|By Howard Witt, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 16, 2005 - NEW ORLEANS -- The maitre d' is dead.
He perished at home, along with his son, sometime after the levees broke and the floodwaters rushed in and his tiny house in northern New Orleans filled to the ceiling with fetid water.
Most of the rest of the restaurant's staff of 130--the chefs, the waiters, the wine stewards, the busboys, the dishwashers--are scattered across 14 states, the homes they fled no longer habitable, the jobs they worked no longer assured.
Hundreds of pounds of decomposing lobsters, steaks and soft-shell crabs fill the walk-in freezer. The ceiling beam in the main dining room is bowed and sagging ominously. Part of an exterior wall collapsed.
There will be no dinner at Antoine's, the fabled restaurant just off Bourbon Street in the heart of New Orleans' French Quarter. At least not any time soon.
Yet the struggle of this iconic fixture to resuscitate itself in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is a story that will mirror New Orleans' fight for revival, for Antoine's touched nearly every neighborhood and social stratum across this wounded city.
For 165 years, through fires and hurricanes, wars and recessions, and the changing fortunes of the two families that have been the restaurant's only owners, Antoine's managed to endure, offering timeless French cuisine served by tuxedoed waiters to patrons in a choreographed dining ritual virtually unchanged through five generations.
No cataclysm of history was enough to stop the clock on one of the nation's oldest and most famous restaurants, a place where the New Orleans gentry handed down reserved tables in their wills, where free-spending tourists gawked at the 22,000-bottle wine cellar, where the biggest Mardi Gras krewes held their precarnival banquets and displayed their jewel-encrusted costumes in antique glass cases.
The fearsome Aug. 29 hurricane displaced more than a million people, flooded tens of thousands of homes, tore through every layer of this complex and colorful city -- and rent the fabric of Antoine's right along with it.
Now the owners of the restaurant, whose ancestors have called New Orleans home ever since Antoine Alciatore spent his last franc to journey to America from France and start the business in 1840, face a daunting struggle to repair the damage, reconstruct their supply lines, rebuild their staff and, they hope, resurrect a business that is part of New Orleans' lifeblood.
The restaurant drew many of its entry-level workers from the Lower 9th Ward and Bywater and East New Orleans -- poor and working-class districts of the city that were so completely flooded they may never be rebuilt.
Veteran waiters, many of whom had spent decades working at the restaurant, lived the middle-class American dream in neighborhoods such as Lakeview and Mid-City, where the insidious waters rose to destroy all their hard-won possessions.
Antoine's patrons were drawn from the city's upper crust as well as its tourists and conventioneers -- core constituencies whose wealth and spending power used to keep New Orleans running but who have scarcely begun to return.
The restaurant's suppliers and contractors are spread across the city in concentric circles of Katrina-induced misery. The produce merchant's warehouse exploded and burned. The seafood supplier's warehouse flooded and is now coated in toxic muck. The refrigeration-repair company lost all of its trucks and equipment to the floodwaters.
And those are just the known problems. Like countless other businesses and homeowners across the city, Antoine's faces a protracted battle with its insurance companies over fair compensation for its losses. Expenses are ballooning for labor, supplies and housing, all in desperately short supply. With no homes to return to, some of the restaurant's most valued employees already are finding new jobs and starting new lives in Houston and Dallas and points farther away.
Simply locating contractors to haul away trash bins overflowing with spoiled food and debris has consumed days of effort.
In his darkest hours, Rick Blount, Antoine's chief executive officer and great-great-grandson of the founder, wonders how he will ever reopen the restaurant's doors.
"Antoine's is part of the fabric of what New Orleans is about, and what we're about as a family," he said. "If the world completely conspires against us and we can't open up, then we will have to accept our fate. But unless that happens, we will be back."
The dark hours don't last long, however. Jovial and gregarious, Blount, 48, is much more inclined to simply dive into the work at hand. Last week found him donning rubber gloves and a paper mask on his way into the main walk-in freezer to begin hauling out its rotting contents.
As soon as he opened the door, the stench hit like a putrid wall. Blount just grinned and plunged inside.
It takes more than a year to train an apprentice waiter at Antoine's to memorize the menu, take orders without writing anything down and serve every patron with the gentility and punctiliousness of a bygone era. It can take even longer for a senior cook to master the art of preparing oysters Rockefeller or baked Alaska, two signature dishes the restaurant boasts of having created.
Cliched as it may sound, Antoine's skilled, trained and experienced employees are the restaurant's most precious assets. Many have worked their jobs for decades. They cannot be replaced simply by putting an ad in the newspaper or signing a contract with a temporary staffing agency.
