Newbies in New Orleans: Young entrepreneurs keep the party going.
Today in New Orleans, visitors and residents alike are exhilarated by the incredible resurgence in the town’s seemingly endless array of specialty dining and drinking themed emporiums and establishments.
The rewarding revival has been jump-started in part by enterprising young food and wine entrepreneurs who’ve returned to New Orleans to lend their talents and vision to the reaffirmation of key elements in the city’s engaging, enjoyable lifestyle. Like many other young business owners, Madison Curry and Bryan Burkey have created recent additions that have quickly become integral parts of the city’s culinary culture.
Both have a few things in common—both worked at The Savvy Gourmet, both came here after living in the Big Apple for many years and both have acting connections. Burkey’s enterprise, the Wine Institute of New Orleans (W.I.N.O.) has achieved great success as the city’s most interesting wine bar, offering more than eighty selections nightly, along with cheeses, pâtés and other nibbles. Tri-focused, W.I.N.O. is also a wine shop and wine school. Curry’s business, the captivating, casual Il Posto Café (“the place”), serves antipasti, soups and salads, paninis and other sandwiches, light breakfast and brunch items, wine and other beverages. Before taking off for New York for college and to pursue a career in the theatre, Curry, a New Orleans native, finished high school at Ben Franklin and performed at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (N.O.C.C.A.).
Curry attended N.Y.U., graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting. “I had to take out a huge student loan, so I worked the entire time I was in school and took a full-time job immediately after graduating,” she said.
When she was looking for a job, like many actors she ended up working in a restaurant. Her father owned restaurants and cafés so she was around the business while growing up. After twelve years in New York—and losing her rent-controlled apartment—Curry decided to come home post-Katrina, taking a job at The Savvy Gourmet as restaurant manager.
“I decided I wanted to open my own business and I’d always liked this neighborhood and had my eye on this little place,” she said of the building she’d scouted for her planned new endeavor. Curry’s mom—her silent partner in Il Posto, and step-dad, live just down the street and Curry lives in the neighborhood as well. She chose an Italian theme for the café because she and her family have a long time love affair with the Italian culture. Curry, who’s been to Italy a number of times, said, “I just fell in love with it: the great wine, great food and great people who really enjoy life.”
Most of the kitchen equipment was purchased on eBay, she said. “Even the panini machine; you have to know how to bid,” she added. The refrigeration system was purchased new, and Curry found a great way to use the collection of baskets and other decorative items she’s been gathering for many years.
Nearly a year later, after many delays with permits and multiple trips to City Hall, she was finally able to open in late September 2007. “I just opened my doors one day, and people started coming in,” she said. “It was so fantastic.”
Curry had already initiated contact with her neighbors, going door-to-door to obtain signatures on a petition for the City Council stating that they were not opposed to the café opening in their primarily residential neighborhood. The liquor permit was not so easy; she was finally awarded the license six months after opening.
Once the café opened, it was like an underground swell, she noted. “People began emailing their friends in the neighborhood, and they all kept coming by with wonderfully welcoming messages and supportive activity. I kept wondering where all these people were coming from.”
Now, she has morning and lunchtime regulars, an after-work and Sunday brunch crowd, and then there’re the dog walkers. “We have several folks who come by nightly, tie their dogs up outside, come in for a glass of wine, then sit on the benches just outside the doors to enjoy their wine while their pets help themselves to the water in the big dog bowl.”
The cheery little café, with its vibrant-hued, fresh flowers, matches Curry’s sunny personality. “I’m really happy how it, turned out;” she said, “it’s pretty close to my vision, so I’m really pleased.”
Owning and operating a wine shop probably never entered Bryan Burkey’s mind until an epiphany he experienced on a date with his future wife.
A native of Boise, Idaho, Burkey and his family moved around frequently with his dad’s job, but there was only one place he wanted to be after receiving his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the California Institute of the Arts: New York City, the center of the art world.
“I worked as a freelance photographer and performed work for Sotheby’s the big auction house, photographing art for their catalogs,” said Burkey.
“I really wasn’t doing much painting, myself, but as I became more interested in it, I switched to fine art painting and had a number of gallery shows.” Burkey’s college studies had focused primarily on art theory.
“Theory was huge,” he said. “It’s interesting now how my fine arts background segues with wine in an intriguing sort of way. Both studies combine a look into the experiential, philosophical, historical and cultural aspects as well as the sensual. The pursuit of wine knowledge presents a huge parallel to the fine art world,” he said.
