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Interview: JoAnn Clevenger

Proprietor of Upperline


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JoAnn Clevenger moved to New Orleans as a teenager. Since then she has opened and run a bar, designed costumes and owned a vintage boutique. In 1987, she and her son opened Upperline. She is known for sharing lists of her favorite things in the city, telling stories about the art collection on display in the restaurant and for being a welcoming presence greeting patrons.

How do you explain the low turnover at Upperline?

Clevenger: Being a waitress when I was in my 20s taught me how to interact with other people and how to make them happy, because when you're a waitress or a waiter or bartender, your job is to enhance the guests' experience. They have come not because they're hungry .... they come because they want to have a nice experience. ... I think it's like being an actor or an actress. If you went onstage and no one ever applauded, it would be difficult to come back tomorrow and do it again. But when we make the guests really happy, they tell us and we get so excited and we go home and guess what? Tomorrow we want to come back and do it all over again.

What advice would you give new restaurant owners?

C: Be strong. Expect setbacks. And I think — more for people who are opening a small restaurant — it doesn't come immediately because there are so many other restaurants, and people have so many other choices. If you're first opening a restaurant, don't try to be open every hour possible. ... (Y)ou have to modify what you promise to people because you might not be able to give it. So if you over-promise, it's more likely that you fail.

  Generosity is also a part of this. Because generosity is tangible and whether it's just filling up the water glasses or bringing butter when they run low on butter without them having to ask, that's part of it. ...

  The other thing is to think about the people that you work with — that they are in this together with you. It's very important that they share your vision.

What do Creole and Cajun mean to you in regard to cooking?

C: Creole to me is an ever-evolving cuisine that was influenced by many different cultures and ethnic groups and geographical groups around the world. The latest in New Orleans that influenced it a lot has been the Vietnamese.

  Cajun is different. Cajun is, to me, a particular cuisine that's native to southwest Louisiana and it has parameters of what's grown there and what their culture is and what their traditional ways of cooking are. But Cajun has influenced Creole and Creole continues to evolve. It's like brown jambalaya and red jambalaya. Both of them are part of Creole. And if Creole were to stop ... at what point should it have stopped? When only the Spanish were here or should the French have been allowed in?


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