Monday, September 19, 2005

The New Orleans Culinary Resurrection

In the September issue of Bon Appetite magazine, New Orleans was listed as one of America’s top five restaurant cities

The ill-timed edition— which hit newsstands two weeks prior to Hurricane Katrina’s landfall— serves as a tangible reminder of what the nation’s restaurant customers have lost.

The other four cities— San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas, and, of course, New York— are worthy cohorts, but none hold the charm, culture, and history that the Crescent City offers. The citizens of New Orleans— and those of us who have been lucky enough to live around the periphery— worship food. It is a religion. It is a devotion that runs deeper than that of any other city, including New York.

The restaurant business in New Orleans has been temporarily eliminated, and one wonders if it will ever be able to return to the glory days of its past.

Watching the post-storm, post-flood news coverage on a battery-operated television in the days following the hurricane, I thought of the tens of thousands of restaurant employees who clocked out after a busy Saturday night on August 27th and haven’t worked since. If one subtracts an entire city from the Bon Appetite thesis, twenty percent of the nations top dining was wiped out in one windy day.

The road to restaurant revival on the banks of the Mississippi River will be long and arduous. The clean up will take months. Perishable food is involved so the job will be neither hygienic nor easy. We must remember that the restaurants, too, closed for business that Saturday night, and haven’t been reopened since. Toxic flood waters rose to as high as 15 feet in certain sections of the city. Electricity has been off for weeks and coolers and freezers are still full of abandoned and rotting food.

In a recent Associated Press article, Donald Link, co-owner of restaurant Herbsaint (one of the properties featured in the Bon Appetite piece), said, "I looked at the lost food– the pig heads in brine were the worst and I thought I can't do this. I can't take it."

Nevertheless, Link summoned the will and used a commercial gas mask borrowed from an oil refinery to empty Herbsaint’s five coolers and freezers that were crammed with spoiling inventory. Before the job was finished he had filled 70 large trash bags.

Link plans to reopen sometime in October, but first the restaurant will have to be decontaminated and all new equipment will have to be purchased.

In New Orleans, millions of dollars of inventory— some of the world’s best tasting inventory— was wasted. It is hard to get a grip on the scale of this disaster as it relates to the New Orleans and Gulf Coast restaurant business. One can take Donald Link’s story and multiply it by thousands. From the little po-boy shops to the convention hotels, the job of clean up and decontamination will be grueling, problematic, and nauseating.

On the second day after the storm, I collected a few of my managers and cleaned the six coolers and two freezers at my Hattiesburg restaurants. Although the food had been held without electricity for two days, some had remained under forty degrees, and most was still cool to the touch. As I began to stack boxes of produce on the sidewalk, an amazing thing happened. Residents and evacuees, who had been wandering through the parking lot in a state of post-disaster shock, looking for food, water, batteries, or an opened drug store, began forming a spontaneous line. We were able to give all of the safe and usable food to those in need.

The restaurateurs of New Orleans weren’t able to give away their inventory and a lot of them haven’t even been able to return to their properties. Some will reopen; others are rumored to be closing permanently. My guess is that the city’s thriving restaurant trade will return, and quicker than expected.

Before long, the French Quarter will be filled with tourists. The aroma of fried-seafood poboys and gumbo will fill the air. The Uptown and River Bend eateries will open their doors and welcome the world with open arms. I’ll be there with an empty stomach and a hearty appetite.

Tomorrow, if Bon Appetite were to compile an updated list of the nation’s top five restaurants— even with all of its eating establishments closed— New Orleans would still make the list. The ranking wouldn’t be for sentimental reasons, or for being the cause celebre, but because New Orleans’ food is just that good.

Hurry back, guys. We’re hungry.

For those interested:

New Orleans Hospitality Workers Relief Fund
4550 Post Oak Place, Ste. 100
Houston, TX 77027

New Orleans Rebirth Fund
1051 N. Third Street, 5th floor
Baton Rouge

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