A group of Russian bartenders, Italian bartenders, American bartenders and one Japanese spirits writer walk out of a bar and onto an alligator farm… And one nearly loses a very important appendage.
I had met the amazing Harvey Kliebert before at Julio Bermejo’s home base, close to my home in the outer Richmond of SF, Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant. For some reason it did not surprise me that Julio would know an alligator farmer, Julio knows everyone, and everyone loves Julio and his family’s great restaurant (and margaritas). When Harvey showed up with a large skull of a gator in hand I was not that surprised. For sure impressed, but not surprised!
Harvey is not small of stature and his attire is certainly straight out of central casting for Swamp People with his overalls and hat. That said his son Mike Kliebert and grandson T-Mike (for Petit Mike) were on season one of Swamp People show. Most of the Kliebert family has actually left the reality TV business to continue to focus on doing what they love to do… raising alligators and turtles for restaurants. There was some familial dissent and debates amongst the family between the sides that want to capture the public eye and the 15 minutes of fame and those that want to just continue to raise turtles and alligators for food.
We were in New Orleans in July during the Tales of the Cocktail event to benefit from the sheer number of cool bartenders and spirits professionals who were in town from all over the world. Julio and our friend Vince must have asked me twenty times if I was coming to New Orleans. I kept declining since I had a big event (SF Chefs) looming on the horizon so could not justify it, but the promise of visiting the Kliebert alligator farm has always held great allure for me. Then one night Julio came up with, “Well I could buy you a ticket with my United miles?” And of course I said, “Well why didn’t you say that weeks ago?” So at the very last minute we booked a 48 hour trip from SF to NOLA. I love ANY excuse to get out to New Orleans but knowing that I could visit the farm with my friends was an added plus. Accommodations had been secured by Julio who had opted to find us a swank Airbnb place online that unfortunately had to cancel at the last minute. While I was inclined to get a room at a local hotel or stay at my friend Andrew’s awesome Airbnb place in the Lower Garden (not big enough for the whole group), Julio was convinced that it would be most fun if we were all together, so me, Julio, Vince, Michael and Dave opted to rent a spot in the Bywater. These guys are like brothers to me, so I wasn’t concerned until I showed up at 8:30am after my redeye flight to see Julio at the door saying, “This place is a XXXX-hole.” Granted, I am a bit picky and my standards are somewhat high, but wow, it was a really special spot. A shotgun house with three rooms, no doors at all mind you and matresses covering all open parts of the floor except where the bunkbeds were or where the one rickety army issue bed frame was next to a window with bars across it. Julio left to shower (the bathroom luckily had a door but there wasn’t so much as a closet in the place), and within minutes I had secured a room at the Hotel Monteleone with early check in to boot. I was out of the house in less than 20 minutes (only that long because I waited to tell Julio I was leaving.) My luxurious room was well worth the money…
Soon after getting to the French Quarter I met up with Vince who had yet to see his accommodations, and we had some beignets and New Orleans style iced coffee at Cafe du Monde followed by a bloody mary. We met up with our crew to have not one but two lunches at Parkway Bakery & Tavern (po boys) and Willie Mae’s (fried chicken). Then we headed off to Frenchmen Street to d.b.a. where we luckily ran into the Bon Vivants from San Francisco, Scott Baird and Josh Harris, who were just about to start a sangrita competition with Ocho tequila. It was a fortunate coincidence since I had judged a regional round for them in San Francisco earlier in the year, so it was great to have a chance to taste the entries from the rest of the U.S. After some really amazing and innovative sangritas and few cans of Tecate we headed back to the quarter to crash an Amaro party with the Italian bar folk including Francesco Lafranconi, Mauro Mahjoub (Germany’s Campari ambassador), as well as Salvatore Calabrese, The Maestro, known as Italy’s most famous bartender. We hit Arnaud’s for a party with Absolut and a quick hug from Chris Hanna, famed barman at the French 75 bar, who had a few Chris Hanna impersonators working with him that night and then we made a quick dash to the Candlelight Lounge. Salvatore and his wife were able to join us and we enjoyed the amazing music of the Treme Brass Band as well as some red beans and rice included in the cover charge. Watermelon Abitas and some fun conversation with owner Leona (who by the way remembered me) made my night. If you read previous blogs you may remember that Leona gave me a Zulu coconut the day after my first ever Mardi Gras! If you go to the Candlelight be prepared to dance as the waitress will require it… Still hungry and thirsty we headed back into the quarter for a burger and some tequila at Yo Ma Ma’s, which was my first ever peanut butter burger experience, and quite good I may add, but the baked potato stole the show. An early evening, I was back at the Monteleone in bed by about 3 am.
