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Crawfish Monica marks 35 years at New Orleans Jazz Fest |

Crawfish Monica marks 35 years at New Orleans Jazz Fest

When you have run one of the biggest food booths at New Orleans Jazz Fest for 35 years, you have stories.

“Bill Murray ran into our booth last year, running away from fans,” said Monica Davidson, the bubbly namesake of Crawfish Monica. One time she took a tray of food to a Jazz Fest star who is a fan of the food, because the performer hadn’t been able to pick up any yet. Davidson found herself onstage with Irma Thomas in front of 20,000 people.


“Allen Toussaint was a big fan. Marcia Ball, Freddy LeBlanc from Cowboy Mouth,” Davidson said. “We have a lot of fans. We’ve been really lucky.”

Davidson said she and husband Pierre “Pete” Hilzim are proud their kids are working with them. Brooke, 30, and Stephanie, 26, first attended the festival in  baby carriages when they were about 5 and 6 months old.

“Now, they really help us run the booth,” Davidson said. “They kind of manage the staff. They bring in their friends, who work really hard.”

This year their booth (now named Big River Foods) will take credit cards for the first time, at all six lines. The massive operation will serve 20 tons of food, a serving a second, Davidson said. “Even if you’re at the back of the line, you get to the front fast.”

Between 22 and 28 people per day are needed to work at the temporary business on the Fair Grounds, during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell. At least half are volunteers, including the couple’s attorney and one of their doctors (“I think they love it because it’s so different from what they normally do,” Davidson said.) A group from a Tulane sorority works in exchange for a donation to CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates.

In case you just got here from another planet, Crawfish Monica is a pasta dish with a spicy cream sauce.

“Sometimes we buy fresh (pasta) and use it fresh, or sometimes we buy frozen,” Davidson said. “It’s high-quality, fresh pasta. We make the sauce. We buy the crawfish cooked; Louisiana ones if we can get them at a reasonable price. Otherwise we buy Spanish crawfish that are the first cousin of Louisiana ones. We do not use Chinese crawfish because we don’t like the quality. We have prioritized using really good ingredients, never skimping. We owe our customers that.”

Crawfish Monica is among the biggest sellers at the festival, and it is a trademarked and carefully protected recipe, which became famous because of its exposure at the New Orleans Jazz Fest and Heritage Festival presented by Shell. But the couple didn’t serve it the first year.

In the early 1980s, New Orleans-born chef Hilzim was working in a high-end Italian restaurant in San Francisco when a mutual friend introduced him to his future wife. Monica was working in the executive training program at Macy’s. While designing restaurants for the Italian owners, Hilzim learned the art of fresh pasta, a then-novel concept in the United States.

The couple married in 1981 – “I was a child bride,” Davidson says — and left for New Orleans five days later. Their first business was making and selling fresh pasta to restaurants and supermarkets.

“Only one other company in the U.S. was doing it,” Davidson said. “One of our first customers was Paul Prudhomme. Paul ended up loving it. He called his friends and associates and really helped us get off the ground.”

Hilzim was always the cook at parties, and at a dinner party in Uptown New Orleans one night, he asked Monica to come taste something new. It was fettucine with a creamy crawfish sauce. He named it after his wife, and Crawfish Monica was born. When the couple demonstrated their fresh pasta at food shows around the country, they used the crawfish sauce. People went nuts for it, Davidson said.

In 1983, there was a booth opening at Jazz Fest and the couple decided to give it a shot. The only stipulation: No pasta.

“We said OK, we’ll do something else. We did barbecue shrimp and oyster artichoke dressing,” Davidson said. “They were delicious, but peeling a thousand pounds of shrimp by hand? Wow. That was daunting. We were just learning how to manage inventory and people. We made 25 cents the first year, if we made anything at all. The next year, they said, ‘Oh, by the way, you can do pasta.’

“And we thought, ‘Why don’t we try that crawfish sauce at Jazz Fest?’ That was 34 years ago.”

