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Foreign-run restaurants in Japan are not a new phenomenon, but customers would be struggling to find an eatery with a commitment to detail like Osaka’s Bistro New Orleans—a restaurant where the culinary intricacies and interiors seem to add up to more than the sum of their parts.

And while industrial espionage is the sort of term reserved for machinations within big business, C.C Haydel III, owner of Bistro New Orleans, can identify a spy on his premises when he sees one.

Creole gumbo, a soup from Louisiana

Creole gumbo, a soup from Louisiana

They are staff from Japanese restaurant chains, ostensibly visiting his place as regular customers, yet, in reality, sent by their bosses to scout for new recipes and culinary ideas.

“Dirty rice” at Bistro New Orleans, a mixture of complexity and spice

“Dirty rice” at Bistro New Orleans, a mixture of complexity and spice

Haydel, who was raised in New Orleans and launched his Osaka business in 2012, can easily spot the spies. But he does not mind their presence: he has authentic Cajun and Creole cookery flowing in his blood, and the competition would be hard-pressed to pass off their food as the real thing.

Bistro New Orleans’ offerings are a type where the devil is in the detail, and where attention must be paid to every intricacy, in order to create the genuine Louisiana experience.

Red velvet bread pudding

Red velvet bread pudding

“This is a Creole gumbo (soup), so it’s got a number of different things going on: sausage and crab; it is also served with shrimp,” Haydel says, as he stirs a large pot on the stove.

“There is chicken in it, too. One of the best descriptions I have heard of gumbo is that if all soups were cars, gumbo is a Rolls Royce. Not a Ferrari, not a Lamborghini.

“My gumbo has okra in it. Interestingly enough, okra is an African vegetable that came to New Orleans through the Caribbean, through Haiti . . . An okra-based gumbo has its own unique flavor, which I like. It is a favorite of the American South.”

Haydel explains that onions, peppers, and other ingredients are added to the gumbo.

“Hurricane” rum punch drink

“Hurricane” rum punch drink

“It is pretty much a complete meal,” he adds. Other exotica are also on offer, such as red beans and rice, Creole stuffed peppers, and red velvet bread pudding.

The food can be washed down with a variety of drinks, including the “Hurricane”—a beverage described by Haydel as “rum, more rum, and a fruit punch mixture.”

Homemade fusion
Cajun food, Haydel explains, originated in rural Canada. He calls it a “rustic” type of food, typically served as hearty, one-pot meals.

Creole, though, which has European roots, is considered more urbane, and is characterized by a greater variety of sauces. Both food types became staples in New Orleans.

This is a highly idiosyncratic business, one where the small details matter. It is not every day that you come across gumbo in Japan, nor is it often that you see a muffaletta sandwich—a savory snack available in the restaurant, crammed with salami and olive salad.

Haydel’s friends in Louisiana send him various spices, which he adds to his French fries. All the other raw materials he can buy from Japanese wholesalers.

“I definitely need green bell peppers, which are sweet, and western celery,” he says. “The ingredients that most of these dishes start with are onion, celery, and green peppers. I use white rice, but American-style long grain rice is not really available here, not even medium grain is available.”

Basmati and jasmine long grain rice can be bought in Japan, he adds, but “their flavor profile does not match what I need.”

There is a degree of pragmatism in his cooking methods. Short grain rice is used for the gumbo, and, for the dirty rice— a complex-tasting, spicy dish—Haydel first sautés the raw rice in oil, which keeps the grains separate when served.

Entrepreneurial spirit
Typically, some 50 customers patronize Bistro New Orleans every week: half the clientele is Japanese, the rest are foreigners.

“We had a Japanese businessman come in here a year ago, and he said that he had been to the United States, and had tried gumbo. So, he asked for that.”

Like many other catering businesses, Bistro New Orleans’ revenue is subject to seasonal peaks and troughs. Fall, with its cool winds, sees an influx of commuters on their way to and from work. But the searing hot Osaka summers have the opposite effect, with less custom.

Running a foreign restaurant, moreover, requires different types of business thinking. There is, of course, the challenge of sourcing the right produce. And given the restaurant’s New Orleans theme, Haydel is faced with the additional challenge of creating a look and atmosphere reminiscent of his hometown.

When he moved into the property, which is in the city’s Horie district, near the hubbub of the Shinsaibashi and Namba entertainment areas, he embarked on a thorough refurbishment program in order to recreate the New Orleans world.

He was astonished that many of the “beautiful” windows had been covered up with whiteboards by the previous owner. Now they are on full display.

Lighting is important, Haydel believes, to create just the right ambience. It cannot be too glaring, and not too dark, either, he says, because then the customers cannot see the subtle details of what they are eating.

“Warmth and cheer; that is what we want the atmosphere to have here,” he explains.

Haydel did not want his business to follow the path of some traditional restaurants, where clients often are more or less seated at separate tables. He put in raised benches and eating surfaces, to create an atmosphere where customers feel free to communicate with one another.

The benches are strategically positioned to enable people to simultaneously stand, talk, drink, and eat. He has created an environment that encourages his customers to mingle, and immerse themselves in the famously laid-back New Orleans way.

Musicians regularly perform at Bistro New Orleans—on 4 and 5 July there will be an American Independence weekend celebration that will include a barbeque, done in the New Orleans style. A jazz singer–saxophonist combination is scheduled for 11 July, and a rhythm and blues night is set for 18 July.

Memorabilia, such as the distinctive fleur-de-lis is an important feature, too, though Haydel was careful not to clutter the interior with too many artefacts from the Deep South.

He was also careful to avoid a corny-sounding name for his restaurant. Thus, he chose a no-frills name, which immediately declares what the restaurant does.

“I would never have called this place Bistro New Orleans in the States; it would make it sound like a tourist trap. If you went to a place in Osaka, and they advertised food from England, and they called it Piccadilly Circus, would you go there? I wanted a name that wasn’t too cheesy, and folks back home wouldn’t hang me for.”

Pricing, along with ingredients and image, are also important. The food, he says, is not cheap, but at the same time, it is not too expensive. Attention to detail, and the procurement of the right foods do incur substantial overheads, and these, in part, are reflected in the prices.

“I once told a customer that I can make it more affordable, but that it wouldn’t taste the same,” Haydel says with a smile.

TimMaughanBio
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Tim Maughan is an Osaka-based freelance business and industry journalist.

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Bistro New Orleans’ offerings are a type where the devil is in the detail, and where attention must be paid to every intricacy