How important is a restaurant’s location? That’s the question Chef Alex Harrell is seeking lately. His restaurant, Angeline, New Orleans’ favorite farm to fork restaurant, is closing its doors. But a new chapter is just around the proverbial corner.

{ People Don’t Forget How You Make Them Feel }

There are certain restaurants from my childhood that I occasionally visit in my mind. In reality, they’re now standing vacant or altogether wiped from the map. But if I close my eyes, I can see the oilcloth covered tables and smell the vinegary mush of overcooked Alabama green beans swimming in bubbles of fat and olive colored liquid. I sit a little above eye level with the table during these visits, the perfect vantage point for taking in the smoky dining room dotted with old men clad in Liberty overalls. I never feel hungry or alone in this place. I sit among these tables with people I have no memory of not knowing, and we eat together.

What makes a restaurant so memorable that we dream about it long after it disappears? The restaurants we love are ones that become more than a physical place we visit for a meal. They make us feel something by providing sustenance and connecting us with community. Most of us can recall a restaurant from our past we long to visit just one more time. You may have mourned when its doors closed for the last time, but when the owner of such a restaurant changes direction, how does the experience change?

Those who frequent Angeline, one of New Orleans’ favorite dinner hideaways, will soon find out for themselves.

{ About the Last Night }

New Orleans takes a breath now and then, pausing, a moment spent staring up at the city lights as the humidity hangs in the air and a long note from a trumpet somewhere crosses an alleyway. The wavering notes fatigue into dark sleep. It’s dips, when the city slows or pauses from stirring, drop in a rhythm, like a heart skipping beats. People linger at all hours, lots of out-of-towners, lots of people getting hungry. The city very naturally has packed itself with restaurants, but as few manage, Angeline has stepped into its rhythm.

It’s early June in New Orleans, and the heat is already heavy in the thick air, even at night. I walk down Chartres Street in the heart of the French Quarter looking for my destination: one of the city’s most beloved restaurants. It’s getting late in the evening, and the bawdy Vieux Carré crowd grows louder by the minute, all looking for some type of adventure. I’m still looking for this restaurant. Facing the street is a narrow door and above it hangs a small, neat sign that reads, “Angeline.”

I have found the place.

Once inside, the commotion of the street recedes, and I am greeted at the small hostess station immediately upon entering. Relaxed beige, coral and gray interiors are washed in the glow of vintage schoolhouse light fixtures. Walking past the wood topped bistro tables and banquettes, I see the kitchen entrance to my left and at the heart of the space is a tidy bar where I take a seat. I order the cornbread, and a few minutes later Chef Alex Harrell arrives at the bar. This will be the last Saturday night service on Chartres Street for the owner of Angeline.

Chef Alex Harrell is friendly and matter of fact. When we sit down, the conversation immediately turns to his young daughters. Although he prepares for the weighty task of closing an entire restaurant and beginning a new chapter in his career, he is calm and has not lost sight of priorities.

After the cornbread arrives, Harrell fills me in on the story of his journey from an Alabama childhood to a restaurant career in New Orleans. He grew up in the rural, southeastern corner of Alabama. Dothan, known for its Peanut Festival, is the largest town in the area. Peanut plants thrive in this flat, sandy dirt and agriculture has always been a major economic focus of the area. The son of a physician, Harrell says he originally intended to study medicine. He had no interest in cooking while growing up, but he spent a lot of time in the company of very skilled family cooks and working in the garden alongside his father.

Harrell attended college in Virginia and graduated with a degree in biology. Still intent on a medical career, he came home to Alabama for a summer break before pursuing medical school. A job at the coast that summer would send his career in a different direction. Working in a small beachside restaurant owned by a family friend, Harrell got his first taste of restaurant life. From that point forward, one job led to the next, and he slowly found his place in the kitchen.

His family was supportive of his ambitions, and he took his first serious cooking job in Birmingham, Alabama during the nineties. From there, Harrell would work in several kitchens around New Orleans, and along the way, gather the skills he would later rely on in opening his own restaurant.

