Michelle Nugent is in charge of a year-round operation that transforms the infield of a horse track into a sprawling outdoor food court full of Louisiana dishes, with some 66 vendors serving hundreds of thousands of visitors over the course of seven festival days. Raised in New Orleans, Nugent got started in the food business in the late 1980s with an apprenticeship under chef Susan Spicer at the Bistro at the Maison de Ville. She became Spicer's first sous chef at Bayona and later was executive chef at Spice Inc., the specialty food market Spicer ran in the Warehouse District. Nugent joined Jazz Fest staff as food director in 1999.
Food has become a big part of the Jazz Fest experience. What's your approach to planning all this?
Nugent: Because this is the Jazz & Heritage Festival we want to feature foods that represent the heritage of Louisiana. The menu is absolutely curated. We want variety. We have two jambalayas because one is red and one is brown. We have three gumbos because there are so many different gumbos out there. If (a vendor) resigns, we think very hard about what to replace it with. Not only do we look at the deliciousness of the food, but (a prospective vendor's) ability to do it at this scale.
What goes into quality control that might not be obvious to the average festival visitor?
N: The major thing is that we have the (state) board of health on site and no other festival does that. It's not a requirement but we do it, because on top of being delicious we want to be sure all of our food is safe. It allows us to sleep at night.
You must be running around a lot when the festival is on, but do you get to enjoy the food out there too?
N: I do my best to sample all the food every year, but with 210 items now, that's really not possible. My staff helps a lot, and everyone here is eating and checking on things and will report what they find. I do have a few favorites that I know I have to have every year, but I'm not saying which ones.