The next day we were “scheduled” to leave NOLA by 9 am so that we could go to the farm, we had rented a car that would fit our group, but in typical Julio fashion the more the merrier. Suddenly our international group was huddling outside the Monteleone Hotel interrupting the flow of traffic down the sidewalk. The international contingent of bartenders, writers, etc. was amazingly chatty for being so hung over, or maybe they had never sobered up, but at any rate with a lot of back and forth logistics (it’s really expensive to rent a car apparently if you are from Russia, Italy or Japan) we got two more cars rented and planned to meet the rest of the group out at Harrah’s Casino. Vince was put on patrol to try to herd the folks to the main valet entrance which as you can imagine was close to impossible what with the language barriers and large personalities. With a few trips to Walgreens (for ice for the beers), numerous bottles, limes, avocados and cups being moved in and out of vehicles and rearranging and distribution of tequila bottles and Trumer Pils between each vehicle and me handwriting directions for everyone we finally got all the participants close to ready by 10:30. The caravan left Harrahs and headed toward the swamp in Hammond, LA. In all the times I have been to New Orleans I’d never visited the swamp, and wow, the scenery was immediately different than anything I have ever seen. I was immediately struck by how incredible it was, made me feel like the first time I had been to Arizona… a sense of a uniquely wild part of our country with treacherous animals but completely the opposite, all about water and damp heat rather than desert dry heat… The scenery was beautiful but there was a great level of distraction as we attempted to communicate with the three Russian barmen who were in our car. One spoke English which was helpful, one was shy and understood most English but didn’t talk much and the third spoke no English, barely understood and was out of control talkative. And of course he was sitting next to my friend Michael who was attempting to drive. Vince and I in the far back cringed as the stories flowed faster as he drank more Tapatio Anejo and he became increasingly animated. He would speak in Russian and then hit his friend to translate and also hit Michael’s shoulder impoloring him to look at him. Then a bit of sign language to which Michael would try to glance and smile while keeping one eye on the road. This became particularly interesting as we entered a total downpour and began weaving back and forth over the lane markers… Luckily Michael was sober and able to keep us on the road, but it was harrowing to say the least, and at the same time amusing. When we thankfully got to the farm we piled out and met T-Mike, grandson of Harvey.
Harvey was brought out to see us soon after and Julio introduced us all to him, and to each other. Some of the greats of the bar world internationally were in our midst, and to Harvey it was a huge surprise that he would have visitors in town from as far away as Japan and Russia. Julio would say, “Harvey, this is Salvatore Calabrese, from Italy,” to which Harvey would reply incredulously, “Italy?” Julio presented Harvey with an amazing bottle etched with a note to him as well as a set of hot sauces that had their wooden crate branded with the names of all of the attendees. All of us were also wearing shirts that listed the best things to do in New Orleans which included “Wrestle Alligator @ Harvey’s.” We drank more Trumer and finally got hard at work making margaritas to take on the gator tour. The Italians and my buddy Michael cut and squeezed all the limes in the classic Tommy’s fashion, the butts of the limes have to be removed so as to prevent bitter oils from the ends getting into the margarita. With some expert shaking by Salvatore Calabrese and Mauro Mahjoub of Italy we had Tommy’s margaritas in the bayou. We also whipped up some guacamole also after sending some of the gator farm team to the store for additional ingredients. As a team we had muled the case of limes and some avocados with us from California.
After some more shenanigans and a recreation of a famous Russian statue (Worker and Kolkhoz Woman) by myself and Marat Saddarov of Noor Bar in Russia we headed out on our tour. The farm houses a great number of turtles 100,000 in one pond alone along with the main attraction, the alligators. T-Mike explained that Paw-Paw (Harvey) started this farm and it has been sustainable since he first brought the batch of eggs (about 250) there many years ago. That means they do not have to go back into the swamp to steal eggs and the entire place is self contained. We fed the turtles a bit of dry chow which they came at swimming vigorously, but T-Mike said they prefer spoilt meat and will lay more eggs when they get meat.
