Horst Pfeifer stalks the two acres of land around his new restaurant on the blue channel connecting lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas and jokes that by buying Middendorf's this spring he also acquired the title of president of the Manchac levee district.
That's what both he and the Lamonte family who sold him the place call the elaborate, privately built flood control system of seawalls and pumps that kept the landmark restaurant intact during the disastrous 2005 hurricane season. Middendorf's emerged relatively unscathed from the hammering of wind and water, but much of the south Louisiana world around it changed. So it goes that Pfeifer, a German-born New Orleans chef who operated Bella Luna, one of the most highly rated and posh restaurants in the French Quarter, is now at the helm of a sprawling, Depression-era seafood house where people line up outside for dinners of fried catfish.
Pfeifer concedes that he threw his friends and admirers a curveball, and he is clearly loving every minute of it. An avid gardener, he has already built a new flower garden beside one of the two Middendorf's dining halls and has torn down an old shed to make room for tomatoes and herbs.
"I wanted to show people a little something different, but you just can't touch the catfish," Pfeifer says.
That wouldn't be a very good idea. Middendorf's fried catfish is heralded across the region for its exceptional texture, taste and freshness, a result of the unique way it has been prepared here since Josie Middendorf and her husband Louis opened the place in 1934. The restaurant has grown exponentially since then, but the catfish is still shaved by hand into extremely thin pieces, coated in cornmeal and fried in small batches.
Some complain that the thin ribbon of catfish is overpowered by the fry itself, but most people who try the stuff become addicted to its almost brittle crunch and salty succulence, so much so that a 40-minute drive from the city for catfish and fries is a perfectly reasonable proposition.
"Working with the ladies in the kitchen, it's like a religious thing, the way they handle it all," Pfeifer says of Middendorf's kitchen staff. "Nothing gets mixed with anything else. The oysters go in the oyster oil, the shrimp goes in the shrimp oil, the catfish goes in the catfish oil, that's why they all taste like themselves instead of each other."
Pfeifer's admiration for the country-style cooking of his employees sounds genuine, but this is hardly the chef's first rodeo.
Pfeifer has been cooking in restaurants since age 15 and earned a master chef's degree in his native Germany. He led kitchen staffs at luxury hotels in Austria, Italy and Texas before moving to New Orleans. In 1991, at age 28, Pfeifer and his wife Karen opened Bella Luna. The restaurant had an opulent dining room of banquettes, plush carpeting and large windows framing sweeping views of the Mississippi River. It was as well known as a prime romantic spot as it was for its tableside preparations of fettuccine and its veal osso buco, and countless marriage proposals were made under its roof.
That roof was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina and Bella Luna was also sacked by looters in the storm's aftermath. Pfeifer says he was initially eager to reopen. Then the first anniversary of the storm passed and there was still no sign of progress either from his insurer or his landlord -- the city of New Orleans, which owns the French Market property. Last September, he announced Bella Luna's closure was permanent.
"It's very painful every time I walk past there," says Pfeifer, who lives nearby in the French Quarter. "I want Bella Luna back, and I wish I were back there. But eventually I had to make a decision in my life."
He and Karen continued running their catering business, the Foundry in the Warehouse District, and looked for possible restaurant locations around the city, but nothing ever materialized. Then a friend introduced them to Susie Lamonte, whose grandparents first opened Middendorf's, and her husband Joe. The Lamontes wanted to sell and both parties say they very quickly hit it off and came to terms.
"I think Katrina changed a lot of people's lives. It changed ours and it really made things happen for some people," says Joe Lamonte. "We're thrilled that Horst is in charge of the place. He's our best friend now. We stayed on for a month (after the sale), but him and Karen and his manager just soaked it up so quickly."
Pfeifer isn't doing much cooking these days, but rather coming up with more efficient ways to run the restaurant without changing the vintage feel that is part of its appeal. For instance, he showed the dessert cook a water bath technique that keeps the bread pudding from burning at the edges and has added more phone lines to speed up credit card transactions.
His grand plan for the future, however, calls for a new dining hall between the old building and the water, to be built like a screened-in deck with a bar, a seafood boiling area open to view and a play area outside for kids. He envisions it helping the restaurant become more of a meeting place for families midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. He hopes to have it complete by Easter weekend next year.
"It's exciting, but I'm really learning patience. We're just going to do it slow and bring everyone along and make this something even better for the region," says Pfeifer. "But I can tell you this, you won't see truffle fettuccine here."
- Ian McNulty
- Chef Horst Pfeifer enjoys some fried catfish at Middendorf's, which he took over in the spring.