As soon as I got off the elevator at baggage claim, I knew I was in New Orleans and I knew it had to be Super Bowl week. Immediately, I saw 200 limo drivers holding up signs for corporate types and A-list celebs and heard the background music provided by a Second Line band. All this was set to the staccato backbeat of a hundred pairs of 6-inch Loubs scooting across the linoleum floor as the out-of-town party girls made their way to the cars picking them up at the curb.
Super Bowl week is something else. When I got to the hotel at 6 p.m., I saw hundreds of famous faces in the lobby, including my old pal, middle-line-backing legend, Dhani Jones. I got to my room just in time to see the fireworks show over the river. The display is so impressive here in NOLA and as the entire weekend proved, NO ONE does the Super Bowl better than the City of New Orleans. Everything worked — the proximity of the events to each other, the great food and drink, the gracious hosts. Riding elevators with guys like Dr. Harry Edwards, George Seifert, and hundreds of players and former players gave me a swivel-neck ache like no other. I have tons of pics on my Instagram account (@chefaz) and at www.andrewzimmern.com, so go check it out.
Night one was all about eating. I went to August, and John Besh, Michael and Emily and their entire team cooked a meal for the record books: Three hours of insane chow celebrating all the flavors of NOLA, with a stunning array of oysters, crawfish and pastas crushed under the weight of sliced truffles and game meats. Plus, watching Aaron Sanchez get mobbed by fans, Packers great Clay Matthews have a Jerry Maguire-style dinner with his agent and Jeremy Piven work the room was a lot of the fun for sure. My pals swore they spotted reclusive super-agent and entertainment mogul Andrew Chason. Not sure I buy it.
Friday was all about the Let’s Kick Hunger Campaign for Taste of the NFL (make your reservations now for next year in New York City!). I spoke on hunger relief awareness issues at the Earl Morrall breakfast in a room filled with a hundred Hall of Famers, including most of the undefeated 1972 Dolphins team that Morral helped lead to Super Bowl glory. Mallory Hagan, our new Miss America, was my co-host for many Taste events all weekend … I have a pretty good job most days! I broke off for an hour to do the Dan Patrick show on Direct TV and make some etouffee, then Miss America and I took a slew of press and corporate execs out to Second Harvest food bank for a walkthrough and awareness-raising event, which couldn’t have been better. I spent a few hours in the NFL Media Center doing interviews and then got to spend some time with Patrick Warburton and Dhani Jones before rushing off to the Friday Night Huddle for Taste of the NFL and then to the Artie Lange show. Artie is a great guy, and hanging out with him and Joe Buck talking baseball was way cool. I cooked some Asian street food and then hit the showers before heading over to the first party of the night, the Playboy event at the old Jax Brewery.
A word about the scene here. The weekend can be divided into several layers: first there are the fans — they get tons of access depending on what they choose to buy into. I wanted to hit the NFL Experience but couldn’t get in … that’s a fan event. Then there are the celebs, tiered in A, B and C lists. We get invited to parties, to host events, do media interviews and participate in sponsor activations. Like restaurant health department grades, the better your letter, the better your fun quotient and … most importantly … the better your access at events. Then there are the players and the NFL execs. They attend anything they damn well please. It’s the Super Bowl! It’s their celebration. Then there are the sponsors. They run everything and make the rules. It’s always good to know the law of the jungle before you put on your pith helmet. The sponsors here create mega events: Questlove spinning with Jay Z and Justin Timberlake at the Direct TV SuperSaturdayNight, Stevie Wonder at the Bud Party, Lil Wayne at GQ, Cee-lo helmed the ESPN event, and so on.
Friday night at 11 I showed up at the Playboy party. Wow. Yes it was what you would expect: music thumping, booty-bumping, crab-cake-lumping … crazy crazy. Food by Besh, lots of great music and hanging out in small roped-off areas shouting at your friends who are 4 inches from you. Lots of networking, and fending off the Playmates … the girls all try to collect as many middle-aged, devilishly cherubic food dudes as they can. Just sayin’. By 3 a.m., I was sipping Café au Lait and eating beignets at Café du Monde with drunk street urchins, shifty grifters, cops, Lorena Garcia and crazy fans leaving bars in the French Quarter. By 4 a.m. I was in bed … wondering what the heck the next day would look like and if I would survive it.
Saturday morning I did some press and the concert at the Beach Bowl. It was amazing. Direct TV built the coolest super-tent and created a campus of buildings for all their parties and events. I went to the tailgate, then to the blue carpet. I am a mid-level B-list cable TV guy … I am so lucky, no complaints here. Any other day of year I am a “someone,” but not today. I felt about 2 inches tall as I had to explain who I am to hundreds of media gathered to talk to Snoop, Neil Patrick Harris, Neon Deion, Strahan, Toomer, Menounos, Palmer, Moon, Lolo Jones and the dozens of big deals assembled for this event. Getting taken down a peg is good for your spiritual development, and it puts things in perspective — I feel more grateful than I have in months. My agents and managers looked crushed that I got so little love, but I was thrilled — I got to walk the carpet with my idols!
I spent all afternoon and evening at Taste of the NFL, bussing it over to the Convention Center with 40 Hall of Famers and a dozen active players, which was the best hour of the weekend. We hit the floor and I checked in with one of my mentors, Wayne Kostroski — the Taste founder and a James Beard Humanitarian Award winner. I adore this man. What he has done to fight hunger in this country is epic. We raised tons of dough and as a topper, we get a $125,000 check from Party City. That will multiply 8 to 1 in the food bank world and create a million meals. I cried a little. In the middle of the fundraiser, we learned that several attendees got nominated to the Hall of Fame. Greatness. Lem Barney just kept saying the word “LOVE” over and over all night long. The greatest generation for sure.
By 10 I had to head to the Direct TV party zone for the concert. I was not prepared for what was inside. They took out the Beach Bowl field –including all the sand and bleachers — and created a nightclub in its place … in just 4 hours. There were erotic dancers, oysters and champagne, an A+ list crowd and Questlove killed it. Timberlake came out with a 20-piece orchestra after a 5-year performance hiatus and wowed the crowd … his cover of Michael Jackson’s “Shake” was EPIC. Jay Z appeared and all hell broke loose. Will Ferrell was in the parking lot as I left and took time to sign an autograph for our driver and make us laugh with some signature ribaldry. We checked out the GQ party with Lil’ Wayne and the Stevie Wonder party that Bud Light threw, then went off to the Ogden Museum for the final stop of the night. It was 4 a.m. before I got back home.
On Sunday morning I was up and at ‘em for a series of conference calls and then off to the game. Alicia Keys had a 6-car entourage leaving our hotel and 8 motorcycle cops in escort as she whipped her way down Poydras Street. The game was amazing: Beyonce amazed at halftime, Destiny’s Child had their reunion, the game came down to the wire and we raced out after Baltimore cemented the victory. CONGRATS BALTIMORE! We hit the private party that John Besh threw at Borgne and scarfed down some of the best chow of the weekend, complete with superb shrimp and grits and a crawfish boil.
What did I learn? Well, one thing is for sure: New Orleans is a city with the biggest heart, the most gracious hospitality and unforgettable, soulful food, and they know how to throw a party. The Crescent City never felt better. As I walked into Loews Hotel, the doorman asked me how my weekend was. I told him, and he said, “If you liked Super Bowl week, you ‘oughta check out Mardi Gras next weekend … it’s even better.” And having been here for that celebration, he’s right. That’s the kind of city this is: without peer.
- Andrew Zimmern, Host of Bizarre Foods America