Michael Regua, 54, Antoine's executive chef and a 33-year employee of the restaurant, typifies the feelings of many. He does not want to work anyplace else and has already rebuffed job prospects in Austin, Texas. But he also has a car loan and a mortgage and repair bills for his storm-damaged New Orleans house coming due.
"Hopefully, with unemployment payments, I can hang on for a while," Regua said.
At the other end of the Antoine's hierarchy, newcomer Tamyra Lee, 25, a $6.70 an hour cook at the restaurant for the last year, wants to return to her job as well. She was rescued, with her three young children, after a week trapped inside their flooded house in the Lower 9th Ward. After a series of long bus trips between temporary shelters in stadiums and churches, she landed in a motel in La Porte, Texas, where she's now looking for an apartment and a job.
"Antoine's said they would still have our jobs, so I'm going to stay here for a few months until they get back up and running," Lee said. "People are nice here and everything, but it's not my home. I want to go back home."
Michael Guste, 43, Antoine's general manager and another great-great-grandson of the restaurant's founder, has so far managed to locate nearly all of Antoine's 130 employees and ascertain that they are at least safe, if not settled.
But the 18 who are still missing, including 85-year-old Lucille Smith, a cook who has been at Antoine's for 50 years, are weighing heavily on his mind.
Late last week, he set out in his car to begin a mission through the destroyed zones of the city to visit each of their abandoned homes, in hopes of finding clues to their fates.
"These people were like our family," Guste said. "You want to know that everyone got out safely. You want to know they didn't try to stay at home."
What Guste was looking for was the telltale "X" spray-painted on the exterior of every dwelling in New Orleans by search-and-rescue workers as they made their way through the city. Each quadrant of the symbol contains coded information, including the date when searchers went through the building and their fire, police or government unit.
The bottom quadrant was the one Guste dreaded reading. That's where the search crews recorded the number of dead recovered inside.
The symbol on Clifton Lachney's house reads "2-D." Two dead.
Lachney, 71, was Antoine's maitre d'. An accomplished Cajun guitarist and gentle soul fondly admired by the staff, he had been a fixture at the restaurant for 43 years.
No one knows exactly how Lachney died after the floodwaters filled the small rooms of the rented clapboard house on Robert E. Lee Boulevard where he lived with his disabled 28-year-old son, Jeffrey. The searchers found their bodies on Sept. 19--fully three weeks after Katrina hit.
What is known is that Lachney, who did not drive, declined offers from members of his church to help him and his son evacuate, preferring to stay behind to try to weather the storm.
His son Scott, a truck driver in Florida, had just survived his own brush with Katrina as the hurricane struck there first. He couldn't leave his family in time to drive to New Orleans to get his father and brother.
"My dad was stubborn," Scott Lachney said. "He rode out [Hurricane] Camille and figured he could ride out Katrina. I talked to him the day of the storm, that Monday, about 1 p.m. He looked outside, said it was probably about 2 foot of water in the yard, but said he had no concerns. That was the last time I heard from him."
The Lachney family has suffered terrible tragedies in recent years. Two of Clifton Lachney's other grown children died in 2002 within months of each other, a son in a truck accident and a daughter the victim of scleroderma, a painful auto-immune disease. Clifton Lachney's wife died last February of complications from diabetes.
Now Scott Lachney, like many Katrina victims, is enduring yet another ordeal: the struggle with state and federal officials to release the bodies of loved ones so they can be buried.
He hopes he can get back to his father's ruined house before the authorities demolish it, to retrieve his beloved guitar. It is lying on the floor of the blackened living room, one of the few objects identifiable in the noxious sludge that covers the floors, the walls and the jumbled scraps of furniture.
With a rum drink in one hand and some plastic beads in the other, a visitor taking a casual stroll down Bourbon Street can almost forget that 80 percent of New Orleans is still virtually empty of human beings, some seven weeks after Katrina struck.
The French Quarter, perched atop some of the highest ground in this below-sea-level city, never flooded when the hurricane burst the levees that so precariously hold back the waters of the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain.
So some businesses that escaped the worst of the wind damage or fires or the fouling of their premises by rotten food have been able to slowly reopen their doors to serve the burgeoning crowds of federal emergency workers, out-of-town cops and firefighters, utility contractors and cleanup crews who now make up the bulk of the city's population.
In this island of New Orleans unreality, dozens of restaurants are once again serving meals, the bars pulse with live music, and the barkers have resumed their sidewalk posts to beckon patrons inside smoky strip clubs.
