HOW FOOD HELPED REBUILD A BROKEN CITY
To love New Orleans is to love the underdog. It is to understand that the beauty of a place can be as much, if not more so, in its soul as it is in its architecture. It is to embrace a multicultural hodgepodge of tradition and submit to its confusion. It is to bathe in a spirit that, more often than not, is entirely misinterpreted.
I love the Crescent City, so called because of the crescent in the Mississippi River in where the city sits. I was born and raised there, footsteps from Audubon Park, the Mardi Gras parade routes, and the St. Charles Avenue streetcar tracks. I love it like no other place in the world. As I watched the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina unfold on August 29, 2005, huddled tearfully in the bar at City Grocery (one of my restaurants in Oxford, Mississippi) with a group of New Orleans friends, I was devastated to a degree I still have trouble explaining. All of us watching knew that the city was in for dramatic change.
In the seven and a half years since, New Orleans has come alive in a way I have never known. There is a fierce pride and determination in its people. I have witnessed this same “swelling of the chest” on a national level a couple of times in my life, but have watched, disappointedly, as it waned as quickly as it waxed. In New Orleans, it prevails. The city has municipal leadership in a new mayor, for example, Mitch Landrieu, who shows a dedication to the well-being of the city we haven’t seen in almost four decades. Public schools, once among the worst in the country, are thriving and rising to the ranks of the elite. New Orleans seems constantly to percolate with enthusiasm and an entrepreneurial zeal these days.
A Second Chance
The years leading up to the storm were not paving the way to this end. The mentality was beleaguered. The pervasive attitude was “Hey, we put on Mardi Gras, we put on Jazz Fest, we got the French Quarter and this giant convention center, so just come on!” We expected people to just show up.
Katrina was, by all accounts, a second chance…a cleansing the city desperately needed. Corrupt leadership in city government, a self-serving police department for sale, and crumbling infrastructure were at the core of a city in decline or, arguably, in ruins.
The Superdome, symbol of the post-Katrina devastation, was decades past the need for rebuilding and renovation. Saints owner Tom Benson held the city hostage annually with the threat of moving the Saints franchise. Old-money New Orleans had been alienated from city leadership, landmarks were weathered and dilapidated, there was little luster to anything. And New Orleans languished in its position as the country’s red-headed stepchild.
Ben Wicks, who had been a long-time employee in the kitchen at Rio Mar, one of the city’s most forward-thinking seafood eateries, summed it up best. “I think that people began to realize immediately that we had just all taken this [New Orleans] for granted.”
The immediate response of some to the devastated city was to question whether it even made sense to repopulate the city (a significant portion of the city sits below sea level). Alon Shaya, Israeli-born chef de cuisine at Domenica, likens the plight of New Orleans to the struggles of the Jews. “Every religion or cause needs its naysayers in order to persevere. The storm provided a wartime experience that brought people together. Like the Jews, immediately after the storm, it looked like New Orleans could lose everything. We could have been exterminated.”
And, indeed, the naysayers lined up to take swipes at rebuilding Sodom. Comments in inland newspaper op-ed pages dripped with sentiments such as “just abandon it” and “I don’t want MY tax dollars going to rebuild.” There was abundant debate over rebuilding at all and if so, why? In a late-night debate, news anchor Sheppard Smith said, “When are you people just going to accept it, New Orleans is finished. It’s never coming back. I’m sick of people whining about it.” Those comments cut at all of us, but they would also serve as inspiration to persevere.
Proving Our Worth
Food writer Alan Richman took aim specifically at the New Orleans restaurant community in a December 2006 article in GQ. “I know we are supposed to salvage what’s left of the city, but what exactly is it that we’re trying to cherish and preserve?” While he may have made some valid observations about the staid nature of some of the older-line restaurants in the city, he completely missed the mark on most of the rest of the restaurants he eviscerated. After crapping all over a number of well-recognized city stalwarts, he closed with this observation: “I can’t think of many cities more identified with cuisine than New Orleans, or one more dependent on its restaurants. They can help save the city, but first they have to save themselves.
