After a year covering New Orleans food and trying to keep up with an ever-changing restaurant scene, what always stands out are the people I met along the way, and the many ways they express this city's avid food culture.
What follows is my annual column of thanks to them. Some I met for the first time. Others I got to know little better.
Their stories filled my notebooks through the year; looking back, now they fill me with gratitude for the time they gave me, the stories they trusted me to tell, and for their contributions to a food culture all of us can share.
Let’s hear from a few of them below.
The glory of Gloria’s
Gloria’s Grocery (1800 Conti St.) is really more about people than groceries. It might seem unremarkable from the street, but step inside and Gloria's reveals a tapestry of family, friends and community.
The store is a place where people come for a midday beer, a pantry staple, a homestyle lunch or an impromptu happy hour as the evening gathers.
Gloria Hilliard, now 83, has run this 4th Ward corner store since 1970. Through its doors, she’s seen the march of time and shift of generations but also the continuity of New Orleans neighborhood life.
“It’s all still the same people from the neighborhood that I found here, so we’re all right,” she told me. “Even when people leave, even the people we lost after Katrina, they still have family here and they still pass by to see us.”
Hilliard’s own role in the neighborhood has grown too. She's become a matriarch for an extended family of regulars, a keeper of the social ties woven here.
“Sometimes I got to fuss at (customers) if they’re being short with me,” she acknowledged. “But they know I love them.”
Bread for a century, and beyond
This year marked a century in business for John Gendusa Bakery (2009 Mirabeau Ave.,  283-2747), one of the last producers of po-boy bread, a vital supplier for a cornerstone of New Orleans food. The anniversary was a chance to check on its future too.
Right now that’s on the powerfully built shoulders of Jason Gendusa, fourth-generation owner of the Gentilly bakery.
“There are so few of us making this kind of bread now, and that’s part of it,” Gendusa said of his calling. “I feel like we have to keep it going for that reason as much as anything.”
Gendusa is trying to lay the groundwork to make the passage to the next generation smoother, and more likely. That means working today to make the bakery more efficient and streamlined in the future, when his two grade school daughters, Lauren and Leah, could take over -- if they want to.
“I want to turn over a business that they can manage, not one they have to run and manage like I'm doing,” he said. “But just like when I first got into the business, they will have a choice.”
From the Tigris and Euphrates to Metairie
I came to Almasgoof (5024 W. Esplanade Ave., Metairie,  308-3600) for its namesake dish, perhaps the national dish of Iraq, a whole fish cooked over wood, redolent of garlic and lemon and pomegranate.
I came away with a tale of fractious history, determination and the unifying power of good food served with heart.
Mahmoud “Alan” Alhattab is the proprietor, perpetual host, very often the waiter and usually the lead cook at Almasgoof. He’s from Basra, a riverfront Iraqi city where almasgoof is an obsession.
He was 18 when the first Gulf War erupted in 1990. He was wounded by a sniper’s bullet while serving as an interpreter for the American army. He later spent five-plus years in a refugee camp in the desert, awaiting a visa to the United States. He describes a period of idled desolation as time ticked past.
But the camp was well supplied with food through the American military, and he turned to the cooking skills he learned at his own family’s restaurant. He cooked daily for hundreds of other men at the camp.
“It was like a prison, I had to do something to occupy myself and forget where I was; so I cooked every day,” Alhattab said. “I can’t forget those days, hard times, big time. But I got something out of it.”
He eventually made it to New Orleans, where today he’s an avid ambassador for the cooking of his home country at a restaurant that can transport you.
Picking and sipping in Lafitte
Higgins Seafood (2798 Jean Lafitte Blvd., Lafitte,  689-3577) in Lafitte is an enduring throwback to the old ways of Louisiana seafood, a mom-and-pop processor for pristine crabmeat, oyster sacks, shrimp and crawfish from local fishermen.
It’s also a hub for its small community; customers often stick around to shoot the breeze with owners Dottie and Denny Higgins and maybe down a Miller Lite from their ice chest.
All this was almost lost. The Higgins were overwhelmed by the devastation Hurricane Ida brought in 2021, on top of a steady incline of change, costs and hardship for people in their business.
But it was friends and neighbors around Lafitte who made the difference. As the family rallied to clean up the shop, others volunteered to pitch in. More stopped by to ask when they might reopen.
“That’s what did it, eventually,” Dottie said. “We could see the light at the end of the tunnel. And getting that feedback from people, asking you to come back, it makes you feel good.”
Today they’re still picking crabs and the stories are flowing too.
Different oysters, deep heritage
The clutch of oysters from Bayou Rosa I tried one summer day at Sidecar Patio & Oyster Bar (1114 Constance St.,  381-5079) were meaty and briny, dense, and carried an herbaceous oyster liquor. They also carried the essence of rebirth and hope for the family business behind them.
“We’re continuing the legacy of a fourth-generation oyster business here, by different means,” said Jason Pitre, who runs Bayou Rosa Oyster Farm near the end of Bayou Lafourche.
