When John Cannon took over as chef at Li’l Dizzy’s Café last fall there was no doubt about the mandate before him. It even had a playbook.
“They handed me the family cookbook, that’s the Bible, that’s what we called it n the kitchen,” said Cannon, thumbing through a copy one day at the Treme restaurant. “My goal is to make every dish in this book.”
Cannon is also applying his own touches along the way, and this year the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival gives one vivid example of its own spotlight.
Li’l Dizzy’s, run by the Baquet family, is one of the vendors returning to the massive two-week event, running April 29-May 8.
The restaurant itself is also in the midst of an evolution, one tied closely to its past. Cannon is steering that progress.
Recipes and revival
The restaurant’s Jazz Fest stand, at the Heritage Square area, again this year has the restaurant’s signature Creole gumbo, the painstakingly-prepared crawfish bisque (stuffed crawfish heads and all), and the new dish – trout Dizzy’s.
This one replaces trout Baquet, a long-time festival staple, made with grilled trout in a buttery sauce and topped with crab. At Jazz Fest in 2019, Li’l Dizzy’s served redfish this way.
But this year, with prices for crab riding very high, the call went out to make a new dish. Trout Dizzy’s is based on an old family recipe, a dish called trout Geri, topped with crawfish and sauced with the kitchen’s signature “Jourdain butter,” with a smidge of cayenne, a backbeat of garlic. This new version for Jazz Fest bumps it up with both crawfish and shrimp.
Trout Dizzy’s is part of Cannon’s work, now just beginning, to bring back many more dishes that the Baquet family of restaurateurs codified through multiple generations of Creole soul cooking, and one of the city’s longest-running Black restaurant legacies.
Li’l Dizzy’s is the latest chapter in that story, though it almost came to an end in the pandemic. By the summer of 2020, founder Wayne Baquet Sr. had reached an impasse. Then 73, he was ready to retire and unwilling to reopen through the risks of COVID. The restaurant was up for sale.
But then, on the brink, the next generation had a change of heart and dedicated themselves to carrying the torch. Wayne Baquet Jr. and his wife Arkesha bought the business and reopened Li’l Dizzy’s in 2021, paving the way for its return to Jazz Fest as well.
“Jazz Fest is part of who we are, we’ve been doing this 36 years now,” said Wayne Jr., who was 18 when he started working at the Jazz Fest stand. “It goes hand in hand with our business.”
‘This place called me’
Arkesha runs the front of the house. Wayne Jr. has a business career as CEO of Imperial Trading (full disclosure: this grocery distributor is owned by John Georges, who also owns The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate.).
To bring Li’l Dizzy’s fully back and to revive old recipes from the Baquet family’s restaurant past, they knew they needed a leader in the kitchen.
Cannon, 42, a St. Augustine high school grad who grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, is best known through music. He’s played tuba for brass bands, including the Stooges and Free Agents.
Along with his wife Tanya Boyd Cannon, a singer, he remains active in music. But with their two children off to college, he was looking for a different kind of professional pursuit when he heard Li’l Dizzy’s was looking.
“This place called me. A lot of this cooking brought me back to my grandmothers,” he said.
Cannon has cooked at many New Orleans restaurants. But the basis of his chops comes from home. His father was murdered when Cannon was just four years old, and his grandmothers played large roles in his upbringing. Creole cooking was a natural for them, and for one, Cora Pugh, it was her vocation. She cooked at Galatoire’s and started her own catering company. Cannon steeped in their technique and absorbed their intuition.
“It’s the footprint of American cuisine,” he said of New Orleans food. “I don’t care where you do, the food is connected.”
Trout Dizzy’s was on the Li’l Dizzy’s restaurant menu through Lent and continues as a Wednesday special through the end of Jazz Fest. After that, Cannon plans to run it as a monthly special as more dishes from the Baquet past join the rotation.
Li’l Dizzy’s Cafe
1500 Esplanade Ave., (504)-766-8687
Mon.-Sat., 11 am-3 pm
‘Like coming home.’ Jazz Fest food vendors fought hard to bring back these favorite dishes