May 29, 2024 - Food and Drink

How we ate our way through New Orleans for NOWFE

A chef tosses garnish onto a white table filled with artistic edible bites.
The team at Shaya got really creative with the plating. Image: Carlie Kollath Wells/Axios

The New Orleans Food & Wine Experience begins next week, and some participating restaurants compete to win the event's culinary awards.

Why it matters: NOWFE asked us to help judge the competition this year, and we wanted to give you a peek behind the curtain of how it works.

The big picture: NOWFE takes place June 4-9 with flagship events, wine dinners and other dining experiences.

  • Beyond hosting one of the city's top culinary festivals, the organization has donated more than $1.5 million to area nonprofits, according to the website.
A pedastal bowl of escargot sits on a wooden tabletop.
Vyoone's served escargot. Photo: Carlie Kollath Wells/Axios

Behind the scenes: For the culinary awards, the NOWFE team brought judges in this year for three days of tasting, including two back-to-back days crisscrossing New Orleans to visit a dozen restaurants a day.

  • That's where we helped out, each hopping on a party bus with our fellow judges for an entire day. The other folks were journalists and digital content creators.
  • We went high and low, visiting everything from a humble barbecue shop in Luling to award-winning, old-school French Quarter restaurants.
  • Looks aren't everything. Some dishes were beautiful but missed the mark on taste.

Between the lines: NOWFE gave each restaurant a stipend to participate, and they could submit any number of dishes they wanted.

  • Most submitted just one, but one participant submitted five. FIVE!
  • Some dishes we sampled are on regular menus, while others were created just for NOWFE.
Two women light their plates as they sit at a table and take photos of their meals.
Snapping content with food journalists and influencers is a bit easier when everyone is on the same page. Here, the team tries out a dish at Trenasse. Photo: Carlie Kollath Wells/Axios

🤯 If you lost count, that means we each sampled between 12 and 16 dishes in a single work day.

  • It was tough, but this was for science.

How it worked: We judged each dish based on specific criteria guided by the NOWFE team, a process that felt easier as the day went on and we developed a baseline of expectations.

  • We jotted down scores and notes, turning in a secret ballot for each dish.
  • The NOWFE team will use those to tally final scores, and category winners will be announced next week.
  • The two best-in-show winners get $1,000 each.
A long white plate is filled with a light yellow dollop of cream and a red tomato pastry.
The dish at Copper VIne included a sweet corn cream and a tomato pastry. Photo: Chelsea Brasted/Axios

Zoom out: The days we spent judging were long, and the sheer amount of food we tried was pretty wild, though the drive between each restaurant helped keep it from feeling overwhelming.

  • Each chef had a bit of contagious excitement about their dishes, their obvious passion for cooking spilling over as they explained the story behind each one.
  • Perhaps most valuable, however, was hearing the thoughts from other judges. Everyone has their preferences, but some things, like the love of a beautiful plate or the heartbreaking bummer for a dish gone wrong, are universal, and it was interesting to explore each.

😋 Chelsea's thought bubble: Our scores are secret, but I'm still thinking about the yummy beef tenderloin we had at Second Harvest, especially after learning the food bank dishes up between 7,000 and 8,000 prepared meals a day for kids and seniors.

  • Plus, I can't wait to see the finished expansion at Copper Vine, where the team paired a gorgeous rosé from their usual by-the-glass menu with a stunning tomato pastry.
  • And I finally got convinced to make a return trip to Jack Rose for a full meal.

The bottom line: Thanks to NOWFE for hosting us as judges.

  • It was a blast to try new places and visit ones we hadn't been to in a while. We can't wait to see who wins.
A moving image of a cloud of dry ice vapor escaping around a small dish with a golden dessert.
At Jack Rose, we tried the Memory Lane, a butterscotch pudding, candied almond sous-vide banana and brandy snap cookie from the regular menu. It's served in a large dish of dry ice. Image: Chelsea Brasted/Axios
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