You might recognize Isaiah "Ike" Jackson Jr. from the HBO series Treme and True Detective, American Horror Story or the movies 12 Years a Slave and Burnt. It's also possible you'll recognize him from Red Fish Grill, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, and where Jackson has worked for the past decade as a server, charming customers with his laughter and jovial attitude. Jackson spoke with Gambit about acting and restaurant work.
What got you into acting and the service industry?
Jackson: I started at Ralph's on the Park right before Hurricane Katrina. I was there for a year, and then went to Arlington, Texas to stay with my uncle for a year. (When) they said they needed people at Red Fish Grill, I (moved) there. It was a two-man team back then. I was with my partner Greg, and I learned the ropes through him. I was the backwaiter, and then all of a sudden, Greg got sick. So I had been watching him and knew what to do. Afterwards, about a week and half later, he told me when I took the food, our check average went up and our tip average went up. After that, he took the back, I took the front, and the rest is history.
With acting, the (woman) who did casting for The Wire came here to work for two months and she asked me, "Why don't you try out for this television show?" I thought it was too late in the game for that. I'm 53 right now, and that was just a couple of years ago. But I went on an audition, and she just kept asking me back. Treme was my first show. I had never done anything like that, but I liked it.
Now, I don't call them, they call me. Sometimes they might need that "true New Orleanian figure," and they might call me. If they want a New Orleans accent, I just come out and shine at the moment. And if I get it, cool. If I don't, cool.
I always tell them, "If it's over five lines, I don't want it." I'd rather be in this restaurant.
Do acting skills help you at the restaurant?
J: Looking people in the eye. Some waiters, they might hang in the back. A lot of waiters want the maximum tip but want to spend less time at the table — it don't work like that. You gotta put in work, whatever you do. No crumbs on the table when you're picking up the check. Waiting tables is shining work, the customer shouldn't have to touch nothing.
People who come to New Orleans, they just want to be entertained. They want to learn about the culture, the food, the city, how it's been since Katrina. With me, you get dinner and a show. Do I love putting on a show? Oh, man. People come in and recognize me; I don't remember names but I remember faces. This is what I do for a living. I don't want the guest to ask me for nothing. I want to give them the best dining experience of their lives.
What I like about waiting tables is that every day is a different day. I have a different experience every day, and that's what keeps me going. I meet different people every day and they try different things. I come in and I'm ready to take care of people.
What's the best place to go for a drink after work in the French Quarter?
J: The customers always want to know where to go, and I tell them, skip Bourbon, go straight to Frenchmen Street. When I get off I don't like to hang out around here. I stay in Mid-City, so I go to The Holy Ground (Irish Pub), DMac's (Bar & Grill), Finn McCool's (Irish Pub) and Bayou Beer Garden.