Pitre and his family are members of the United Houma Nation, and they are deeply enmeshed in the heritage of this Native American tribe.
His late grandfather started the oyster business in the traditional way, harvesting by rake off his pirogue. But as the environment changed around them, once productive oyster beds ran dry.
Then the family discovered cultivated oyster growing, which gives them a more active hand in cultivating and more flexibility to respond to changing conditions. As they make a place in the market, they’re opening a different future for the family.
“We are continuing a legacy in a nontraditional way. It’s us adapting to the changing environment so that our legacy and identity survives,” Pitre said.
Cooking with the ‘assassin’
When you eat at 8 Fresh Food Assassin (1900 N. Claiborne Ave.,  224-2628), you taste the results of two different schools of cooking, neither of them of the culinary school variety.
One school was the bustling kitchen at Galatoire’s, where Manny January worked for 17 years. The other school was the street, where January built his own business and his own following. Combining the two has brought New Orleans an anytime casual counter service spot where you can get grilled lamb chops, buttery lobster tails, T-bone steaks or seafood-stuffed potatoes.
January had a rough start in life, and spent two years in prison. He got a job at Galatoire’s right after his release and moved up the ranks to sous chef. When he started his own street food business he started seeing more potential ahead.
“I just thought if I can find a home I can really show people what I can do,” he said.
Now he’s doing just that. And as for the name 8 Fresh Food Assassin, here’s how January himself explains it: “I'm from the 8th Ward, my first menus had eight dishes, I cook fresh and I assassinate it.”
Culinary Queens rolling
The Culinary Queens of New Orleans is a new Carnival krewe that debuted in Jefferson Parish this year composed of women in the food and hospitality business.
These are small businesses, made from scratch. Many members are sole proprietors, and some are pursuing these ventures while keeping their primary jobs in health care, social work and other professions.
Together, though, they’ve built a network that is expanding their contacts, resources and prowess.
“New Orleans culture is so rooted in food,” said Kimmy Townsend, a charter member and owner of Kimmy’s Creations, a dessert brand.
“You find so many different people across our community connected through it, you can reach out and support them and they support you.”
Stirring the pho, for generations
As she does every morning, Viet Nguyen took up her station in the kitchen at Thanh Thanh, the Vietnamese restaurant her daughter Betty Archote runs in Gretna. She is in charge of the pho, and she tends a roiling, 50-gallon stockpot that stands shoulder height to her petite frame.
“Only my way works,” Nguyen said, while stirring the pot.
Nguyen prepares the fragrant beef broth just the way her father taught her back in Vietnam, before her family fled their war-torn country, before they became Americans.
Her pho is a touchstone for a large, entrepreneurial local family. It’s served at Thanh Thanh and also at two outlets of Archote’s other brand, Huey P’s Pizzeria & Daiquiris. It also sometimes turns up at lunch at The Louise S. McGehee School, the private school for girls in the Garden District, where Archote provides school meals. Nguyen's son Tung Nguyen used it at his restaurant Em Trai Sandwich Co. too, though he's closed that now and moved into catering.
There’s more taking shape now, including a large new bakery cafe called Dough Nguyeners that Archote is preparing to open soon in Gretna. The mother's touch behind the scenes is still the starting point as these enterprises roll on.
“She is our one-woman commissary,” said Archote. “I envy the big restaurant groups with more resources but because I have my mom here, it's like a security blanket for me. She cares about every single thing.”
Ancient flavor, fresh lens
Local poet and small business owner Khaled Hegazzi has kept Egyptian heritage central in his life. This year, he played a key role in the most important showcase of Egyptian art and history in New Orleans in a generation, and that contribution came through food.
During the five-month run of the New Orleans Museum of Art’s exhibition of "Queen Nefertari’s Egypt," Hegazzi partnered with chef Chris Montero at Café NOMA, the Ralph Brennan restaurant inside the museum, to ensure visitors would get authentically Egyptian food.
The partnership played out through special meals, everyday menus and cooking demos on Egyptian cuisine.
One reason Hegazzi was eager to join the project was how rarely he finds his homeland’s culture in the spotlight. Egyptian cuisine is commonly lumped in with Middle Eastern food more broadly.
“It’s about time to correct that," Hegazzi told me.
You can find Hegazzi’s cooking today at his pop-up Sittoo’s Kitchen. See updates at instagram.com/sittooskitchen.
Cooking, mentoring for the future
“There is this circle of great Creole chefs who passed it down one person to another, just as it's always been done,” he said. “I always felt like I was part of this continuum of great Creole cooking in that way.”
This year Brigtsen won the Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement in Hospitality Award, presented by the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience. It was an opportunity for the chef to reflect on his role and ongoing work with upcoming culinary talent.
”What I tell them is ‘let's make some good memories tonight,’” he said. “A lot of people in the kitchen don't see the dining room, they don't see the joy they give to their guests, which is the key to hospitality.
“But I want them to see the difference we do make. What we do is restore people's spirits. You create a bubble of joy for them while they are enjoying food and wine with their family and friends. That is the power of food.”