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Anyone who knows John Roussos and watched him across more than three decades on the Madison stage could not have been surprised by the theatrics that accompanied the closing of New Orleans Take-Out on Fordem Avenue last week.
Roussos launched more than a restaurant when he opened NOTO in spring 1985. The Cajun cuisine was the real deal–“Better than mama’s!” a skeptical visiting New Orleans musician said, after digging into a bowl of gumbo there–but the proprietor’s hot sauce personality got equal billing.
Roussos was never short of opinions on the passing scene, and he once got worked up enough to run, unsuccessfully, for mayor. He wore his emotions on his apron. “I’ve offended half the city,” Roussos told me once, but in most cases neither side stayed angry too long. Better to chuckle at all the drama, and order more red beans and rice.
So it was early last week, when the first reports that NOTO would close this past Saturday surfaced. There would be a party that night for friends and regulars, Roussos, 66, said. He was tired after 32 years of running the restaurant. It was time to move on.
But there would be one last chance to celebrate.
That news brought such a run on the restaurant that NOTO ran out of both food and chefs to cook it. By Wednesday an emotional Roussos was saying the restaurant was closed for good, but there might still be a small party on Saturday. Finally, on Friday, Ken Kopp IV, who runs the still-open NOTO on Monroe Street, came to the rescue by announcing he would close for one day so he could go out and cook on Saturday for his friend and mentor Roussos. The restaurant would be open that day, and the party was back on.
Maybe not surprisingly, when I caught up with Roussos by phone early Friday afternoon, the flurry of the past few days had left him a little dazed. He’d enjoyed hearing from customers and–especially–former employees since the announcement. But he was also dealing with the finality of it all.
“Right now I’m just sad,” he said.
The guess here is that with time, any sadness will give way to appreciation of his remarkable 32-year run, which is unlikely for any small business, and a small miracle for a restaurant.
People tried to warn him off the northeast side Fordem Avenue location when Roussos showed up in Madison in the 1980s. He’d following his wife, Deborah, who’d landed a job at the old Jackson Clinic.
Roussos was already stubborn enough not to listen to the advice. He opened in April 1985 with a partner, Bill Nelson, who decamped after a year. Just getting into the business was evidence of Roussos’s occasional contrariness. His grandfather was a restaurateur in New York City, and John’s father talked about never seeing him–the hours were impossible. “My father told me to never get into the business,” Roussos said.
These decades later, many in Madison are grateful he did. Roussos got his Cajun cooking chops in part at the famous New Orleans restaurant Antoine’s, where he worked for a time. His recipes at NOTO drew celebrities passing through Madison, including quarterback Brett Favre and, most famously, the great jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
Marsalis was playing at the Barrymore when someone tipped him about NOTO. Phone calls were made, and in due course Roussos hand-delivered a pre-show dinner to the New Orleans-born Marsalis.
The trumpeter was not optimistic. “Please,” he said, “let it be just a little like the real thing.” A few bites in, Marsalis was hooked. He returned to NOTO many times, and there’s a photo of Marsalis in the book “Sweet Swing Blues on the Road” in which he’s wearing a NOTO T-shirt.
Last week, asked about his future plans, Roussos said he hopes to spend time “laying on the beach” in Cape May, New Jersey, where he has had a home for two years. He’s been doing some writing, he said, and wants to do more.
As for the NOTO legacy, maybe the best-ever testament to Roussos and his restaurant came from a devout customer, Jim Vorndran, a lifelong Madisonian who in 2007 moved away from the city.
At some point in the first year after his move, Vorndran sent Roussos a pleading note: “Can you give me any recommendation on where to get some good red beans and rice? So far, nobody has matched New Orleans Take-Out.”
It was the ultimate compliment. Vorndran, you see, had moved to New Orleans.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.