And they have.
On a cool May weekend in 2007, with only 70 percent of the population returned to the city, New Orleans passed its pre-storm number of open restaurants. Old-line restaurants underwent massive renovations. Corporate chains, hedging bets and holding out on reopening, opened the door for neighborhood spots to make a stake, adding a personal touch to the landscape again. But most importantly, chefs dug in their heels and looked to what they loved about the city as inspiration for creating their food moving forward. According to Shaya, “Every little bit that happened, the first Mardi Gras, the Saints returning, every little thing made me more dedicated to showing what I loved about the city through food. It was what made me realize how much comfort people actually received from it.”
Katrina was the wake-up call to the city’s young, energetic, and creative minds. They would begin a journey to recovery through reinvention. Food was at the very nucleus of this revolution. The initial wave of crisis management came unprepared for what they faced. First responders, military, and emergency management teams saw immediately that the commitment to help was not a short-term proposition. The degree of resources and supplies needed would be greater than anyone first considered.
Local chefs and restaurant owners able to return post-Katrina threw themselves into work. Donald Link, John Besh, and Scott Boswell, among dozens of others, immediately responded with red beans and rice, jambalaya, and gumbo by the thousands of portions to feed these people. They cooked what they could get their hands on and what was familiar…the things they could make in their sleep.
In time, the mass-volume cooking gave way to chefs returning to their kitchens as locals returned. Restaurants became the epicenters of reunion. Men cried seeing friends for the first time, enemies shook hands and revisited differences over plates of food. It was in these moments that change began to set in. “When we reopened Herbsaint,” said Link, “it was clear that restaurants weren’t just places to eat. They were where people went to feel good and reconnect. Restaurants were community centers, and you could tell how grateful folks were just to have a place to go. I think seeing this was what made a lot of chefs and cooks start taking everything a lot more seriously.”
“Supporting local purveyors and fishermen became an absolute,” says Michael Gulotta, chef de cuisine at Restaurant August. “People were streaming into our dining room wanting to be fed. Supply lines were not open, so we used everything we could get our hands on. It was all local. It gave us product and helped support these guys [suppliers] who were hurting too.” Donald Link, chef/owner of Herbsaint, echoes that change in mindset: “Buying local and using community-based food became a lot more important and for the first time became very real. It tied me into New Orleans more than I had ever been before.”
Katrina would serve, ultimately, as inspiration for the Edible Schoolyard Project to migrate to New Orleans for its first location outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, giving public school children access to education on the importance of eating right and respect for the ingredients in their food. Sandy Sharp transformed Covey Rise Plantation, a quail-hunting operation, into a massive farm growing local specialty vegetables and raising duck and heritage-breed pigs as a result of hearing the city’s chefs crying out for more local produce and proteins. The Crescent City Farmers Market began to swell at the seams with new vendors offering more unusual ingredients.
Not only were the local kitchens buoyed by local ingredients, but also young men and women began to spring from established kitchens to participate in the new vitality: Michael Doyle, formerly of Dante’s Kitchen, Phillip Lopez of August, Adam Biderman from Holeman and Finch Public House (Atlanta), Isaac Toups of Emeril’s and Brian Landry of Galatoire’s opened Maurepas, Root, Company Burger, Toups Meatery, and Borgne, respectively, each a leader in its class.
At a dinner to raise money for the rebuilding of Willie Mae’s Scotch House, famed soul food haunt in the Treme neighborhood, Ben Wicks worked beside myself, Link, John Besh, Adolfo Garcia, Greg Sonnier, and others. New Orleans “swells” filled the dining room to honor the ninety-year-old Willie Mae and help finish reconstruction of her restaurant. Wicks remembers, “I couldn’t believe that all of these chefs and New Orleans big shots were so into helping this one little lady just because they loved her fried chicken.” The night would serve as inspiration for Wicks to find something he could do with the same integrity.
