block, and it needed major renovations. One dining room had holes in the ceiling, allowing pigeons to fly around inside. What they thought would be a cosmetic job turned out to require major mechanical and structural changes.
Jane recalls, "It was in bad shape, but I could see how beautiful it could be." She worked extensively with the interior designer, "which was right up my alley" because of Jane's art training at Newcomb. A native of New Orleans, she grew up near the Tulane uptown campus. She and Archie worked side-by-side to return Arnaud's to the restaurant jewel it once was. He and Jane became the decision-makers about everything--linens, china, silver, uniforms and, of course, food.
"We decide what something should look like, or taste like. Of course my background, my training is that, but Jane is equally competent. It's a labor of love," Archie says. Jane was "thrown right in there." She says, "One thing I will say, Archie was wonderful, because I was with him all the way and I learned a lot. When the children were small, I'd put them to bed and be here every night, hostessing. They used to ride their Big Wheels around here when we were closed. They grew up here, working in the storeroom, washing dishes. I mean, it was quite an education."
Archie points out how tough the restaurant business can be for families. "It's really tough finding a husband-and-wife team to do it." They found the recipe for success. "It was really just the two of us, and there was never anybody to spell us," Jane says. "So we were always here together. It was all-consuming. On the other hand, we have met so many people--presidents of the United States, film stars, great local customers. It's been wonderful."
Maintaining the tradition of Creole recipes is something they take seriously at Arnaud's. "We're true to what the Count tried to do originally with food," Archie adds. "Creole has a lot of connotations. In terms of food, at least my interpretation is, it's French food with local ingredients. Plain and simple. "We're hoping the kids carry on the legacy," Archie says. "It's not just another restaurant. It's a special restaurant with a lot of history. We are the caretakers."
Favorite comfort food?
Jane-- Beef brisket. Caviar would be a close second.
Archie-- Pistachio nuts.
Greatest food fear?
Jane-- That we are losing our Creole cooking because all the new restaurants are doing fusion cooking. I call it "tortured food." And I think that's my biggest fear because we're losing so much of our local heritage.
Archie-- I ditto that.
Archie-- My training at the Swiss Hotel School, where they taught me my taste in food.
Who would you most like to serve
dinner to/have dinner with?
Jane-- One of the ones I was most excited about was Buffalo Bob from Howdy Doody. I loved him. With all the presidents and all the famous people who've eaten at Arnaud's, he was the one I was most excited about.
Archie-- The interim president of Iraq. To give him some advice.
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