|By Greg Morago, The Hartford Courant,
Conn.McClatchy-Tribune Business News
Oct. 19, 2006 - NEW ORLEANS -- Bourbon Street was never the French Quarter's cleanest thoroughfare. Even so, a year after Katrina devastated this city, Bourbon and other streets frequented by tourists in the Quarter (and in the visitor-friendly areas of the Central Business District and Warehouse District) look swept clean of any signs of catastrophe.
A typical tourist wouldn't recognize that only a year ago, the city was brought to its knees by unspeakable death and destruction. In the touristy areas of town there's no sign of the carnage witnessed on TV, no hint of the anguish and lawlessness. Instead, fat oysters are being slurped with gusto at Acme Oyster House. Roasted pork cracklings glisten in their piggy fat at Cochon. Champagne bubbles gurgle in anticipation in the white tablecloth richness of Restaurant August. And the trademark Pimm's Cup cocktails, sweating with ice, are lining up on the bar in the ancient Napoleon House.
The signs of New Orleans eat and drink -- the culinary gusto and libidinous revelry that has endeared the city to so many visitors -- were very much alive on a recent visit to the Big Easy in the week that marked the one-year anniversary of the hurricane that scattered half the city's population from the place they called home. Most of the famous restaurants that helped earn New Orleans its reputation as a culinary capital are back in business. But the gaiety emanating from both the humble gumbo house as well as the fancy enclosures of haute Creole cuisine may be deceiving. The restaurant community has rallied to get back on its feet, but without tourists, they are shaky feet.
"If you go to the French Quarter and areas of Uptown, it does not seem to be terribly different," said Brett Anderson, food writer and restaurant critic for the Times-Picayune. "At the same time, Anderson said, you don't want it to be interpreted as everything's all right. It's not all right. Everyone working in those restaurants is still struggling with their daily lives. There's a level of anxiety that's hidden.
"The degree to which restaurants are struggling depends on the type of their clientele and their geography. The French Quarter is having a rough time because they are dependent on tourists. Those business owners tend to talk about how these are very dark days. It's not as bustling as it once was. In other parts of the city there are restaurants doing better than they ever have, which is terrific. These are restaurants who have built their reputation among locals. Overall, people here still very much worry about what the future holds," Anderson said.
That future is uncertain. What is not in doubt is how the city's restaurant community -- its chefs, waitstaff, kitchen workers and managers -- were among the first signs of life in post-Katrina New Orleans. The first reopened restaurants served as both canteens for a hungry populace and community centers where residents congregated to share information and lean on each other for support. It's not unusual that a city that depends so heavily on tourism has measured its revitalization efforts by every restaurant reopening.
Not unusual because New Orleans has long had a very personal, emotional attachment to its restaurants. The reopening of the city's most famous restaurant, Commander's Palace, was as big a story as the Saints returning to the Superdome.
"It's part of our lifestyle to talk about food, to talk about drink," said Ti Adelaide Martin, managing owner of Commander's Palace. "I think we've always had that connection with the food and the restaurants. The restaurant community has been a leading force in bringing back the town's spirits. They were like mini town halls all over New Orleans. It's where people went to commiserate and to get information. Where are you living? How are you doing? How are you getting on?"
But while Martin is justly proud of the local restaurant community's efforts at reviving the spirits of the city, she fears not enough is being done to reinvest in New Orleans.
"There's a great deal of fear of what's going to happen and fear that America doesn't have any idea what really happened here. Yes, the storm is over, but when you lose half your housing stock, it's still extraordinarily devastating," Martin said. "These programs we have going are not going to be nearly enough to save this city. They're all good programs, but they're mostly focused on helping people regain what they lost. But if we don't do something to encourage businesses to stay or relocate here, it's going to be a long, long haul for the city."
Longer if more tourists don't return. The service industry in the once-heavy tourist areas, especially the restaurants, is looking for every dollar that could potentially come its way. The announcement earlier this month that Microsoft Corp. was canceling meetings in New Orleans because of concerns about airline service, sent the restaurant community reeling. The meetings would have brought 30,000 people to the city next year. That's a lot of beignets and boudin.
Still, the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau is boasting a full convention calendar for October and 30,000 visitors in November for the National Association of Retailers convention. Those visitors will no doubt dine more than once at the city's important and beloved culinary institutions such as Emeril's, Herbsaint, Restaurant August, Besh Steakhouse, Antoine's Arnaud's, Bacco, Bayona, Bourbon House, Brennan's, Cafe du Monde, Galatoire's, Gumbo Shop, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, Napoleon House, Brigtsen's, Jacques-Imo's and Upperline -- all of which are open. In addition, several new restaurants are rounding out the dining scene: Seven on Fulton, Angelina, Cochon and Riche, the latter a new restaurant from Todd English.
The city's important restaurants are working with concessions, though. Many of the hospitality workers lived in parts of the city that were badly damaged, which means the workforce is small; housing remains a huge issue; and utilities continue to be a problem. Restaurants are having to get creative with their resources, which might become evident in menu changes, and abbreviated menus and hours.
"The lion's share of the really great restaurants in the city, the ones that the travelers want to eat at, are all reopened," said Mary Beth Romig, public relations director for the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau. "The restaurant community has been a true leader and heroes in the recovery. A number of the big chefs in town came back before they were supposed to and were cooking food for the first responders. They were cooking for workers just out of the kindness of their heart."
That heart continues to loom large in any discussions about rebuilding the city. "Restaurants turned out to be these emotional rallying points early on," Romig said. "In the early months when some of our cultural attractions were still working to get reopened, the restaurants were already open. They were places of reunion."
They were places like the Savvy Gourmet in Uptown. The culinary retail, catering and cooking school opened only two weeks before the storm. Business partners Aaron Wolfson and Peter Menge returned to the city almost immediately to see what they could salvage of the business. Without tourists there was no need for cooking classes or shopping for high-end cookware. They decided to feed people. Using borrowed chairs and tables (and sending out word on the Internet) they opened a restaurant for lunch. "We sent out e-mails to our customers saying, 'Look, we have no idea what we're doing. But we hope you're safe. We hope you come over for lunch.' The first day we had 33, the second day was over 40, the next day was over 50," Menge said. "The restaurant took off. It saved us."
Even though they were newbies, the partners in Savvy Gourmet benefited from that only-in-New Orleans relationship residents have with their restaurants. Wolfson and Menge embraced their community, and their community hugged back.
"Every life milestone in New Orleans is celebrated by people coming together over a meal. That's one of the reasons why we were so popular when we opened. It's not that there were so few places to eat, but it was a place to hang out and feel somewhat normal," Menge said. "There were reunions here. It felt like you were doing the right thing."
Those comings-together were typical in post-Katrina New Orleans. But they still amaze and touch locals like Commander's Palace's Martin. "I have been blown away by the extraordinary resilience and courage of our citizens. Everyone is doing everything they can," she said. "There's so much talent and heart and passion here. We desperately want to be happy here. The reality is we still need some serious help."
How to help? Come visit, Martin said. It's the same thing everyone in the culinary community wishes, from the mom-and-pop po'boy shop to the chandeliered dining halls of the Crescent City.
"If you want to help us," Menge said plainly, "come on down."
Copyright (c) 2006, The Hartford Courant, Conn.
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