Chef Shermond Esteen Jr.’s life has changed epically in the past four years.
He opened his first restaurant, Nonno’s Cajun Cuisine and Pastries, on North Claiborne Avenue in June 2020, early in the pandemic. In June 2022, he moved the business to a prime Marigny location at 1940 Dauphine St., where Horn’s had been.
And just a couple of weeks ago, he opened Nonno’s at 2517 Bayou Road, along a growing hub of Black-owned businesses.
It’s been a welcome rush of activity. Esteen was released from prison on Aug. 5, 2019, after serving 20 years of a 33-year sentence for possession of five ounces of marijuana.
On top of all that, the 50-year-old chef also got married this year, and he and his wife Precious are welcoming a son, Shermond Esteen III, in December.
“Honestly, I never imagined that all this could happen,” he says.
Esteen’s down-home New Orleans-style cuisine draws a steady following of locals and visitors. Born in Avondale and growing up in Algiers, he learned to cook first from his mother, and he leveraged those skills while in prison.
From his early days at the penitentiary at Angola, he worked in the kitchen, and he later trained to add baking into the mix. By the time he was released, Esteen was supervising the kitchen and baking program at Plaquemines Parish Detention Center, feeding 600 inmates daily.
Surmounting considerable odds to start his own growing restaurant business hasn’t been easy, Esteen says, but it’s been worth it.
“When I was in prison, I had no idea I was going to be a business owner,” he says. “I make plenty of mistakes, but I always try to grow and build on those mistakes. I had so much to learn — like about taxes. That was one of the biggest things I had to learn real fast.”
Esteen pays his success forward by giving jobs to men and women coming out of the system. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, he says.
“If people have a good attitude, they can always learn,” he says.
The 110-seat restaurant is larger than the Marigny spot, and it has a big outdoor space complete with a stage and bar. But the kitchen and menu are smaller, though Esteen plans to expand the menu over time.
The new Bayou Road location serves breakfast from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., and lunch is from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. The eatery reopens for dinner from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.
The pork-free breakfast menu includes plates of shrimp and buttery grits, turkey or beef sausage, eggs and toast, and his special French toast, dipped in the chef’s secret sauce. For lunch and dinner, there are homestyle dishes like po-boys, jambalaya, red beans and rice, seafood-stuffed baked potatoes, gumbo, fried catfish and grilled red snapper or salmon. Specials rotate into the mix.
Esteen’s vision is to offer a fine dining experience while keeping the prices manageable. Currently they range from $14.99 for chicken wings to $45 for a 12-ounce steak with two sides. Both restaurants have a full bar, complete with frozen daiquiris and zero-proof drinks.
Esteen hadn’t planned to open on Bayou Road, but when a group of regular customers kept asking him to consider that location, he did.
“When I saw the spot, which is both a restaurant and a special event venue, I knew it was the right way to go,” he says. “It made sense to me that the space could generate the money I need to grow my business into more locations.”
Although he’s satisfied with where things are right now, Esteen is forward thinking.
“You know, the crazy part about it is, I’m constantly reminding myself where I came from,” he says. “That keeps me from getting negative when there’s been stealing or other kinds of disrespect. I don’t want to handle things the way I used to handle it. I’m never going back to prison.”
His story has been featured in print and on TV, and chef Emeril Lagasse got in touch and invited Esteen to cook with him.
“It’s motivating for me to know that these people reached out to me to hear my story,” he says. “Because my story could be anybody’s. We all are neighborhood people. When you are growing up, you don’t know which direction you’re going to go, but believe me, it’s your end game that shows who you really are.”