The King of Madison's Carnival
John Roussos’ New Orleans Take Out was one of the city’s first Creole restaurants, though it’s been under the radar since it opened in 1985. But this north side treasure was once frequented by visiting musical acts like Wynton Marsalis and Garbage, and Roussos delights in recounting with zeal these stories and more—as well as sharing his love of Creole food with Madison.
If there's one thing you grasp upon meeting John Roussos it’s this: he’s got opinions, and he’s not afraid to share ’em. He’s very, very particular about his lifelong love: cooking. More specifically, cooking at New Orleans Take Out, the Creole-inspired restaurant he opened in 1985 on the north side (in 2002 Ken Kopp bought the name and recipes from Roussos to open a second location on Monroe Street).
Roussos remarks quite often that his food will make you feel like you’re in the Big Easy. And if you visit New Orleans, he kids, his dishes might be better than some down there. Maybe. And he would know. He lived there from 1977 to 1979, met wife Deb and married down there, and the two ate their way around the Crescent City.
“You could add beer, cheese, the Packers and Badgers together down there and it still wouldn’t compare to how much they love food,” says Roussos with conviction.
Interestingly, the last time he visited New Orleans was 2004, a year before Hurricane Katrina, to celebrate his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. He and Deb visited all of their favorite places: Mosca’s, Ugelich’s and the Commander’s Palace. But since the hurricane, he’s not anxious to go back. Roussos seems convinced it won’t be the same, almost as if he’s afraid of losing the intensely fond memories he has of the place.
Still, talking to him you’d never know it’s been more than seven years since his last visit. The way he so accurately recounts Mardi Gras, the food, the fun and the politics—you feel like you’re right there with him. And so before I actually experience the city through his eyes, I have to find out what drove this man to open his own business twenty-six years ago when the carryout concept wasn’t widespread. His vision was based on the Silver Palate in New York City, a high-end carryout restaurant that opened in 1977.
“I wanted to do gourmet takeout with no tables,” says Roussos. “At the time I started, people wanted to get in and get out and go home to eat with their families.”
But in Madison, as always, customers also wanted authenticity. And when NOTO opened its doors, authenticity is what they got.
“No one’s going to be able to reproduce what I do—for my jambalaya finding ham with no water added, sautéing the vegetables properly, are they stirring enough? Recipes don’t mean anything. Recipes are crap,” he shrugs. “What good is a recipe, really? If you don’t have a sense of taste, you’re lost.”
Roussos’ words are apt as I walk the streets that he once walked, right outside the French Quarter. New Orleans embodies two vastly different personalities: a drunken frat party for some; for others, a chance to sample some of the oldest, most renowned restaurants in the country. When I’m there, it’s eighty and sunny; people sip daiquiris all day and party all night. Music wafts through the air as I wander past bars. Every day an impromptu band of a half-dozen jazz musicians occupies the corner of Bourbon and St. Charles.
It’s surreal, especially because I’ve come here to experience Roussos’ favorite places. He’s given me a food itinerary (isn’t that the best kind?) to follow that includes po’boy hotspots, seafood musts and even an ice cream joint. I’m to stay at his favorite hotel, Le Pavilion, and report back what it was like. The man knows what he’s talking about. This elegant, French-inspired hotel built in 1907 is grand—crystal chandeliers, oil paintings and marble floors—along with friendly staff and well-appointed rooms. It’s a perfect recommendation if you’re visiting NOLA for the first time (or any time), and it’s my first clue that Roussos really cares how people experience his beloved city.
According to Roussos, New Orleans has been “yuppiefied.” He says it several times throughout our conversations—yet another reason why he might resist going back. But for the uninitiated, it’s all there: history, culture, music and a little voodoo magic. Yes, you’ve got your touristy knickknack shops and daiquiri bars on every block in the French Quarter. But there’s something in the air that no doubt cast a mystic hold on a young Roussos, so much so that he decided to bring his experience back to Madison, po’boy and all.
His cooking career began in earnest in New Orleans at the venerable French restaurant Antoine’s—his first job out of the U.S. Coast Guard. His task every morning was lighting the burners that would melt the butter in vats, then skimming the fat off the top of the melted butter, for the day’s dishes. When he took breaks he’d make his favorite dish: a spoonful of butter, fresh crab and creole sauce. The experience made such a mark that when the couple relocated (with a brief stop in Cleveland) to Madison—Roussos by then had done six years of undergraduate work—he was ready to make his own culinary move.
