In 2013, the reality cooking television series Top Chef filmed its eleventh season in New Orleans at 1231-33 Bourbon Street to revitalize the struggling restaurant and tourism industry following the effects of the 2010 BP oil spill on Gulf seafood.  While Top Chef showcased the charm and ingredients of the city’s cultural and culinary fame, another culinary story was buried just beneath the surface of the Hollywood film set. The pair of 1830s townhouses at 1231-33 Bourbon Street was also once home to two famous and now forgotten French bread bakeries: Chretien's bakery (approximately 1860-1911) and B.C. Francingues bakery (1911-1940).
One hundred years before Top Chef celebrated the glories of New Orleans food, local journalist and tour guide Flo Field highlighted the stories of Chretien's bakery and B.C. Francingues bakery in a 1913 newspaper article on New Orleans bread-making titled “How New Orleans Won Fame as Baker of Finest Bread Outside of France.” Field was a member of a small, vibrant, and short-lived bohemian social circle of writers, artists, journalists, preservationists, and hangers-on who settled in the French Quarter at the end of World War I, immersing themselves in the local scene. In addition to her work as a journalist, Field was also a playwright and the first French Quarter tour guide.  Field’s article gives a golden-hued “history of bread-making in Louisiana before the days of modern machinery, when the baker’s craft was a handicraft, indeed – fine loaves made with slave help – a few of the old bakeries still left.”  This romanticized and nostalgic story of “old-time” French bread is an example of an enduring narrative of the exceptionality of New Orleans shaped by authors in the post-Civil War years such as George Washington Cable, Lafcadio Hearn, and Lyle Saxon, spotlighting the notion of a disappearing and unique Creole culture. In bread-making, the narrative reinforced the importance of traditions begun in French and Spanish colonial New Orleans over other influences, including African, indigenous, and American.
In 1846, Eugene Chretien, owner of the earlier bakery, arrived in New Orleans from France at the age of twenty-two, coinciding with a population boom in the city. Records show that Chretien’s Bakery produced bread from before the Civil War until early in the 1900s. 1860 census records list Chretien as a baker located on Dumaine Street.  By 1865, Chretien appeared in the City Directory on Bourbon Street and was one of seventy bakers operating.  Field describes Chretien's bakery as one of the best bread bakeries of the time and tells the story of "Papa Jim," a formerly enslaved baker who worked for Chretien, lived nearby and trained multiple bakers. The 1860 census does not include Eugene Chretien's slave-holding records. But Field provides a glimpse at other antebellum bakeries that exploited enslaved labor, such as D’Aquin bakery, Bouny bakery, and Poincy bakery.
By 1867, the City Directory lists 170 bakeries in operation, more than double the number of bakeries just two years prior.  Chretien’s bakery was part of a vibrant neighborhood economy, operating “a flour warehouse, bread store, bakery and stable.”  In the early 1900s, bakeries often baked and delivered bread several times a day, both to homes and businesses. A former French Quarter resident recalled Chretien's bakery delivering long loaves of freshly baked bread daily to neighboring homes.  Gaston Alciatore, son of Antoine’s restaurant founder Antoine Alciatore, married into the Chretien family and is listed in census records as a baker at the same address as Chretien’s. It is possible that Chretien’s bakery also supplied the famous Antoine’s restaurant with its French bread.
In 1911, Bernard Francingues, another francophone, took over Chretien’s Bakery. The 1913 Field article described the manual labor of bread-making inside Francingues’ bakery: from mixing in long troughs to kneading, molding loaves, and baking in brick ovens -- methods similar to those presently revived as part of the artisan bread movement. Field provides rare photos from the Francingues bakery of the ovens and some of the lost loaves of bread from one hundred years ago. In the early twentieth century, before widespread industrialization, popular types of bread in New Orleans included pain chapeau (cap bread), pain tresse (French twist), flute (old-style French bread), loaf bread, and frog loaves (small rolls). While some people today may remember a few of these lost styles of bread, most only know today's New Orleans French bread style.
In 1942, the Francingues family transferred ownership of the Bourbon Street property to La Societe’ des Dames Hospitalieres, an organization founded after the Civil War that owned several properties and housed indigent war widows. The building later became a nursing home, active until Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In 2010, developers renovated the site as luxury residences. The French Quarter has long been the symbol and epicenter of New Orleans. The property at 1231-33 Bourbon Street is an example of the layers of history found within the Vieux Carre. The transformation of the property – from bakery to reality television film set also reveals an intriguing chapter in the story of New Orleans French bread and the development of the French Quarter as a tourist destination.