Pastor on restaurant quest can't live by bread alone

September 30, 2011

NEW ORLEANS(RNS) Minister Ray Cannata's mission is almost complete.

Four years ago he set out to eat at every restaurant in New Orleans.
By mid-September, he'd already checked 719 eateries off his list and
only had 10 meals to go before the ceremonial conclusion of his quest on
Oct. 21, when he'll have dined in 729 establishments.

That last meal will be a celebratory steak-house dinner he refers to
as "the last supper."

That is an interesting choice of words considering that Cannata, a
42-year-old with muttonchop sideburns and not nearly the belt size you'd
expect for someone with his hobby, is a Presbyterian minister.

Cannata, who grew up in New York, says he got the calling from God
while in college, later attended the seminary at Princeton University
and then set out for a career in the ministry.

Within a decade, he was pastor of a thriving suburban New Jersey
church with 300 parishioners and working on his doctoral degree.

The downside, he said, was the dullness.

Then, a New Orleans minister called, hoping to interest him in
taking over a modest church on St. Charles Avenue with only a few dozen
members. As so often happens, Cannata and his wife, Kathy, a school
librarian, instantly succumbed to that old Crescent City magic. It
didn't hurt that Kathy's father was originally from New Orleans. This
was summer 2005. Before the couple could pay a second visit to their
possible new home, their possible new home was battered by Hurricane
Katrina and swamped by floodwater.

It looked like the move was off. After all, Cannata already had
gotten another attractive job offer in sunny San Diego.

But, as Cannata explains, "Christianity isn't supposed to be about
moving away from the pain; it's supposed to be about moving toward the
pain." There was plenty of pain in New Orleans in winter 2006, when
Cannata bought a house for his family -- he and Kathy have two kids --
and dove into Redeemer Presbyterian, his new New Orleans church with
fewer than 20 members.

"God loves an underdog," Cannata said.

In addition to helping steady the post-Katrina congregation, he also
helped rebuild his adopted city. He said a steady stream of Presbyterian
missionaries came to town to help repair nearly 500 damaged homes.

When dinnertime came, those missionaries, who'd been swinging
hammers all day, wanted to know where to get some of that great New
Orleans food. Cannata began keeping a list of his favorite spots. As the
city began to rebound and he added restaurants, the list just seemed to
take on a life of its own.

When someone casually suggested that Cannata continue until he'd
eaten everywhere, a quest was born. Crescent City natives who heard of
Cannata's goal volunteered restaurant recommendations. "To love the
people in New Orleans," Cannata said, "you have to love the food."

To keep the number of dining establishments from becoming too
daunting, it was necessary to impose certain criteria. First, he decided
to confine his self-imposed challenge to Orleans Parish. He excluded
national chains. He declared that every eatery on the list had to have
more chairs at tables than at the bar. Finally, a meal doesn't count if
he eats alone, Cannata said with a laugh, because "that's just binging."

The total number of New Orleans restaurants is a moving target, of
course. Weekly, some open and some close. "To be honest," he said, "I
may have missed one or two." But Cannata has been as thorough as
possible. Needless to say, his can be an expensive hobby, so he sticks
to lunches when possible.

The portions in New Orleans, Cannata has found, are customarily
large. He theorizes that, in the Crescent City, serving size is based on
lavish hospitality, not profit.

Too much high-calorie hospitality could be a waistline hazard, of
course, so Cannata always leaves a bite or two behind. Though he
initially gained weight as he checked restaurants off his list, he's
since dropped the extra pounds by abstaining from soft drinks and giving
up his car.

These days, when Cannata unfurls a napkin and takes up a new menu,
there's liable to be a documentary movie crew capturing the moment. One
of those house rebuilding missionaries, Michael Dunaway, turned out to
be a filmmaker who took an interest in Cannata's quest.

What was going to be a short video subject has morphed into a
full-blown 90-minute documentary movie titled "The Man Who Ate New
Orleans," complete with a cast of Crescent City celebrity chefs. The
"Last Supper" will be the climax of the movie that may be shown by fall
2012. Proceeds from the film will benefit the ongoing post-Katrina
rebuilding effort, Cannata said.

The membership of Cannata's congregation has grown to 160 on
Sundays, and he says he's never been happier. He considers his quest to
conquer New Orleans' restaurants as perfectly compatible with his faith.
Food is central to many of the Bible's teachings, he says. "I'm just
doing what God wants me to; I'm eating a lot."