Shermond Esteen Jr. opens Nonno’s Cajun Cuisine & Pastries on North Claiborne Avenue | Food and drink | Gambit Weekly

Adella Miesner

Shermond Esteen Jr. has been cooking for years, but he’s followed an unconventional path to opening his own restaurant, Nonno’s Cajun Cuisine & Pastries. Esteen, 47, ran the kitchen and supervised the baking program to feed 600 inmates at Plaquemines Parish Detention Center. With the opening of Nonno’s, at 2025 […]

Shermond Esteen Jr. has been cooking for years, but he’s followed an unconventional path to opening his own restaurant, Nonno’s Cajun Cuisine & Pastries.

Esteen, 47, ran the kitchen and supervised the baking program to feed 600 inmates at Plaquemines Parish Detention Center. With the opening of Nonno’s, at 2025 N. Claiborne Ave. in the 7th Ward, he’s focusing on homestyle cooking and baked goods.

He learned about food from his mother, who did some catering on the side when he was growing up. What he really wanted was to learn to bake, which he did in a culinary program at B.B. Rayburn Correctional Center, one of three prisons where he served 20 years of a 33-year sentence for possession of five ounces of marijuana.

Esteen was taken to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola directly from the trial in August 1999, where he spent eight years, and then transferred to Rayburn for another eight. Because of his baking skills, he was transferred to the then new Plaquemines facility.

“Angola was the best place of the three, because it was the only place that allowed you to make your own money,” he says. “I learned to make jewelry there. They treated you like a person.”

Esteen now mentors young men who have been caught in the system.

“There’s only two ways to deal with prison,” he says. “You get bitter or you get better — which is what I chose to do.”

Because of his exemplary behavior, Esteen was paroled as part of a “20/45” program — “You had to have served 20 years and be 45 years old,” he explains. He came home to his parents’ place in Algiers in August 2019. 

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Esteen was born in Avondale and grew up in Algiers. When he was released from prison, he knew he wanted to focus on cooking and got started.

“I took a day — you know, to look at everything — then I went and renewed my driver’s license and got busy,” he says.

He served food out of his parents’ kitchen — and people loved it. Intent on earning money to open his own place, he started driving for Lyft.

On June 20, he opened his restaurant in the 7th Ward. The restaurant’s name, Nonno, means grandfather in Italian. “My daughter had a son and I didn’t want to just be grandpa; I liked the sound of that.” He says he doesn’t have Italian roots, but his heritage does include a grandmother who was Cherokee and a grandfather who was Filipino.

While at Plaquemines, he was given the job of preparing food for the Louisiana Council on Aging. The prison got the contract to supply the parish’s low-income senior citizens with daily meals, using prison labor.

“They got paid, I didn’t,” he says. “But I really enjoyed cooking for those folks. 165 people ate my food every day.”

For a restaurant to make a big move right now takes a leap of faith considering the hardships the pandemic has brought the industry.

He was able to cook using ingredients the general prison population didn’t have access to for dishes like shrimp Creole and crawfish etouffee.

When he cooked for the inmates, he figured out how to add flavor. “It was pretty bare bones what we got to cook,” he says. “But it’s all in how you do it. Simply adding onions, celery and salt and pepper to the beans was still cheap but made all the difference. I earned a lot of respect because of that. The sheriff’s department and the prison staff loved eating my food.”

His homemade cinnamon buns were especially popular, and now they’re a special at Nonno’s. The breakfast menu’s shrimp and grits, turkey sausage with eggs and toast and his special French toast — the French bread is dipped in the chef’s secret sauce — are already popular.

Specials abound for lunch and dinner, with home-style dishes like jambalaya and red beans and rice on Mondays; seafood-stuffed baked potatoes on Wednesdays; seafood gumbo and lasagna on Thursdays; fried or sauteed red snapper, catfish or shrimp on Fridays; and hand-cut rib-eye steaks with potatoes, salad and garlic bread on Saturdays — a deal at $29.99. For Sunday game days, it’s smothered chicken on mashed potatoes. For dessert, there’s a range of sweets like sour cream cake with praline glaze and sweet potato pie.

“Espiritu” and “futuro.”

The restaurant seats about 40 people at physically distanced tables and there are a handful of outside tables. Nonno’s is waiting for a liquor license and is working with the city to get approval for a crosswalk across the busy street and parking on the neutral ground. “I want to beautify the neighborhood, to be part of the community here,” Esteen says.

He’s also looking forward to getting married to his fiancee Anesta Morton, who works with him in the business.

“We met at prison — she was a contracted baker and was my supervisor.”


Nonno’s Cajun Cuisine and Pastries

2025 N. Claiborne Ave., (504) 354-1364; instagram.com/nonnos_504

Breakfast and lunch Wed.-Mon., dinner Wed.-Sat. and Mon.

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