Seven nights a week, there’s a party at Bacchanal. Those in the know make it there early; they’re quick to claim a spot in the courtyard festooned with string lights and mismatched patio furniture well before the band takes the stage. In the kitchen is chef and co-owner Joaquin Rodas, who churns out rustic yet inspired tapas (Gulf shrimp in sherry, bacon-wrapped dates). For Rodas, it’s all about carrying the torch ignited by Bacchanal’s late founder, Chris Rudge. “He was a fixture in Bywater; he didn’t even like leaving the neighborhood,” Rodas laughs. “There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think about him.”
When did you start cooking professionally?
I was originally front of house. The first time I opened my own business (the Upstairs at Mimi’s), my chef got cold feet about five days before we opened—that’s when I started to cook. I love food, but I’d never cooked professionally. I got a lot of advice from the community of chefs here in New Orleans; I got to learn from the best of the city in that way.
Post-Katrina, you were cooking in Chicago. What brought you back to New Orleans again?
New Orleans is one of those things that gets under your skin. You can turn your head, but you can’t turn your back on it. My career in Chicago was actually going well, but New Orleans called me back.
What makes Bywater distinctive in the city?
You know when you’re in Bywater. It’s a little denser and older; the building block I live in was built in 1809. The houses are closer together and they’re very colorfully painted—there are a lot of artists here. The houses tend to have a narrow footprint, but I’ve seen so many that open up to these grand backyards, and it’s surprising. Bywater will surprise you every time.
Tell us about Bacchanal. What’s the vibe like?
At Bacchanal, we’re trying every day to throw the best backyard wine party. We’ve found people really relate to that. You go to a friend’s house party, and what do you do? You walk through the front door and someone greets you, then they tell you the wine’s over there. And someone’s in the back cooking. We learned what to do in that backyard from Bacchanal’s founder, Chris Rudge—he passed away three years ago in March. He just knew the way it should happen. He’s definitely the spirit of Bacchanal.