The answer was Mahony’s Po-Boy Shop. “All it took was eating one shitty po-boy one day,” says Wicks. His feeling was that New Orleans had gotten lazy with its trademark sandwich. The number of Subway and McAlister’s Deli signs hanging around the city now (versus twenty years ago) speaks volumes to the decline of the neighborhood sandwich shop. Mahony’s is a shining beacon for what the modern po-boy shop should aspire to. Wicks uses as many local ingredients as he can get his hands on, roasts his own ham glazed in Barq’s root beer (a New Orleans original), and piles his po-boys with two to three times the typical amount of seafood.
In the Treme, due to her advancing age and dementia, Willie Mae was unable to carry on. Her landmark soul food restaurant, eighteen months into rebuilding, stood the very real threat of being shuttered and sold. Her great-granddaughter, Kerry, would not have it. Kerry and a team of friends manned the stove and fryers and took up Willie Mae’s mantle. Today you can expect to wait hours for a lunch of fried chicken and white beans. It is worth every second of the wait, and the food is better than it’s ever been. Kerry is soft-spoken and smiles as sweetly as you can imagine, but like her great-grandmother, she has the eyes of a woman who suffers no fools. As a result the food is always spot on, the place is clean and bright, and the staff is attentive, crisp, and cheerful. Every heartbeat seems to be a tribute to Willie Mae’s legacy. She is emblematic of the revival that continues to happen.
Staying Local, Branching Out
The migration of talent out of established restaurants has certainly contributed to this explosive wave of vibrant new restaurants, but the willingness of younger minds to venture into written-off neighborhoods has also sparked the fire. Whether it is returning to the French Quarter (rarely the neighborhood for forward-thinking eateries) like the minds behind Sylvain and SoBou or reclaiming areas such as Freret Street, Faubourg Marigny, and Bywater with places like Cure, Ancora, High Hat, Three Muses, and Bacchanal, New Orleans’s food scene is currently competing at the top of its game and on a national level.
The environment for this mentality has definitely been bolstered by a massive influx of young adults. New Orleans has for the past several years been the number one moving destination for twenty-five- to thirty-five-year-olds. It is this youthful enthusiasm and craving for something new that is also building a budding speakeasy and pop-up restaurant scene as well. In the back rooms of forgotten or over-looked locales, pop-up bars, po-boy shops, supper clubs, and pizza joints are making themselves known all over the city. The food, which some may consider crude, is all driven by the same desire to be part of the vital scene unfolding in the city. And more often than not, the food, if simple in conception, is excellent in its preparation and flavor. Every layer makes the scene that much more compelling.
Immigrants to the New Orleans area are yet another key to this new and evolving food scene. Between the Latin American residents, who are almost single-handedly responsible for the bulk of the cleanup after the levees breached, and the Vietnamese, who have swept in to helm a majority of the local commercial fishing, shrimping, and oystering, we have seen a mass of excellent ethnic restaurants spring up, further contributing to the city’s growing culinary diversity.
Chef Menteur Highway, formerly a miserable industrial corridor (and the first to be affected by the floodwaters), is now a three-to-four-mile-long stretch of Asian eateries, bakeries, and stores. Vietnamese versions of Louisiana boiled crawfish with ginger and lemongrass and crusty New Orleans French bread and the addition of banh mi to an otherwise finite po-boy menu list are but a few examples of this new influence on the foodways of our city.
It could not be any more unfortunate that it took a catastrophe like the failure of the levees to bring all this about, but all too frequently it takes a slap in the face to inspire change. New Orleans has taken to heart, I think, that it had become all too complacent in its position as the “City That Care Forgot.” It now breathes an attitude of a “City You’ll Never Forget.”
Food writer Richman snipped, “Restaurants could be the saviors of New Orleans, providing they produce innovative rather than repetitive food.” The restaurants and chefs have responded in spades. It is a heyday for food and restaurants in the city. It is something everyone who loves food, whether you like New Orleans or not, should see. It used to be that you could eat everywhere you needed to eat in the city over the course of a long weekend. These days, you better set aside about a month.
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