If you ask anyone involved in food preparation, “What’s the most important piece of equipment in your kitchen?” they’ll give you the same answer. Whether it’s a Japanese sushi chef slicing a single sliver of sashimi, or a French sous chef concocting complex cuisine, every person in a kitchen will tell you, the most important tool they possess is their knife. Not just “a knife,” but their own particular, favorite brand and type of knife. And many people who take food prep seriously have only one particular person they trust to sharpen their knives.
In New Orleans, that person is very often Jackie Blanchard. Jackie and her partner Brandt are the owners of a business called Coutelier, on Oak Street in Uptown. And they have a second branch in Nashville Tennessee. Coutelier is a cutlery shop that specializes in rare, hand-forged Japanese knives. Jackie and Brandt work with over 55 different Japanese knife makers. They also sell a range of other specialist, high quality kitchen tools.
The tradition of knives goes back a long way in Japan. It can be traced back the forging of swords. Similarly, the tradition of fine arts and decorative pieces that beautify the interior of a house can be traced back a long way in Europe. And specifically in France. As you’re well aware if you live in New Orleans or have ever visited, when the French settled New Orleans they brought their architects who designed and built grand buildings. But they didn’t stop there. They also brought generations of decorative style to bear on the insides of these homes.
Valerie Legras is continuing that tradition today. Valerie was born and raised in France, and lives in New Orleans. She’s an interior designer who specializes in importing lighting fixtures from select French designers. Valerie’s company is called Swadoh. In Swadoh’s showroom on Tchoupitoulas Street in the Warehouse District you’ll find what could pass for a gallery of art installations, but is actually a hand-picked collection of French lamps and lampshades.
New Orleans has gone through a lot of stages in its over three hundred years of existence. We were the home of opera, jazz, and a European food and coffee culture. We had the busiest port and were the most cosmopolitan and sophisticated city in the country. Then the tide of history turned. We had years of out-immigration. Other cities, like Miami and Dallas, came along and dominated the economies we once controlled. And businesses deserted our downtown.
For the last almost-two-decades we’ve been changing all that. Now we’re seeing New Orleans return with a different, but undeniably resurgent economy. With it we’re seeing the return of specialization and cosmopolitan sophistication that comes with the growth of cities.
Jackie Blanchard and Valerie Legras’ successful businesses are both indicators of New Orleans’ economic upswing. Twenty years ago we would have had to visit New York to find a specialist knife store like Coutelier, or a French art lighting showroom like Swadoh. Today the positive direction of the city has given Jackie and Valerie the confidence to build these unique businesses in New Orleans,
Out to Lunch is recorded live over lunch at NOLA Pizza in the NOLA Brewing Taproom. You can see photos from this show by Jill Lafleur at our website. And here’s more conversation about cosmopolitan direction of the New Orleans economy.