The cover of Tom Fitzmorris’ 2010 book Hungry Town calls it a culinary history of New Orleans, “the city where food is almost everything.” For the city’s preeminent restaurant critic, you could say everything began at the University of New Orleans.
It was here—50 years ago—that Fitzmorris wrote his very first restaurant review. It appeared Sept.1,1972 in the student newspaper The Driftwood. He’s been eating, writing and talking about food nearly every day since.
Fitzmorris calls himself a walking New Orleans cliché: born in the city on Mardi Gras, delivered by a jazz musician-obstetrician and never absent from his hometown longer than the six weeks after Hurricane Katrina. His mother was a fabulous French-Creole cook at home, but until his college years, Fitzmorris said he hadn’t developed a passion for New Orleans’ restaurants.
In the Beginning
The UNO campus was where he met a history professor who would change his life and become his mentor: Richard Collin. When not chronicling or teaching history, Collin wrote about food like few others had, as the city’s first newspaper restaurant critic, starting at the States-Item in 1972. Two years earlier, he published The New Orleans Underground Gourmet, a book of more than 250 of his highly-opinionated reviews.
“I didn’t understand the pleasures of the table until I read Collin’s book,” Fitzmorris said. “He turned me on to the food world and it was straight upward ever since.”
It took a bit more time before Fitzmorris began writing about food, however. At first he penned movie, theater and music reviews for The Driftwood, where he was also an editorial cartoonist. That soon changed.
“When the fall semester began, a new editor cleaned house,” Fitzmorris writes in his Hungry Town memoir. “He told me his friend would take over my cartoonist gig—and that I was, like, fired. Not wanting to give up the clubhouse privileges that accrue to newspaper staff, I begged to stay on to write feature articles.”
Asked by the editor to elaborate on what topics he might tackle, Fitzmorris gave a quick answer. “‘Do you know about the Flambeau Room?’ I asked, quite sure that he didn’t. ‘Sure,’ said the new editor. ‘Write about that.’”
The Flambeau Room
The Flambeau Room was, at the time, the restaurant in the University Center. But its menu didn’t feature ordinary campus cuisine. The chef, Leon Dicort, was schooled in France. The manager was Peter Sclafani Jr., scion of a well-known local food family. Fitzmorris was a Flambeau Room regular.
“Wanna eat something a lot better than the dismally dull cafeteria and snack bar food substitute commonly thought to monopolize campus food service facilities?” he wrote in his Driftwood review. “The Flambeau Room, situated at the lake end of the University Center, offers a tremendously refreshing break with the usual style of institutional food services.”
Fitzmorris went on to describe some of his Flambeau Room favorites: Eggs Sardou, Quiche Lorraine, Chicken Béarnaise, Chicken Florentine, Redfish Hollandaise and Cornish hen.
Again, not your typical college campus fare. Inspired by Collin’s tell-it-like-it-was writing style, Fitzmorris also commented on menu items he didn’t care for.
“It is best to stick with unusual dishes; red beans, roast beef, ribeyes and other commonplace offerings are generally disastrous.”
He complimented the service staff, however, calling them “very fast and pleasant,” and adding that “the kitchen operates quickly and an hour is sufficient time for a refreshing and leisurely meal.” He closed with this: “Perhaps best of all, cretins rarely go there, making it a great escape hatch.”
Reflecting about his first review, Fitzmorris remembers: “I held forth on what I thought was great and what could be better. I based my decrees purely on the impressions of my naïve palate. Despite that, the article was received as credible.
“The editor, in the only smart move he ever made (he was gone by the spring semester), told me I ought to write a weekly column about other places to eat on- and off-campus.”
A Passion and A Dream
Fitzmorris kept writing, eating and contuining that weekly restaurant column in one form or another for decades to come. The month he graduated from UNO in 1974, he wrote his first restaurant column for New Orleans Magazine. After four months, he was offered the job of editor-in-chief. He was 23.
Writing about food was his new passion, but there was an earlier dream that Fitzmorris was about to see realized as well. He had fallen in love with radio as a young boy and dreamed of one day working in broadcasting. At UNO, he was one of the original staffers of WWNO, which signed on the air as the campus radio station in February 1972.
In 1975, shortly after graduating and landing his magazine job, Fitzmorris was given his first professional on-air radio gig. Appearing as “Mr. Food,” he gave a daily restaurant review on WGSO-AM, then the city’s leading news-talk radio station.
“It did not surprise me when that grabbed much more attention than all my work in print had. And it brought many new readers to my column,” he later wrote.
Fitzmorris was now talking and writing about restaurants for a living. His portfolio—which also included owning a print and graphic design business, authoring eight books and serving up weekly reviews for Figaro, CityBusiness and WYES-TV’s “Steppin’ Out”—would expand when he launched his own publication, “The New Orleans Menu.”
At first a printed newsletter featuring his restaurant reviews and mailed to subscribers, “The New Orleans Menu,” is now nomenu.com.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the menu became an indispensable barometer of the city’s recovery as Fitzmorris published a running list of the city’s restaurant reopenings. He did so while also hosting a daily radio talk show, which began in 1978 on WGSO.
Initially, his shows didn’t focus solely on food but also talked politics and even played “oldies” music. That changed in 1988, when he moved to WSMB Radio, hired to host “The Food Show” by program director Mary Ann Connell.
Connell was fired a few weeks later (though not for hiring Fitzmorris). He kept his job and even landed a promotion: to husband. Connell and Fitzmorris were married in February 1989. Two children, Jude and Mary Leigh and three grandchildren followed.
Today, Mary Ann Fitzmorris is host of “The Food Show,” where Fitzmorris joins her, their guests and listeners in conversing about food, weekdays from 2 to 4 p.m. on WGSO 990 AM and wgso.com.
A Show Like No Other
A longtime local broadcaster herself, Mary Ann Fitzmorris has freshened up the daily radio show, now the longest-running radio show in New Orleans. It follows much the same freewheeling format Fitzmorris established on WSMB and later WWL. Some current listeners have been tuned in all that time; they remember and celebrate the quirks of the show and its host.
There was the distinctively vintage theme music, “Holiday for Strings,” that opened the show and the sounds by French jazz guitarist Stéphane Grappelli that played in and out of commercial breaks. There were goofy running gags like the make-believe colored phones that each caller would be assigned when Fitzmorris introduced them to the audience. Those callers included Clark the Gourmet Truck Driver, Carl the Gourmet River Pilot and Daniel the Gourmet Cellist.
And then, there were the “Ciao Numbers” assigned to callers, who could win a prize when their number was pulled and they called in to claim it. Another prize went to the listener who could correctly guess where Fitzmorris had dined, based on clues he’d reveal throughout the show.
Through it all, Fitzmorris did what he’s done for 50 years now: share his opinion (like it or not) about restaurants, dining, cooking, food, drink—the pleasures of the palate.
He boasts that there is no other daily radio food show quite like his in America. That’s also because there’s no one else quite like Tom Fitzmorris.
“No city restaurant critic in U.S. history has written more, eaten more, or knows more of their cuisine than Tom Fitzmorris,” wrote political pundit James Carville for a dust jacket review of Hungry Town.
Fitzmorris’ body of work, in print, radio, television and the internet, leaves a delicious legacy—first cooked up 50 years ago on the UNO campus. In Mr. Food’s mind, it could only have happened here in his hometown.
“What most engages me, in work and play, is the food of New Orleans,” Fitzmorris said. “I love it passionately.”
Written by Dominic Massa. Massa is the executive vice president and chief operating officer at WYES-TV. He holds an MBA from the University of New Orleans and bachelor’s degree in communications from Loyola University.