If being dragged through fire had the same effect on people that it does on steel, the chef and owner of 18bin restaurant would be darn near indestructible.
Jennifer Landry is executive chef of the restaurant, which opened in the Arts District in September, and the path she took to get there was anything but direct. The New Orleans native was raised by her father after her mother left when Landry was 3 months old.
“It was just he and I,” she said. “I grew up fast, but it was for a very good reason.”
Her son Sidney was born when Landry, now 40, was 19; son Tralen would follow just over a year later. Tralen was born at just 25 weeks, weighing 1 pound, 6 ounces, and is developmentally disabled. The single mom, wanting a better life for her little family, went to school to study accounting, finishing when Tralen was an infant.
“I thought I was going to dress up and control people’s money,” Landry remembers with a laugh. But it didn’t suit her.
“I would watch the clock — tick-tock, tick-tock. I have to move around.”
She’d always had an interest in cooking, her carpenter father even making her a stove when she was little. As a teenager she’d worked at Taco Bell and at a mom-and-pop, and those memories resonated: “If I’m happier at Taco Bell, I’m going to go to cooking school and make this the main event.”
So it was back to school. As she neared graduation, an instructor told her about a job at Loews New Orleans, part of the luxury hotel chain. She worked there for more than a decade, gradually moving up into management. Then she took a job at Loews Atlanta and the trio moved east. She worked in a restaurant that had a nine-course tasting menu.
“That was one of the best jobs I ever had, and the most money I ever made,” she said.
Her boys were close: “Sidney carried Tralen everywhere he went.”
But Sidney also was beginning to get into trouble. With Mom working the long hours of a chef, it was easy for him to slip out of the house and into petty crime.
“I was afraid something was going to happen to him,” Landry said. “I needed an extra set of eyes.” In New Orleans she had a network, so back home it was. Sidney was 16, Tralen 15.
Landry was determined that Sidney would get on the right track. Her father bought him a lawn mower so he could start a little business. On a day off from work, she had stopped at a shop to buy him a weed-eater and a leaf-blower. And then she got the news: two blocks from home, returning from a park, Sidney was shot, just shy of his 18th birthday. He wouldn’t survive.
Three days later, Landry went back to work.
“That kitchen was my sanctuary,” she said. “Nobody could get a piece of that pie. That was mine.”
She says the police knew who killed him but never brought charges.
“The detective told me and my father he did it,” she said. “There’s no justice.”
That knowledge would take its toll: “I would see him. I would see his mom. It never stopped. It consumed my life.”
She had a sister who taught fifth grade in Las Vegas; here she could escape, at least in part. After a job search she ended up at 18bin.
“I haven’t been this happy for a long time,” Landry said. “This area reminds me a lot of home.”
For five years in the early 2000s, Sonny Ahuja’s Bleu Gourmet created a huge buzz as the hot place in the northwest valley. After working as a wine merchant and consultant, he wanted a wine store with a grab-and-go selection of quality dishes that busy professionals could pick up on their way home.
“But I built it too comfortable,” Ahuja said. His customers didn’t want to grab and go; they wanted to stay and eat. He made it into a restaurant, buying furniture, dishes, glassware, hiring servers. And then the recession hit.
Ahuja is philosophical.
“We had a really great run,” he said. “We had great regulars.”
He kept the catering part of the business, and through it, he met someone with Zappos who brought him onto the small-business team of the DTP Companies, formerly the Downtown Project. He met and became friends with Don Welch, who would become his business partner. The pair opened Bin 702 with the Downtown Container Park in 2013. 18bin was named in homage to it, and to honor the 18b designation of the Arts District.
“I love the Arts District,” Ahuja said. “We’re downtown people. We both live downtown.”
The Arts Factory building, at East Charleson Boulevard and Main Street, is home to 18bin. Westley Myles Isbutt, who now owns the West Side Tavern in Longmont, Colorado, was an early proponent of the Arts District when he bought the building in 1991.
“It was a building that should have been condemned,” Isbutt said. Evidence he unearthed indicated it had been built during World War II, but otherwise its history remains murky. One thing Isbutt is sure of is that it once held a crematorium; he believes he found the evidence, a 10-by-10-foot blocked-off brick section with a chimney.
He soon established the first of what would be a long succession of restaurants.
“I needed a social gathering place for my art collective,” he said. “Everyone was meeting at my studio; that wasn’t working for me. I found my favorite restaurateur up the street and I went through all the nightmare of building a restaurant. If he had been on it, I’d be there today.”
The first restaurant was Tinoco’s Bistro, with tables Isbutt crafted to look like painters’ palettes and a floor made from brandy barrels he bought in Napa Valley.
After Tinoco’s, Paymon’s filled in for a while. Then there was an Italian restaurant, a tapas spot, an offshoot of the Crown & Anchor, a taco place.
And now, it’s eclectic American. Landry likens the menu to the decor, sourced in California salvage yards.
“Nothing matches,” she said, “but everything fits together.”
Among the menu highlights: bacon-crusted monkey bread with cream cheese icing and pork-belly caramel, Ropa Vieja Shepherd’s Pie and, evoking Landry’s hometown, Cajun jambalaya and crab and shrimp gumbo.
Besides thoroughly renovating the interior, Ahuja has redone the patio with an eye to events such as live-music brunches.
“That’s going to be a really beautiful focal point,” he said. “We understood the challenges of the space. We want it to be a place where people can hang out.”