Alumni Spotlights

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Blaine Prestenbach

This Valentine’s Day marks the long-awaited opening of Charcoal’s Gourmet Burger Bar, the upscale build-your-own-burger concept occupying the sleek new construction at the uptown corner of Magazine and Jackson. Though the idea of a better burger has found its footing throughout the city, Charcoal’s was conceived as a business plan more than half a decade ago when Blaine Prestenbach (BS, Business Administration 08) was still a student at the University of New Orleans.

Prestenbach and his longtime friend Craig Walker, Jr. are self-proclaimed, “bayou boys,” – born in Houma and raised in Lafayette – who “share a love of hunting, fishing and food,” according to Susan Langenhenning of the Times-Picayune. Walker went on to culinary school at the Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, Texas, while Prestenbach earned his degree in business administration, equipping the pair with complementary skill sets equally important to running a restaurant.

In 2007, the men partnered with Walker’s father, Craig Walker Sr., to make the burger bar a reality. They purchased the then-vacant lot on the corner. “We wanted to contribute to the rebuilding of the city,” Prestenbach said. Issues with construction and City Hall, however, slowed the process considerably.  For one, the friends had to contend with the city council’s moratorium on issuing new liquor licenses on historic Magazine Street. After months of meetings with planning commissions and neighborhood associations, the restaurant was granted an exception. Walker has little fondness for many of the restrictions they faced, “But, I see why it’s important. Magazine is one of the most historic streets in the world.”

In the years it took to fight for Charcoal’s, Prestenbach and Walker put the burger spot on the backburner while they opened Somethin’ Else café in 2009 at the corner of Conti and Exchange Place in the French Quarter. “When we were having conversations about the name, we kept saying, 'It's got to be somethin' else,'" Walker says. "Blaine was like, 'Dude! Let's name it Somethin' Else!' That was it." The menu there plays on local ingredients transformed into classic breakfast fare and the hearty dishes the guys grew up eating. The restaurant’s celebrity following including Mos Def and Lauren Conrad, who tweeted about the file gumbo and alligator corn dogs.

“If the produce doesn't come from Prestenbach's garden, it's likely from a vegetable stand deep in Cajun country,” wrote Megan Braden-Perry for Gambit. “I do what I call the Bayou Shuffle,” Prestenbach explained. “When you're heading down the bayou, you pull up on these little vegetable stands and I'll just buy them out. Then I bring it all back.” The freshness and authenticity of ingredients is part of what has made Somethin’ Else succeed where so many others have floundered. In fact, the duo realized other local restaurant owners shared their desire for affordable local products, leading them to open Vieux Carre Seafood and Meats. It stocks their cafe, as well as Felix's, Sylvain, Tony Moran's and Killer Poboys.

The close-to-home ethos will extend in part to their newest venture as it finally opens its doors. Langenhenning reports, “The buns will be baked in-house and come in whole wheat, house white, brioche and Hawaiian sweet. The cheeses come from St. James Cheese Co., and the toppings include wild boar bacon, tasso and caramelized onions.” While the fixins are sourced locally, the meat is anything but. Burgers go beyond beef with choices like bison, venison, antelope, turkey, and elk. For the Lent-conscious, perfectly timed to the post-Mardi Gras opening, there’s salmon and shrimp, as well as red bean veggie patties.

Though several years intervened between the dream and the reality, nothing could dampen the enthusiasm of Prestenbach and Walker. “We just wouldn’t give up,” Prestenbach said. “We knew we had a great idea and we wouldn’t let it go.” Thanks to that determination, an idea grown at UNO has become a job well done.

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