One of the best articles I've read lately. A great perspective on a great industry. Hat's off to all our restaurant friends.
In New Orleans, a city defined by its culinary culture, restaurateurs vow to rebuild.
By Regina Schrambling
Special to The Times
September 14, 2005
OTHER cities have specialties, a hoagie here or a chimichanga there. New Orleans has a cuisine, a rich, vibrant, fully evolved style of cooking from centuries in a pivotal location. There the melting pot actually lived up to the great American concept, blending African, West Indian, French, Spanish, Italian, Cajun and recently Vietnamese into one exuberant good-times roll.
It's a city where an out-of-town couple eating at the bar at Nola the night before Thanksgiving would get invited to potluck turkey at the cook's home, with resistance not an option. Or where a restaurant owner would buy the whole house drinks just because he's feeling good. Though other places have sold their souls to tourism, New Orleans has always shared.
According to a number of the city's prominent chefs and restaurateurs, that heartfelt tradition still remains, despite the nightmare still playing out. They all echo what Susan Spicer of Bayona and Herbsaint insisted from her brother's house in Jackson, Miss.: Nothing can kill the music or the food.
The Saturday before the storm, Spicer closed Herbsaint but stayed open at Bayona because she had 180 seats reserved. About 100 people turned up, and she gave away food and cracked open Champagne before packing up her family to get out of town at 1:30 a.m.
Most of the chefs and restaurateurs reached by phone or e-mail say they have no real sense of what property damage awaits them. In the meantime, they're wrangling with insurance companies and hoping for the least devastating scenario.
All would like to reopen, even if they can only sell sandwiches to construction workers, as Jacques Leonardi of Jacques-Imo's in the Bywater district is considering.
The French Quarter, home to many landmark restaurants, was largely spared flooding and suffered only sporadic looting. Chef Paul Prudhomme says he went to City Hall several days ago to apply for permission to reopen his K Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in order to feed relief workers, the military and police, but "the city official said no. It's dangerous there. You can't let one restaurant operate, whether they're giving the food away or not, and tell others they can't operate." Instead, Prudhomme and his staff are feeding people from his spice company's offices in nearby Harahan.
Amazingly, Alex Patout's Louisiana Restaurant never closed during the storm and its aftermath, offering water and rations to passing police, reporters and Quarter holdouts.
John Besh, chef at Restaurant August, one of the city's newer and best regarded restaurants, is "cooking red beans for cops," according to Brett Anderson, restaurant critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Anderson has been out in the swampy streets working as a reporter since the hurricane.
The chefs who have not been able to get back to their restaurants, however, which is most of them, are relying mostly on second-hand reports and satellite photos.
For now, as co-owner Mary Sonnier of Gabrielle in the Mid-City neighborhood of Faubourg Saint John put it, purveyors have no food to sell, and restaurateurs have no patrons. "My business is gone," she says.
Holed up in a motel in Memphis, Tenn., with her chef-husband, Greg, she's seen a photo recently that holds out hope that damage to their restaurant is not as bad as they initially feared.
Quick visits to some of the city's landmark restaurants indicate that many of the buildings have weathered the storm.
Despite initial reports that Commander's Palace, the Garden District landmark, suffered severe wind damage, what appeared to be a blown-out wall was actually just some pre-storm construction work. A peek inside the restaurant reveals napkins fanned out atop each table setting, as if awaiting the usual Saturday night crowd. Alex Martin Brennan, a member of the extended family that runs Commander's, says they have no doubts about reopening; he hopes to get into the restaurant this week to see whether anyone broke in. "We had what I would term some mild wind damage to the roof and a couple of windows."
A few miles down St. Charles Avenue, Emeril's Delmonico is boarded up and appears to have dodged any damage. In the French Quarter, a south-facing brick wall atop Antoine's crumbled, exposing timbers and the old building's attic to the elements. Over the weekend, soldiers for the 82nd Airborne tarped the gap, and it appeared the restaurant did not face significant damage otherwise.
Like the Brennans of Commander's Palace and JoAnn Clevenger of the Upperline in Uptown, Gabrielle's Sonnier says she's determined to start over. "I don't know if we'll be back in the same building," says Sonnier. "We'll still have great food, but we might do something different."
"Everyone needs to take a deep breath and know it's going to be a while," says Spicer. "New Orleans has such a strong culture. People are not that easily deterred."
Spicer says the city's cuisine is sure to weather the disaster primarily because it is so ingrained in the culture. "Home cooks will keep the tradition going, and the restaurant community is resilient; we'll come together as we have in the past."
"I'm not going to give up," Leonardi said in an interview at Jacques-Imo's NY in Manhattan, where he had been cooking one week a month and is now in the kitchen full time for the foreseeable future. "I'm not going to be doing 2,000 a week like in the past; it will be on a different scale, going back to what I started with, 200 to 300 a week."
Clevenger, calling from her sister's home in Alexandria, Va., said she was working to get a permit to get back into the city to get moving on reopening, even knowing that all her wine would be lost (to heat if not worse) and that she would have to start over.
Restaurants like hers and Commander's Palace and Bayona that are at the high end might seem to be best positioned to make a comeback, especially since they, like so many New Orleans restaurants, have a strong local following. They also would send a message of recovery. "We need the iconic New Orleans restaurants" to reopen, Anderson says.
But he says "the joints, the po' boy places" may rebound faster. "It takes a lot less capital to open them. It's not like they have to find a staff of 150. They can wait till they get four people, a couple of tables and a counter." As Clevenger points out: "Think about gumbo. That's pot food. It doesn't have to be sautéed and plated."
Unlike in most other cities, joints are not just respectable in New Orleans; they're destinations, serving sensational food, cooked with care. An oyster po' boy on a paper plate is no less dazzling than oysters Rockefeller served on fine china.
Judy Jurisich, of the New Orleans Cooking Experience (a cooking school taught by chefs), says that Cajun and Creole are "two of the three indigenous cuisines" in America, with Tex-Mex being the third. And they meld into a New Orleans style with gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish étouffée, grits and grillades, red beans and rice and trout meunière. "If you can't think of five dishes off the top of your head, it's not a cuisine."
All the restaurateurs say they have tended to their staffs, whether providing cash or setting up website links for payment and temporary job information.
Jacques-Imo's' Leonardi says many of his staff could not leave the city because "these are guys taking care of their grandmothers and six kids." He, like most other restaurateurs, had been able to account for his staff. But Gabrielle's Sonnier sounds heartbroken over employees and regular customers she has not been able to contact. Prudhomme is doing everything he can to account for his staff of about 300 people. "If there's anyone who works for me or either one of my companies," he says, "we're starting up and we're willing to help them get back. We're looking for everybody."
Some restaurant staffers have already moved on. Spicer says her chef de cuisine has gone to Portland, Ore., with no plans to return when she is finally able to reopen. "New Orleans will come back," says Leonardi, "but it will be a different place."
"There's too much life in New Orleans," says Jessica Harris, an expert on African American cooking who has a house in New Orleans. "It's not simply a geographical locus. It's a state of the mind, of the heart and of the soul that can't be bulldozed."
Or, as JoAnn Clevenger says: "If we can get the people back, then we can get the jobs back, then we can get the spirit back."
Times staff writer Chris Erskine contributed to this story from New Orleans.