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New Orleans Restaurants Foresee a Slow Recovery

Detroit Free Press
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

September 13, 2005 - It is the place to revel in blackened redfish, boiled crawfish, he-man muffuletta sandwiches, achingly sweet pralines and beignets that coat you in a cloud of powdered sugar after the very first bite.

It is the home base of celebrity chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. It is famous for legendary restaurants such as Antoine's, Commander's Palace, K-Paul's, Nola and Galatoire's. And it is a major hub of production and transport for food products from coffee to shrimp.

But will New Orleans ever be all that again?

With the city focused on survival now, it's too early to know how its famed restaurants and food companies will fare in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Those in the food industry are holding their collective breath in hopes that the people and businesses that infused New Orleans with its warm and generous "spirit of the table" will survive.

"It's one of America's food capitals," said Clark Wolf, a New York- and Sonoma, Calif.-based restaurant industry expert. "New Orleans gave us a sense that there could be a regional American food style. It gave us the notion that food was about celebration, and taught Americans that a little spice never hurt. It's the original fusion cuisine in this country -- Cajun."

Wolf is hopeful that some of the city's culinary dynasties, such as Lagasse and the Brennan family, will be able to pull through.

"One of the things that gives me comfort is that these people have restaurants in Las Vegas, Orlando and elsewhere -- that they have the wherewithal to survive this," Wolf said. "People used to give Emeril grief about having so many restaurants. But now, thank goodness."

At least some of New Orleans' landmark restaurants appeared to be standing and in fair shape, though others had sustained visible damage. The Los Angeles Times reported that one wall of Antoine's was gone. The Dallas Morning News reported that Cafe du Monde (the place for beignets and chicory coffee) and Central Grocery (home of the muffuletta) appeared to have sustained little damage.

And reported last week that at Brennan's Restaurant -- owned by the family that owns Commander's Palace in the Garden District and several other New Orleans eateries -- Jimmy Brennan, some relatives and the restaurant's chef were sleeping on air mattresses and cooking food from the larder for themselves and French Quarter police.

"We have been instructed by the matriarchs that we will rebuild," family member Brad Brennan told the New York Times, speaking from his office at Commander's Palace Las Vegas.

Later in the week, from Brennan's restaurant in Houston, Alex Brennan-Martin said this: "Business won't be bouncing back anytime soon. We'll be open, but substantially slower, and we won't be able to employ as many people."

With the city's nearly 3,500 restaurants shuttered or ruined by flooding, looting and fires, and its residents now scattered across the United States, the survival of that culture is in question.

Restaurateurs such as Kenny LaCour, owner of Cuvee Restaurant just outside the French Quarter, say rebuilding and preserving that culture is a priority.

After seeing news footage of flames near Cuvee, LaCour feared the worst for his 5-year-old restaurant, which served contemporary Creole dishes such as gulf fish with crawfish and baby lima beans, Serrano ham and a spicy saffron sauce.

LaCour got lucky. The flames didn't reach Cuvee, his building was mostly undamaged and his staff made it to safety. This should have been a month to celebrate; Bon Appetit magazine just named Cuvee one of the city's best restaurants.

"It was a great honor; unfortunately we don't have a city to be best of right now," said LaCour, who is certain his restaurant will reopen. Someday. He couldn't guess when.

The city's historic, restaurant-rich French Quarter wasn't as badly damaged as many parts of the city, but that may not matter.

Richard Martin, managing editor of Nation's Restaurant News, said recovery may be extremely slow -- regardless of how many restaurants were spared serious damage -- because of the collapse of the city's overall infrastructure.

And that's more than power and clean water. It's also a matter of supplies, such as the local seafood featured so prominently on so many menus. Much of the fishing fleets and processors who provided it have been severely damaged.

When the restaurants do return, expect fewer, perhaps limited to the French Quarter and Garden District.

There also will be staffing issues. Job offers from restaurants around the country have poured in for New Orleans' 56,000 displaced food workers. During the year or more it takes the city to right itself, many will accept them.

That's good now, but could be trouble later. Star chefs who take up kitchens elsewhere might be reluctant to return when the city is running again, said Tom Weatherly, spokesman for the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

Lagasse, a New Orleans institution whose culinary empire of television programs, cookbooks and kitchen gear took interest in the city's cuisine and kicked it up a notch, probably isn't going anywhere. But for the moment, his three restaurants and company headquarters in the city are closed indefinitely.

Some restaurateurs will leave. But food is the soul of this city and those who cook it -- many of whom have been here for decades -- say they and it will persevere.

This is not just any food. It is Cajun with its brash, full-bodied take on pork fat and crawfish. It is Creole with its okra and red beans, butter and cream. It is oysters Rockefeller. It is king cakes and beignets.

"That is the epitome of what we're talking about right now," said Melvin Rodrigue, general manager of Galatoire's, the century-old Bourbon Street restaurant known for Creole classics.

"Everybody who sits down to dinner right now is talking about what they're going to have at their next dinner," he said. "That's part of the fiber of who we are, and we're going to bring that back into play."

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