Is it in New Orleans’ water or is it in the air — that magical elixir that makes local friendships lifelong? Crescent City childhood chums may weave in and out of neighborhoods as they navigate life, but those treasured relationships endure.
The Ardoins and Nogueiras were neighbors on Hazel Drive, a quiet River Ridge street situated just off the Mississippi River levee. Marc Ardoin, eldest of the three Ardoin offspring, remembers when the boys moved in next door. “I’ve known them since they were in diapers,” he laughed, referring to Fredo and Juan Nogueira.
Despite cultural differences between the Cuban and American families, Maria Nogueira and Charlene Ardoin became fast friends, swapping Tupperware containers filled with foods unfamiliar to each. “You could smell what was going on next door,” Marc said. “We made red beans, but Mrs. Maria made black beans, fried roast pork and croquetas!” In turn, Charlene shared the secrets of her Beef Continental and meatloaf, which are family favorites (see for the recipe).
The deepest elements of New Orleans culture all came into play on Hazel Drive. Marc’s drum set was a big draw, but Fredo and Juan’s mom Maria was an accomplished guitarist before fleeing Cuba. She led many a family sing-along with the boys accompanying her on guitar. Fredo taught himself to play on his mom’s “big clunky instrument,” but Juan learned to play piano. When 14-year-old Fredo asked for an electric guitar, Maria said, “Get a job!” She helped him find that first job, dishwashing at a nearby restaurant. “I loved the experience from the start,” Fredo said.
In typical New Orleans fashion, there was no doubt where the three would head for high school and college. At an Ardoin family New Year’s Eve party, Marc’s dad Nelson asked where Juan wanted to go to school. “He was very adamant,” Juan recalled. ”You gotta go to Rummel and LSU. There really is no other option.” Both Nelson Ardoin and Juan Nogueira, Sr., were military men, so their sons knew to follow orders.
Marc Ardoin followed his dad’s marching orders to LSU, but quickly discovered that college wasn’t for him. Instead, the action and excitement of Semolina’s open kitchen beckoned. He pursued his passion and graduated from Delgado’s culinary school. Eleven years ago, Rouse Markets hired Marc as a prepared foods department manager, but he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the corporate chef.
While in his 20s, Fredo followed fellow New Orleans musician and friend, Josh Eustis, to Chicago, intent on becoming part of the music scene there. The roommates lived in a loft that doubled as a recording studio complete with a console, mics and guitars. In Chicago, Fredo experienced enough success to wonder, “Wow…could I possibly do this for a living?” Playing guitar or pedal steel, in genres from “slightly country to electronic,” he toured the world and recorded with several groups.
Fredo’s musical career ebbed and flowed, but restaurant work was always steady. He supplemented his musician’s income with bartending, and he hosted pop ups showcasing his cooking. When friends invited him to be chef at their new cocktail bar, “I told them, I’m not a professional chef, but I can do New Orleans food.” The clientele loved the results — and the press was quite complimentary. Ultimately Fredo was named Up & Coming Young Chef of Chicago . “I kept saying, “I’m not a chef. I’m actually a musician. But no one seemed to care,” he grinned.
Little brother Juan followed Fredo through a variety of restaurants. “I worked for 15 years as a busboy, but never got higher up the ladder,” Juan admitted. His genius is in marketing. Since graduating from LSU — Juan, it turns out, was the only one who followed his dad’s orders — he has pursued that passion at WDSU-TV. “Rouses Markets is a key partner for us,” Juan said. “I’ve contributed to some really fun campaigns, like the current Feels Like Home campaign, and those are my hands in the crab commercial on the air right now. We do a lot of work at the Rouses Markets store in the Warehouse District, and I love to get lunch from the hot line, but currently, I’m stuck on the finger sandwiches.”
Knowing that many Rouses Markets employees were musicians, Marcy Nathan, the creative director for Rouses Markets, and editor of this magazine, assembled Makin’ Groceries, the company’s house band. The entire Rouses Marketing Department worked together to write the band’s first song, “Shopping Rouses Whiskey Wonderland,” with the help of childhood neighbors drummer Marc Ardoin and pianist Juan Nogueira. Marc starred in the rollicking commercial and music video, alongside other Rouses Markets musicians —Juan, the 5th Beatle, got kicked out of the band about a week in. “One minute we are laying down the track with composer Donny Markowitz, who has an Oscar for Dirty Dancing. Next thing we knew, it’s five o’clock in the morning and we’re at the Power Boulevard store making a commercial with Jason Villemarette and Fire on the Bayou, and Santa Claus is dancing around in the aisles,” Marc laughed.
Chef Fredo returned to New Orleans to work at CureCo. bar and restaurant group, setting the menu for both Cure and Cane & Table. Most recently, Chef Fredo and CureCo. opened Vals on Freret Street, where Fredo is chef/partner. Shortly after the restaurant’s opening to rave reviews, he spotted his old friend Marc sporting a hard hat across Freret Street from Vals . “Hey man, what are you doing?” Fredo called out. “Looks like we’re going to be neighbors again,” Marc smiled.
Today, Marc Ardoin is the store director of Rouses Freret Street location. He and Fredo see each other almost every day. “I see him out there mowing the grass, and it’s just like when we were kids. And I run across the street regularly to pick up some special ingredient there. They always have what I need,” Fredo said. The Nogueira brothers talk daily, too, with Juan calling Fredo offering motivational puns designed to pump him up for the day. “What’s the best way to sharpen a chef’s knife?” he’ll ask me. “To grind! Are you ready to grind today?”
But for the three childhood buddies, it’s never a grind. Not when you’re doing the work you love alongside lifelong friends like Marc, Fredo and Juan.
When I asked Fredo about elote corn, he immediately said, “It’s delicious! That is one thing we do our own take on at Vals . Traditionally, in Mexico you see street vendors with steamed carts serving corn doused in margarine, mayo, crème and tajín – a mix of chilies and dried lime with cojita cheese. People just love that corn! It’s sweet. It’s salty. It’s crunchy — it’s all the things. I can’t take it off the menu. Even though corn is seasonal, we have to have it year-round at Vals.
Fredo learned about elote from a woman he knew in Chicago. “You drive through fields and fields of corn. It’s so delicious picked fresh. Elote has been on every menu I’ve ever done!”
“Punny” brother Juan (of course!) said, “People like it E-LOT-a!”