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‘Treme’ Plates Up New Orleans Cuisine for HBO Series

David Chang and Kim Dickens in "Treme." Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO.

David Chang and Kim Dickens in "Treme." Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO.

If you are not watching the HBO series “Treme,” trust me, from a food fanatic’s point of view, you are seriously missing out. The series, created by David Simon and Eric Overmeyer first roared into America’s living rooms on April 11, 2010, with all the stunning force of Hurricane Katrina.

Set in the devastated city of New Orleans, the story line picks up three months after that life-changing event. Although most of the recurring characters are fictional, so many real-life musicians and chefs make regular appearances that New Orleanians have come to regard “Treme” as “our reality TV show.”

From the very start, the writers and producers recognized the important role that food plays in New Orleans’ everyday life and how it figured into the rebuilding of the city. Actress Kim Dickens plays chef/restaurateur, Janette Desautel, a character loosely modeled on Chef Susan Spicer. To ensure authenticity, Spicer was brought on from the start for consultation with culinary matters such as drafting  Desautel’s menu and teaching  basic knife skills to the actors.

Familiar faces in fictional kitchens

The show is largely shot on location in New Orleans, so these professional touches were needed to make the actors look and behave at home in a professional kitchen setting. Chef Aaron Burgau’s Uptown restaurant, Patois, provided the location for Desautel’s, Janette’s restaurant in the first season.

By Season 2, David Simon had recruited Tony Bourdain to write the food-focused episodes. “I’d been a long time fan of David Simon’s, so when he called me about working on ‘Treme,’ I squealed like a little girl!” Bourdain said.

Bourdain recruited friends who happened to also be celebrity superstar chefs. Eric Ripert, Tom Colicchio, Wylie Dufresne and David Chang to make a surprise appearance at Desautel’s before Janette closes her restaurant and trades the Big Easy for the Big Apple.

Celebrity chefs dine together in a scene from "Treme."

Celebrity chefs dine together in a scene from “Treme.” Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO.

“Treme’s” executive producer, Nina Noble, and production designer, Chester Kaczenski, made a whirlwind trip through New York kitchens. They used Ripert’s Le Bernadin to shoot on location. When Janette goes to work for David Chang at the fictional Lucky Peach restaurant, Kaczenski so meticulously recreated Chang’s Momofuku kitchen on a set in a New Orleans’ West Bank warehouse that Chang said he had a “freaky, out of body experience” the first time he saw it.

Scenes set in famous New Orleans bars and restaurants are peppered throughout all three seasons of “Treme.” Chef Leah Chase re-creates her annual Holy Thursday Gumbo Z’herbes luncheon at Dooky Chase so that the fictional political characters could make an appearance as the real New Orleans politicos always do. We see Spicer at her French Quarter restaurant, Bayonne, celebrate a traditional Christmas feast at the 150-year-old Tujague’s and enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the rollicking at the annual Galatoire’s lunch on the Friday before Mardi Gras.

A fantasy menu

Season 3, which debuted in September, sets the culinary bar high in the very first episode. Chang, Janette’s fictional boss, brings her along to an exclusive chefs’ dinner. New Orleans’ restaurant Mila provides the edgy, New-York-style location for a fictional, establishment, Brulard’s. Bourdain’s script has Ripert, Colicchio and Dufresne dining with Jonathan Waxman and Alfred Portale on a fantasy menu of pâtés and charcuterie, salmon en croute with dill cream, lievre a la royale and isle floatant, all washed down with a 1961 Chateau Latour Grand Vin.

Later, when Janette heads home to open a new upscale eatery, Desautel’s on the Avenue, Kaczenski created an entire, functional new restaurant, using much of the real equipment from “Lucky Peach.”  Chef Emeril Lagasse takes Janette under his wing when her own new looming celebrity overwhelms her then, there is a strictly New Orleans version of the celebrity chef dinner when chefs Spicer, John Besh, Donald Link, Scott Boswell, and JoAnne Clevenger of the Upperline dine together at Janette’s new restaurant.

If you can’t get enough of chef reality TV, catch up on “Treme’s” Season 1 and 2, available online and on DVD. I promise you Sunday nights filled with guilty food porn-style pleasure as you join me for another new serving of delicious “Treme.”

Photo: David Chang and Kim Dickens in “Treme.” Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Zester Daily contributor Poppy Tooker is an author, culinary teacher and host of the weekly NPR radio show "Louisiana Eats." The New Orleans native is a frequent guest on The Food Network and the History Channel and the author of "The Crescent City Farmers Market Cookbook."