Marcus Christiana-Beniger found himself in Los Angeles like everyone else: He wanted to be in movies. If not as a star, then at least working on them. It was the ’90s, and he held odd jobs in video production, everything from commercial film sets to Asian music videos. He never thought he’d cook for a living, but he knew these sorts of odd jobs often lead people back into a kitchen. And when he started missing his hometown, food was the way he could “return” to Louisiana, where a vibrant mix of cultures had first sparked his creativity.
Christiana-Beniger had grown up all across New Orleans but identified most with the historic Bayou St. John neighborhood: one of the city’s oldest and most diverse areas, with an eclectic mix of canals, cemeteries, the New Orleans Fair Grounds, and 19th-century oak-canopied homes along Esplanade Avenue. He grew up surrounded by little eateries and groceries and watering holes owned by African-Americans, Sicilians, French and Vietnamese people. Like so many future chefs, he learned to cook alongside his grandmother — and Florence gave him not only an instruction in Louisiana’s classics, but also recipes from the Italian side of his family.
Eventually, Christiana-Beniger worked in various New Orleans restaurants, from the kitchen to front-of-house. But his ambition took him to California. When he eventually grew tired of video production, he began taking culinary courses at nearby Los Angeles Trade-Tech College.
There he met his future wife, Eunah Kang, who originally hailed from New Jersey; he introduced her to the simple joys of the neighborhood stores he visited while growing up. Post-Katrina, he recalled, it was even more pressing to remember: Many of those shops had shut down and never came back. In California, he yearned to replicate that atmosphere.
In 2014, the two found the shuttered space of a seafood spot on Ord Street, in LA’s Chinatown. Their friends helped them dig through the building’s old bones, and they found evidence of its immigrant history: its various former restaurants, its time as a hotel, artifacts like mahjong tables and handwritten letters, and working deep fryers. A melting pot of cultures, reminiscent of what Christiana-Beniger remembered about NOLA — that same multicultural spirit, transplanted across the continent.
He felt the spirit of New Orleans in his new city, where the area’s diversity made him work harder from the very start. “With so many different cultures bringing culinary heat, it really made me want to pass on elements of my own culture,” he says. The Little Jewel of New Orleans opened in August 2014 as a deli hawking classic Louisiana dishes and groceries. From the onset, the support was overwhelming: buoyed by social media and the jonesing of homesick Californians, it quickly wove into Chinatown’s fabric. “They already had love for us before we even opened the doors,” Christiana-Beniger adds. He found himself working alongside his former culinary-school classmates, teaching about New Orleans cuisine, while learning their own family recipes.
In the kitchen, Little Jewel smokes its own andouille and boudin sausages in-house, offers up “Southern Funk” hot plate specials, and became acclaimed for its Creole jambalaya. The grocery side stocks New Orleans favorites like Crystal Hot Sauce and the Leidenheimer Baking Company bread that Christiana-Beniger loves.
The chef’s enthusiasm for New Orleans favorites extends beyond food and hot sauce, though. Christiana-Beniger likes to relax with a whiskey now and then, either straight-up in the colder seasons or on the rocks in the summer. And he embraces New Orleans vibes with Southern Comfort. “Don’t pollute perfection with unnecessary ingredients!” he advises. “There really is no need to fix something…if it ain’t broken.”
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