The gators were just incredible. We went over to their pens but luckily stayed mostly behind the fences. T-Mike brings them over by slapping a stick against the water at the edge of the ponds and they come very quickly through the weeds growing on the pond surface. He and some of the other attendees threw marshmallows to them as well as some raw chicken. The bravery that T-Mike shows when handling them is incredible. We watched in awe as he neared a huge female who was guarding her eggs as well as one of the “Big Boys” whose name was Crush and who has a ridiculous amount of pressure, about 3,000 pounds worth, when he bites down. T-Mike explained that gators can’t see right in front of their faces and demonstrated by putting his hand in their mouths, which was extremely unnerving, but they don’t snap down until he touched the tips of their snouts. The sound of that impact was amazing though.
After the demos with the bigger gators we had an opportunity to hold a smaller one whose mouth was taped. At a certain size and weight they become difficult to hold since they can writhe their bodies in a rolling motion and have an incredible amount of strength as they grow to a certain size. This gator was really sweet and really felt incredible in my arms. His skin was bumpy but had a strong smoothness to it and was surprisingly enjoyable to hold. After I was forced to give the gator back I also met a cute pot-belly pig named, of course, Glitzy.
You might think, wow things have gotten pretty tame by this point, our margaritas were mostly consumed and our very animated Russian friend from our ride was surprisingly missing. Earlier in the day while waiting to go on tour he had been adamant that he wanted to actually wrestle a big gator. A very interesting exchange occurred between him and Harvey with our friend Dave Stoop (from the US) who happens to be able to speak Russian. Watching Dave learn how to wrestle a gator from Harvey and then translate that into Russian was quite amusing to say the least. But until we made it to the snapping turtle pond our gregarious and fearless Russian was missing. He had gone on ahead with Harvey so we just assumed he was back at the picnic tables probably drinking more… We were in for a surprise when we hit the snapping turtle pond. As I was watching T-Mike hold a medium sized snapping turtle out to the crowd I also saw out of the corner of my eye the Russian present the turtle with a small object which I quickly recognized… As a turned away quickly in awe that he had just presented this important appendage to the animal, according to reports from the rest, the turtle reached its neck out significantly and took a big lunge and snap to try to get the object, missing by mere inches. Pretty amazing, it would have been interesting to see what would have transpired had the turtle made its mark, but it would have probably resulted in some of us missing the amazing shrimp boil and gator that we had for lunch.
After some more drinking, eating, some pickled quail eggs and a visit to the rotting meat truck we had pretty much expended all our energy and it was time to bid the farm farewell. Their hospitality was just incredible and it was really a magical day. I promptly fell asleep on the ride home to be reinvigorated and be able to go out again once we hit New Orleans. We headed back to the French 75 bar to see Chris and have a cocktail and then on to Vaughan’s to see Kermit Ruffins perform after grabbing some shrimp po boys (undressed with butter and pickles) from Verti Marte. I also enjoyed watching the tambourine lady. With trips back and forth from BJ’s (where there’s air conditioning) and Vaughan’s we enjoyed the show and even got a chance to meet up with my friend Desier who saw me checking in on Foursquare! Ended the night with slushy mudslides at Erin Rose and another stop to grab some food at Yo Ma Ma’s, all in all an amazing day.
Vince and finished off the trip by feeding our tired bodies at the Bon Ton Cafe where we met up with my friend Kristian, what could be more appropriate and satisfying than turtle soup? And we had Sno-Balls on Piety Street, I had to have two, one natural Kaffir Limeade and one totally unnatural, Wedding Cake which tastes like almond and vanilla and is extremely decadent especially as I had it topped with condensed milk, but yummy. Kristian dropped me and Vince off in the quarter where we made the most of our last hours in NOLA with a few Pimm’s Cups at the famous Napoleon Bar so we could ease our way out of the city. New Orleans is always incredibly generous with me and offers me some of the greatest experiences I could dream up. Thank you to everyone that lives there for your welcome and I can’t wait to get back there!
To visit go to http://kliebertgatortours.com/Home.html