To hear Sharon Litwin’s interview with Johnny Blancher on WWNO Radio, click here.
Back when Johnny Blancher’s dad started what became known as Rock ‘n Bowl on Tulane Avenue, it was simply called the Mid City Lanes, a place where young Johnny worked on and off from the time he was 12. Watching his father, John Blancher, transform a bowling alley into a world-famous entertainment venue with the appearance of authentic New Orleans musicians was fun. But it wasn’t anything Johnny ever planned to be involved in.
It was right before The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1998 when Johnny Blancher, now a newly-graduated college kid, said he would pitch in and help his short-handed father over that upcoming summer. That meant doing everything from running the cash register to renting out the bowling shoes to fixing bar food. It was, says Johnny, the summer job that saved him from his “insane” idea of going to law school and started him on his own career track right there in the family business.
When his father relocated the Rock ‘n Bowl to Earhart Boulevard and the family purchased the iconic Ye Old College Inn restaurant around the corner on Carrollton Avenue, that little city block instantly became an entertainment destination. Johnny took over the restaurant, a brand new experience — one that had him scrambling from morning to night.
Then Hurricane Katrina struck. Evacuated to his mother’s family home in Vermillion Parish, Johnny had time to think about how to transform his almost 20-hour days running a three-meal-a-day eatery into something more practical. So when he returned, he opted for College Inn to become a dinner-only spot. He also was faced with a devastated city-block-long acre of land immediately adjacent to the restaurant, once the site of two large residences. So, in an act of self-preservation, he bought it.
At first, all he did was cut the grass. But, then, he started planting things the restaurant could use. And, soon, it turned it into what he calls his “farm.” It is, he says, “a work in progress all the time. I don’t think there’s a farmer in the world who isn’t constantly tinkering.” And it’s on this picture-perfect urban oasis that the College Inn’s culinary staff experiments with both what to grow and how to cook it.
So now that Johnny has his farm up and running, it’s on to what he thinks is the next logical thing: cattle ranching.
No, he’s not planning to put any livestock on Carrollton Avenue. No way. What he’s doing is arranging for his uncle’s Vermillion Parish grass-fed beef to end up on his customer’s plates.
Somehow, all this activity has come to the attention of a group of British reality-show producers who have invited Johnny, his wife and their three small children to go on a week’s trip to Liverpool, England.
“It’s not a wife swap,” Johnny says with a grin. “That’s what she thought she heard. No it’s a life swap. We assume one family’s life in Liverpool for a week and they come here.”
Why Liverpool? Johnny believes it’s because so many merchant marine seamen buy New Orleans CDs to play on their journeys back across the pond.
“They listen to them for days and then I think they give them to the kids over there,” he explains. The fact that the Liverpool-born Beatles also adored the New Orleans sound seems to be the reality show connection between the two cities.
Johnny says he’s excited to go. But, like any good New Orleanian, he says he’ll be glad to get back home.
Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie.