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Photography By: Mark Leet
Jan Birnbaum & I met at Cedarcrest elementary school in 1967, so we have been friends for 51 years. For young folks, I know that sounds like a long time, but to me – it doesn’t feel far away at all. He was my oldest friend.
I really don’t know how we got to be friends – we had nothing in common. I was kinda white-trash country kid, growing up in the Baptist church. Jan was Jewish and really a city kid. His dad sold fine men’s clothing – mine sold tomato plants. About the only thing we had in common, was that we both had weird names and we both shopped in husky department.
For the next 8 years or so, we did everything together – discovered music, learned to drive, worked on old cars, chased girls, played football and bagged Passman’s Bark. We shared lies, truths and secrets.
At my house we learned about farming, swimming in the Tickfaw river and Southern cooking. My parents, Myrt and Wiley, loved Jan and considered him part of our family. At Jan’s house I learned about Passover, quality clothes and brothers. At the Birnbaums – I learned that brothers could fight and still love each other. And I don’t mean disagreements – I mean broken furniture & crying Judy.
After we graduated from Woodlawn, Jan decided to major in Petroleum Engineering at LSU. I think the entire universe, except Jan, knew that that was not his destiny. Following his Dad, Jan sold clothes and was very successful at that, but it was when he experienced a commercial kitchen that he found his real path. Jan dropped everything, bailed on a very lucrative career in Baton Rouge, and talked his way into a prep cook position at K-Paul’s, which at the time, was undoubtedly the hottest restaurant in America.
In New Orleans, Jan found everything he needed for the rest of his life – he found his career and he found Linda. For the next 35 years, Jan took care of the kitchen and Linda took care of Jan.
Linda was perfect for Jan and so was the kitchen. When he started, Jan had no experience, but he was a workaholic and way more polished than most starting cooks. Jan would work shifts for free, just to learn another station. He could use whatever drew him into engineering, because he had to be methodical and disciplined, in order to deliver consistent food. Jan loved food heritage and understanding where recipes, methods and ingredients originated. But he could use his creativity and imagination to make it his own. Throughout his career, just like Chef Paul, Jan was perfectly willing to work 100% harder or spend 100% more on ingredients to make something 10% better. That philosophy always results in something delicious, but not always profitable, but that dilemma was Linda and accountant’s concern – not our friend Jan.
In addition to being a superb cook, Jan had a deep-rooted passion for hospitality. In Jan world – experimentation and celebration were mandatory. He loved watching people enjoy themselves and he loved knowing he was, in many ways, responsible for their joy. In one of our last conversations, after he got home from the hospital, Jan told me how happy he was –. I’m sorry Linda, but for some reason, I love that final image of Jan laying in bed, at his apartment seeing his friends smile … he described himself as grinning from ear-to-ear, having a sip of champagne, snacking on caviar, morphine and marijuana cookies, , as you and Jeff and Lawrence worked the door deciding on who to let in and how long they could stay.
Jan Birnbaum always had style. From 5th grade on, Jan was very deliberate in how he looked. He was a dandy. He always cared about his hair, his beard, and his clothes. Jan was probably my only friend that had accessories. Whether he was in his uniform or street clothes, No matter if he weighed 300lbs or 150lbs, he paid attention, and he liked it when others noticed. I believe that he main reason Jan took off all the weight was so he could buy clothes.
I remember one night, when Jan was visiting New Orleans. It was during the Catahoula years, he had a business and I had 3 kids and we hadn’t seen each other in a while. For some strange reason, we decided to go the newest, hottest, hippest nightclub club in town. One of those places that had a dress code and a doorman. Jan always walked slow and at this point he was slower than ever. There was a long ramp to the door and I could see the gigantic doorman checking us out. We finally got to the front of the line. Between me, Jan and the doorman there must have a 1000 lbs of human blocking the way. The doorman just looked up and down at Jan. Now at this time, Jan was at his biggest. He was huge. Probably 400 lbs. He was frustrated because it’s hard to be dapper at 400 lbs. He had trouble finding clothes, so he wore those baggy black chefs pants. To be baggy on Jan, they were some big ass pants. His feet were hard to get to, so he wore just wore black chef’s clogs. On top, somewhere he had found this weird black shirt/smock thing. It kinda looked like a chefs jacket but it wasn’t. To me he looked like he just got off the line, and I didn’t think there was any way we were gonna get in, but he had on a couple of necklaces and a row of bracelets on each arm. I think he was sporting his new cock rooster tat. Jan, literally had a big head and when he gained weight, it got even bigger. His head must have weighed 50 lbs and his eyes were just 2 slits. His hair was long and pulled back into what might have been the first man bun in south Louisiana. That giant security man just looked at Jan. He had never seen anything like this before. Then he sneered and said – “you can’t come in here”. Of course, Jan cocked his head, kinda smiled and said “What’s amatta baby, why not?” The musclebound sentry’s grinned and said – “cuz, you look too damn good – now get your ass inside big dawg”. I knew management, was wearing a blazer and slacks, but the only reason I got in was because of Jan and his style.
I told Linda a couple of weeks ago that I believed that the reason Jan and I stayed friends for so long is that we always made each other laugh. We could go a couple of years without seeing each other and within an hour we be hooting it up. I’m not talking about chuckling but pee in your pants laughing. Since we passed 60, the pee in our pants was much more likely, but it sure is hard to find someone that make you lose yourself in laughter. I really wanted to wrap this up by telling you some hilarious yarn that have you rolling in the aisles, but it’s been almost a month and I have come up with nothing. You see what really cracked us up was making fun of people doing stupid stuff, so obviously we usually just laughed at each other and ourselves. Having a friend for over 50 years that can help you laugh at yourself is a real blessing. I miss my friend.
Peace & love…dp