After sixteen years in New York, he met Leslie Castay, an actress from New Orleans, through a mutual friend. Castay had moved to New York in the mid eighties with fellow actor and New Orleanian Brian Batt, to pursue a theatre career. A singer-dancer and classically trained pianist, Castay had parts in a number of Broadway musicals and in tour company productions. Burkey was also acquainted with Brian Batt, now showcasing his talents in the hit American Movie Classics series, Mad Men.
“One night after Leslie and I met, she took me to this fabulous restaurant, March (now shuttered) for my birthday,” he said. “She ordered this wine, and since the only wine I’d ever had was the kind of horrid, cheap stuff they serve at art gallery openings, I wasn’t expecting much when I tasted it.”
Suddenly, Burkey’s taste buds came alive, and a thirst for wine and wine knowledge began that may never be sated. “Wow, I had never tasted anything like that before,” he said. He recalls that it was a white Burgundy, perhaps a Meursault, that changed his life forever.
That was just the beginning and what followed were tastes of wines like Pommard, a red Burgundy, that Leslie’s father ordered at Gramercy Tavern on a visit up to New York, and a seemingly endless lust for more knowledge and tasting experiences.
“I was intellectually curious, so I would go to wine shops and tastings and pick up information, just trying to learn a little more” he said, “but I soon found out that you need to learn a lot more.”
Through an exceptionally fine wine series at the country’s oldest wine shop, Acker Merrall, Burkey was introduced to the Wine Spirits Education Trust (WSET) where he took classes and honed his wine knowledge. The turning point in Burkey’s career came after Bryan and Leslie married and became parents. She wanted to move back to New Orleans to be closer to her family.
“She asked me, ‘If you could do anything, what would you choose as a profession in New Orleans?’ I thought about it and was sure she’d think I was out of my mind, but I told her I thought New Orleans had a dynamic wine culture that was really just beginning, and I wanted to open a wine store,” he said.
At that point, Burkey knew nothing about the hi-tech enomatic systems he would later buy to expand his wine shop dream to include a wine bar, or that the shop would also house a wine school. The die was cast, however, and on a subsequent visit to San Francisco, he observed the Italian-crafted enomatic machines first-hand and was duly smitten. A Certified Wine Educator (CWE) Burkey was also asked to represent WSET in New Orleans, thus the wine classes, a series of which track the course of study required for the Master of Wine title.
Prior to his opening in New Orleans’ Warehouse District, Burkey worked at Savvy Gourmet and taught classes to wine distribution company representatives.
W.I.N.O., which was just named one of the top eight wine shops in America by Imbibe magazine (July/August 2008) has achieved resounding success, so much so that Burkey is considering opening branches in other cities.
The enomatic system is so user-friendly, it virtually eliminates the snobbery and fear from wine tasting. Customers purchase a smart card for a particular amount, or run a “tab” card. After the wine and the amount of the pour (one, two, or four ounces) is selected, the customer inserts the smart card into a slot, presses a button, and the enomatic machine releases the wine into the taster’s glass.
What appears so easy is actually a very complex system. The system’s built-in software tracks bottle levels, tasters’ selections, the remaining dollar amount on each card and can even provide a print-out of the wines tasted.
In addition, after the wine is released, a blanket of nitrogen is injected into the bottle to preserve the wine for the next thirty days. However, no bottle stays in the system that long. The place is often like a party every evening. Although the institute’s classes are taken quite seriously, Burkey and company can’t be accused of not having fun with a name like W.I.N.O.!
As the rebirth and renaissance of the South’s major dining and entertainment center continues, New Orleans’ still attracts and inspires talented chefs, wine connoisseurs and young entrepreneurs whose ideas and expertise bring a new vibe and verve to the scene along with new eateries, culinary attractions and intriguing places to taste, learn and shop.
The fresh ideas, spirit, energy and enthusiasm expressed by this new wave of business owners has set a fast track for recovery in the hospitality and culinary culture that is so much a part of the city’s heritage, as well as its future.
Il Posto 4607 Dryades Street New Orleans, La. (504) 895-2620 www.ilpostocafe-nola.com Tuesday—Friday, 7 am–9 pm. Saturday, 8 am–9 pm. Sunday, 8 am–3 pm. Most major cards. Wine Institute of New Orleans (W.I.N.O.) 610 Tchoupitoulas Street New Orleans, La. (504) 324-8000 www.winoschool.com Monday—Thursday, noon–10 pm, Friday—Saturday, noon–midnight; Sunday, 1 pm–10 pm. Most major cards.