Much has happened since then. Hilzim is president of their company, Kajun Kettle, and vice-president Davidson manages personnel, marketing and public relations. They provide more than 100 ready-to-serve savory soups, sauces, entrees and side dishes to the restaurant industry – all named “Monica’s,” as in “Monica’s Jambalaya Base” and “Monica’s Country Style White Beans.”

After years of customer demand, the company began online sales of their signature dish. Since 2009, Crawfish Monica kits have been sold at Rouses supermarkets.

At the festival, seeing one another year after year, vendors share a familial bond.

“It’s a wonderful camaraderie,” Davidson said. “We help each other out. If you run out of something, we help with money, supplies, napkins. We trade food back and forth.”

Their next-booth neighbors in Food Area II are particular favorites. Merline Hebert of Creole’s Lunch House in Lafayette “is darling,” Davidson said. “One time an episode of ‘Treme’ was filmed out here and a few food booths were in it. Merline was in it. She said, ‘Hey, Trombone Shorty, come give me some loving, honey.'”

Taqueria Corona are their other neighbors. “We were in their restaurant the first day they opened,” Davidson said.

Of course, vendors are at the mercy of the elements. “We joke about laundering money, because the bills get so wet,” Davidson said. One year a TV station filmed them using one of their four industrial-size tilt skillets, used to make the sauce, to dry out sopping cash. They’ve also dried $20 bills in a clothes dryer at home, Davidson said.

The heat is another challenge. One very hot day, the crew noticed a guy in line with a woman draped around his neck, kind of dragging her, Davidson said. Just as he said, ‘I’d like four Crawfish Monicas,” the woman passed out and slipped to the ground. “He was so intent he kept going through the line,” Davidson said. “We brought her into the tent and gave her water and food” until she revived.

Hilzim gets to the festival first. Several years ago, he was watching an early soundcheck with a few other vendors when the performer came out and asked what they were doing there.

“Pierre said, ‘We’re the food people. We don’t get to come out and see you; we’re working when you play.'” Davidson reported. So Bruce Springsteen said, “OK, I’m going to do the show for you guys.”

Hilzim leaves around 7 a.m. to check on the booth, make sure there’s power to the tilt skillets and and to see that the other machines are working.

“I call him to see if there’s anything he needs me to bring, anything forgotten,” Davidson said. “I bring the T-shirts and hats” the staff wears. At the end of the day, Hilzim leaves around 6, and she follows around 7 p.m.

“There’s always someone who’s come from Alaska and walked on their hands and knees to get here at the last minute,” Davidson said. “You know the stories we hear. We try to put a little food on the skillet for the last minute.”

And of course, Davidson has her own festival favorites.

“I love me a mango freeze,” she said. “And I love the Vietnamese food, the vermicelli….all the food is so extraordinary. “The softshell crab po-boy. I love Merline’s Creole stuffed bread.

So how has 35 years at Jazz Fest changed Monica?

“It’s taught me how to work with people from all walks of life, all backgrounds. And it teaches you the value of persistence. Sometimes you have bad years. It counts just to show up and be there and do the best you can.

Food “really forges relationships. It’s so important to the human condition. There’s something about a great bowl of food that’s so meaningful on so many levels. It brings people together.

“We’ve been really lucky to be part of it.”

*

Readers often ask for the Crawfish Monica recipe. Kajun Kettle Foods does not share its recipe and the name is trademarked. Many have tried to duplicate it and readers tell us that this recipe, previously published in The Times-Picayune in 2015, is a good substitute for home cooks.

Similar to Crawfish Monica
Makes 6 servings

1 pint half-and-half

1 cup whipping cream

6 green onions, chopped

1 stick butter

1 pound crawfish tails with fat

Salt and pepper to taste

Optional seasonings: thyme, two fresh garlic cloves, cayenne or Tony Chachere’s

1 pound cooked rotini or fettuccine

3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Combine half-and-half and cream in a saucepan and reduce slightly, about 10 minutes. Saute onions in butter. Add crawfish, seasonings and cream and reduce a little more until creamy. Pour over cooked, hot pasta. Add cheese and toss.

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Looking for cheap eats, draft beers, vegetarian options or just want to know what what we think is the very best food at the New Orleans Jazz Fest? Check out our guide to all of this and more here.

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