April is recognized as National Brunch Month, and we’re honoring the month by digging deep into the culinary history of New Orleans and Chef Madame Begue, the unintentional creator of Brunch.
New Orleans is a city of firsts. The city’s restaurant scene has been a breeding ground for original recipes, world-class chefs and dining habits made into steadfast traditions, (e.g., brunch). We all know what brunch is, the widely popular late-breakfast-early-lunch meal celebrated across the world, but let’s not forget Chef Madame Begue and her contribution to the culinary scene in the late 19th century, bringing ‘brunch’ to the masses with her ‘butcher’s breakfast’ on the corner of Decatur and Madison streets. The trend of dining late on the weekend has evolved tremendously, and is now commonplace for any restaurant to have a brunch menu, but Chef Madame Begue lit the fire to the brunch fuse.
The Bavarian-born Elizabeth Kettenring moved to New Orleans in 1853 to be with her brother, a French Market butcher. It was through her brother Phillip that she met and married Louis Dutrey, and then soon after the couple opened Dutrey’s Coffee Shop on Decatur and Madison streets. She served butchers and service workers from the Mississippi River, and gained quite the reputation for her French-Creole recipes. Sadly, Louis passed away but Elizabeth kept cooking.
She found love again five years later with another butcher, Hypolite Begue, and married him, taking his name and changing the name of her café to Begue’s Exchange. The spot drew a large local crowd of butchers and local workers every day at 11 a.m. This was about the time they were winding down after having been working since dawn, so a good meal was necessary.
By the time the World Cotton Centennial came to town in 1884, Begue’s Exchange was the place to be. Tourists dropping off the train into the French Quarter caught wind of her lavish ‘butcher's breakfast’ and had to try it for themselves. A meal intentionally meant for locals unintentionally became a sensational experience for tourists. According to the Times Picayune the World Cotton Centennial was a financial fail for the city because less than half of the expected crowd showed up, but brunch lives on as one of its legacies, this written in 1917 on the day of Hypolite’s death.
The Times Picayune wrote “one started with shrimp salad, ham omelette and chicken blanquette,” in a nostalgia piece on June 21, 1925. “Then liver a la Begue, for which the restaurant was famous. Veal chops with green peas and potatoes browned in butter, salad, dessert and coffee.” Madame Begue’s also made spectacular use of the fresh local seafood and used traditional Creole cooking methods.
Word traveled fast to Begue’s neighbor Tujague’s, just a few doors down on Decatur Street. Husband and wife owners Guillaume and Marie Abadie Tujague welcomed in all the extra diners later in the day, offering their own version of the 'second breakfast.' Madame Begue famously only served 30 diners a day. Her small dining room and stand-up bar left out many hopeful guests.
Upon Madame Begue’s passing in 1906, many were saddened and her legacy lives on as the first Creole chef of New Orleans. Begue’s Exchange lost its touch after she left. Hypolite had married a woman who worked closely with Madame Begue, so she knew her recipes, but it just wasn’t the same. When Guillaume Tujague passed, his sister and her husband took control of Tujague's and bought out Begue’s Exchange, ultimately moving Tujague’s the fateful corner of Decatur and Madison streets.
The second oldest restaurant in New Orleans, and third oldest continually operating restaurant in the nation, was housed in that building for over 100 years. Now, Tujague’s is located blocks down the other side of Jackson Square at 429 Decatur Street. Owner Mark Latter succeeded the property and business from his father Steven Latter, who owned it with his brother Stanford. The brothers purchased Tujague’s from Phillip Guichet Sr. and his business partner Jean-Dominic Castet, who had taken over from the original owner’s sister, Alice Tujague Anouilh.
Latter is proud to have Tujague’s under his hospitality group Latter Hospitality, and to carry on the Tujague’s name in New Orleans. He has played a large role in the modernization of Tujague’s brunch and dinner menu.
“With Tujague’s having such a longstanding tradition at dinner service with our original Table d'Hote prix fixe menu, it is nice to also honor the tradition of brunch here in New Orleans,” said Latter. “Our menu celebrates the idea of a wonderful French Quarter brunch experience with dishes highlighting local ingredients like our Crawfish Cakes and Eggs. Only in New Orleans can brunch include a bowl of gumbo or a fried shrimp po-boy.”
Brunch food has typically been a combination of eggs and meats, with the additions of soups and cocktails, but Latter likes knowing Tujague’s also gives their guests a true New Orleans dining experience wrapped in the brunch concept.
“We have options for the more casual brunch-goer, those who want to enjoy a lavish three course occasion, and everything in between,” said Latter. “Perhaps most important, bottomless mimosas are available to keep the fun going.”
At the helm of the kitchen is Executive Chef Gus Martin who enjoys paying tribute to Madame Begue through his menu. Though the recipes are not the same, they are inspired by the idea of people coming together over a hearty meal. Brunch may be breakfast-meets-lunch, but the deeper meaning of connection is clear.
“Brunch is really about sitting around at the table enjoying good food and spending time with good friends and family,” said Chef Martin. “That’s something that I’m sure existed back in the days of the butcher’s breakfast: a group of comrades sitting around a table enjoying a satisfying meal after a long early morning of work. While we might not serve the same dishes that were originally served at Madame Begue’s, we honor that same tradition of a group of folks around the table enjoying a lasting meal together.”
The Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) was established in 1946 to advocate on behalf of the state’s foodservice and hospitality industries.