“If people ask me if they should open a restaurant, that’s your answer if you’re asking. It’s just something you do—it’s not a career choice. It’s not normal. Why would you risk all of that money? I can’t understand why anyone would do that.”
One of my first stops in New Orleans, per Roussos’ request, is Cassamento’s, an uptown dive joint known for oysters and po’boys. I immediately think of NOTO when I walk in. It’s one of those places where time stands still—an intentional effort to leave a good thing alone. Italian tiled floors, subway-tiled walls, sparse décor save for some Mardi Gras beads hanging here and there. Waitresses sport Saints jerseys. Two guys shuck oysters all day at a counter smack-dab in the middle of the dining room. Soda comes in glass bottles. And, boy, do they have a good fish fry. Cash only, of course.
New Orleans Take Out is similar in that it’s unremarkable when you come across it. It’s even less so when you enter, and Roussos’ kitchen was designed with a semi-open concept as well. The walls are pale pink with a ’90s-inspired wallpaper border. Framed posters of jazz festivals and famous jazz singers line the walls, though I never see one dated later than 2004, the year he visited New Orleans last.
Here, as in New Orleans, the gumbo is divine, and the red beans, delicious in their simplicity, are perfectly seasoned. The fried cod po’boy is dressed with pickles, mayo and a moist cod filet. But the real winners here are Deb’s barbecued shrimp—five plump broiled shrimp served in an aromatic cream sauce, paired with white or dirty rice—as well as the sweet potato pecan pie. The food stands in stark contrast to its surroundings, which of course, Roussos delights in.
“I love it this way here—I’m not obsessed with how it looks here, I’m obsessed with food. And if you go to New Orleans, you’re going to see that, too.” He points to a crumbling corner of the wall for evidence.
Nighttime in New Orleans is beautiful and mysterious. So many of the buildings have historic plaques, street names are heavy with references to the past (Royal, Bourbon, Frenchmen) and gas lamps still burn brightly outside many an edifice. Inside, the ambience at the Bon-Ton Café on Magazine Street, located in the historic Natchez Building, complements its old-world surroundings—red checkered tablecloths, iron chandeliers and an intoxicating joie de vivre. The food does not disappoint. The crabmeat au gratin and the red fish bon ton are so good, it’s obvious why Roussos sent me here. When I report back that Bon-Ton is just as good as he said it was, his brown eyes sparkle and you can tell he’s pleased, because that’s what he aims to do at NOTO, too.
“We’re like a time capsule of New Orleans food—we haven’t changed in the last thirty years like their food did,” he notes emphatically. “It’s tough for me to get people to ‘get’ what I’m doing, like food writers—you can’t write about what you don’t know. It’s like one day they’re
writing obituaries, the next day they’re writing about food.” Even if those food writers don’t “get” NOTO’s food, Roussos doesn’t seem to mind because for him, food is like art, subject to interpretation. With every ingredient and every stir, he’s painting his own masterpiece, and like an artist, he wants to share his creativity and passion. If it feels and tastes like New Orleans, the artist’s work is done.
Roussos looks out the window of NOTO and across the street at some old warehouses and bare lots flanked by chain-link fencing. “You know, some people say my place even reminds them of New Orleans, near the levies,” he says, thoughtfully. And just being there with Roussos now on the cusp of retirement, at sixty years old, I see a man who’s wistful for the past, but very much loves the present—his wife and two grown daughters occupying much of his time. He’s outgrown his wilder younger years. “I used to yell and curse at employees when I started out. Back then you would have to be here a while before I’d even talk to you. I like to get reactions from people. But I’ve mellowed with age.”
Roussos is part philosopher, part smart-ass much of the time. And the time has come, he thinks, to step down, and he’s already agreed to sell NOTO to his employee of ten years, Jed Kurer, who does all of the cooking now anyway. Meanwhile Roussos is focusing his energy on selling his products wholesale—pralines, jambalaya, red beans and rice and more. He shows me a potential label for the pralines, and it’s gorgeous.
He’s finally ready to let go.
“When I opened the restaurant I felt a sense of powerlessness—then the customers had the control. They had the power. The restaurant then had a personality of its own—it wasn’t about me anymore, and it won’t be about Jed, either.”
And now seeing the way he talks about the city that inspired him, he’s let go of that place, too, but it’ll always be in his memories, on the walls of NOTO and, of course, in the food. Ahhh, the food.
Plus, he admits with a devilish grin: “If I had stayed any longer in that city it would've eaten me alive."
Shayna Miller is associate and style editor of Madison Magazine.
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