When Friday lunch got rolling at Galatoire’s this week, waiter John Fontenot had the attention of every table in the room.
As he shuffled old fashioned cocktails and crabmeat salads to the tables he actually was serving, people at all the others watched him as he passed, smiled to each other, waved hello or gave him a thumbs up.
Friday lunch is the most celebratory meal of the week at Galatoire’s, but this time, there was something extra special to celebrate as Fontenot marked his first one back at work after a long absence and a harrowing fight against coronavirus.
Fontenot, 73, has been serving the trout meuniére and chicken Clemenceau at Galatoire’s for more than 50 years. At a restaurant with institutional status in New Orleans cuisine, Fontenot is an institution in his own right.
With a kind bearing, bushy mustache and thick Cajun French accent, Fontenot works a room like a politician, but one only campaigning for good cheer. He fills the tables with banter and bawdy jokes, and Fontenot said while he was on the mend at his home in Chalmette, he spent time workshopping some new material.
“So little Boudreaux comes home from school one day… ,” he said over one table Friday, beginning a joke that can’t be finished in a family newspaper.
For a while, those who knew Fontenot best were afraid they might lose him.
In March, he became gravely ill from the coronavirus. He was hospitalized for weeks, including a long stint in the intensive care unit at St. Bernard Hospital.
“Those doctors saved me, but it was so bad, it felt like they were trying to kill me sometimes,” Fontenot recalled. “I just heard them say ‘we can’t lose him.’ ”
Word that he had indeed recovered enough by April to leave the hospital arrived as a ripple of relief for his well-wishers, at a time when good news was hard to come by.
Since he returned to work this week, many have been welcoming him back with cards and letters and visits to the dining room, where Fontenot, like all the staff, now wears a face covering along with his customary tuxedo.
“So, a guy walks into a bar in Texas and says he wants a small beer…” Fontenot says, back at the same table, beginning another joke not repeatable here.
Fontenot, who first started working at Galatoire’s in 1967, grew up in Ville Platte. The leap from Cajun farm town to French Quarter fine dining was not unusual in his family.
Through blood or marriage, he’s related to an extended network of Cajun waiters who have worked together at Galatoire’s through the years, including the Sylvesters, the LaFleurs and more Fontenots.
Though Fontenot is famous for his good spirits, coronavirus was hardly his first experience with hard times. But as he recounts the fire that destroyed his home years back, the untimely death of his wife and the travails of Hurricane Katrina, he puts stock in his faith.
“Life punches me in the face, but I stand back up,” he said. “God won’t send me anything he doesn’t think I can handle.”
And then, another joke.
“You know why Mickey Mouse left home?” he said, eyebrow arched over his face mask, black-gloved hands held up in mock suspense. “He found out his father was a rat.”
See a video interview with John Fontenot from 2017 here.