When Harrell first arrived in New Orleans in 1998, he went to work in the pantry of Susan Spicer’s Bayona Restaurant. He credits her for both for her talent in the kitchen and her leadership. No stranger to opening restaurants, Harrell was the first Executive Chef for Sylvain Restaurant in New Orleans when it began operations in 2010. Five years later he would open his own restaurant, Angeline. After a successful three year run, Harrell will close his first restaurant on a high note. The future of Angeline remains uncertain, but the Chef plans to begin a new concept in one of his favorite New Orleans neighborhoods, the Marigny.

{ Food Chain }

If there is a method to restaurant madness, Chef Alex Harrell almost has it down to a science. A student of biology, Harrell appreciates the power of observation and takes a methodical approach to restaurant management. With no formal culinary training, he learned the basics of restaurant management from mentors like Spicer and Gerard Maras and worked his way through some of the most celebrated kitchens in New Orleans.

Through experience, he learned that when assembling a team for Angeline, formal knowledge of cooking was less necessary than a good attitude and a willingness to work. When it comes to hiring decisions, he says “I don’t look so much at restaurant experience. I want to hire people who have a work ethic and are willing to learn.”

Well respected among his peers and known as an all-around nice guy, Chef Harrell has avoided many of the pitfalls of the restaurant business. He notes that New Orleans is a small town, “Everyone knows each other. Good relationships are very important in this business.”

One of the relationships Harrell developed over the years was with Murf Reeves, the bartender on duty the night I visited Angeline. The two met years ago while working an event. Harrell recalls, “We were on a break and eating grits from these little metal service bowls in the alley. We’ve been friends since.”

Grits have been a mainstay on the menu at Angeline since the restaurant opened. Harrell has maintained a focus on local, Southern ingredients prepared with a lighter, Mediterranean approach. The perfectly cooked cornbread served to me in a cast iron skillet by Mr. Reeves was made using a cornmeal produced by a small Alabama mill. Also on the last dinner menu at Angeline’s Chartres location was Georgia clams with Wild Boar Sausage, oysters and shrimp freshly harvested from the nearby Gulf and salads using local lettuces. Harrell will take this fresh approach to local, Southern ingredients to his next restaurant as well.

The gap between successfully managing a kitchen as an Executive Chef and managing a restaurant as an owner can be a difficult one to bridge. When Harrell opened Angeline in 2015, he assumed both roles. “I didn’t know how to open a restaurant. Nobody tells you how to apply for permits, how to do those kinds of things. There’s a learning curve.”

Although Angeline runs smoothly thanks to General Manager Adrienne Kaplan, Chef Harrell maintains an active role in most all aspects of his restaurant. On the evening that I visited, he had earlier been pressed into service as air conditioner repairman.

{ Open to Possibility }

Opening a restaurant is a tremendous undertaking. The margins are razor thin, and most new restaurants are shuttered within the first three years. Yet every year, hundreds of fools fall over themselves on this errand. Of this group, there are a certain number motivated only by profit to be sure, but many are idealists who long to create a place that not only fills our bellies but also feeds our hunger for community and belonging.

At Angeline, diners have come to expect this sense of place, and Chef Alex Harrell is poised to continue building relationships at his new venture in the Marigny neighborhood. The Franklin, a restaurant located at 2600 Dauphine Street, New Orleans, will close on July 2. Harrell will bring the team from Angeline to the new location, and he plans to open the Dauphine Street concept by late summer.

For now, he has boxed up the restaurant he developed into one of the city’s favorites over the past three years. The Alabama-made pottery on loan from his mother is carefully packed away, and his personal collection of prints were removed from the walls. The banquettes and bistro tables where so many New Orleans diners have savored memorable Southern grown dishes went into storage. Angeline will pause for a moment and take a breath while Chef Alex Harrell creates a new restaurant we can visit and remember as a place we feel welcome, connected, and well fed.

Angeline Restaurant is currently closed for business, but Harrell has not ruled out the possibility of reviving the restaurant in the future. His new concept is slated to open late summer of 2018 in space at 2600 Dauphine Street, presently occupied by The Franklin. Continue to visit Angeline’s website for updates

By Christy Williams Graham, Manager Editor

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