Even Antoine's, at first glance through the windows of the brightly lighted main dining room, looks like it might be ready to serve tonight's five-course gourmet meal. The tables are set with stiff white tablecloths and carefully folded napkins, the silver oyster forks are arranged just so, the menus featuring lobster thermidor as the special of the day are stacked at the front desk.
Closer inspection, however, reveals that all the silverware is badly tarnished, the chairs are covered with dust and the menus were printed before Katrina struck, back when there were chefs and sous-chefs and line cooks and pantry cooks to prepare the listed dishes. Up above the street, a blue tarp flaps in the wind, halfheartedly protecting a gaping hole where a fourth-floor brick wall used to be, before the hurricane pulled it down.
With 15 distinctive dining rooms that can accommodate more than 700 patrons simultaneously and a kitchen area as big as a good-sized house, Antoine's ranks as one of the largest restaurants in the city, and it suffered grave damage in proportion to its size. The owners can only watch anxiously as smaller competitors rush to reopen their doors and stake out market share.
If they are nimble like pontoon boats lifted easily off the blocks, Antoine's is the Queen Mary, trapped in dry dock.
"We're deathly afraid that the business guys who used to eat lunch with us every day are now eating with Dickie Brennan," said Blount, Antoine's CEO, referring to another one of New Orleans' famous restaurateurs who already has reopened several of his establishments.
When they first returned to survey their restaurant a couple of weeks after Katrina struck and spied the collapsed wall, some water streaks running from the ceiling and a bit of mold, Antoine's owners figured they could get the restaurant up and running by early October.
Gradually, though, the extent of the hidden damage revealed itself. The entire rare-wine collection was ruined when the power went off and the air conditioners died. The industrial refrigerators and freezers were so polluted by rotting food they may have to be replaced. Power surges burned out parts of the restaurant's aging electrical and alarm systems. The computers were fried.
And suddenly, the shuttered restaurant was hemorrhaging cash: $15,000 a day to the emergency dry-out company to pump the dank building full of hot, dehumidified air; thousands more to the contractor to shore up the collapsed wall. And tens of thousands to meet two September payrolls for the entire restaurant staff--a moral obligation the owners said they felt to help their dispersed employees, even though there is no work for them to do.
As the autumn days grow shorter and the busy holiday season approaches, Blount and Guste face an agonizing choice.
Do they rush to reopen a portion of the restaurant, before all the physical damage is repaired, the veteran staff is reassembled, the best suppliers are lined up and the full, meticulous "Antoine's dining experience" can be guaranteed?
The risks with that approach are high. The restaurant could lose money waiting for enough of its traditional customers--wealthy New Orleanians and expense-account conventioneers--to come back to the city and fill its tables, which may not happen until well into 2006. And those customers who do return could be disappointed with something less than the haute cuisine and crisp service Antoine's has reliably offered for more than a century.
"I'm not sure if I'm doing more damage to my employees by uprooting them from wherever they are now and encouraging them to come back, only to get to December and have to lay them off again because there's not enough business," Blount mused.
Or do the owners keep the doors closed for as long as their business-interruption insurance will last, using the interval to rebuild their supply networks, restock their wine cellar and complete urgent repairs and other long-postponed maintenance to the restaurant's interconnected buildings, some of which date to the Spanish rule of the city in the late 18th Century?
That route may carry more peril. Much of the staff could move on to new lives and jobs, while the customers could move on to other restaurants.
And, most ineffably, Antoine's could fade from the daily dialogue of the new New Orleans. The very city that the restaurant helped define could move forward into its next incarnation and leave Antoine's behind.
RESURRECTING A CENTERPIECE OF NEW ORLEANS: First opened in 1840, Antoine's has fed the city's tourists and its elite. But its employees -- some still missing nearly seven weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit -- were drawn from across the city's neighborhoods and social strata. The majority of them lost their homes in the flooding.
ANTOINE'S MAJOR SUPPLIERS
--1. Per-Fect Air (air conditioning and refrigeration)
239 S. Genois St.
Warehouse and equipment destroyed by floodwaters
--2. American Seafood
2518 Orleans Ave.
Warehouse destroyed by 5 feet of water; owners vowing to rebuild an even bigger facility
--3. A.J.'s Produce
3122 Chartres St.
Main warehouse destroyed when an adjacent building housing thousands of freon tanks blew up days after Katrina hit. Owner is working out of remnants of a smaller warehouse next door, buying wholesale produce to service five of his original 200 clients that are back up and operating.
--4. Leidenheimer Baking Co.
1501 Simon Bolivar
Some water damage. Owners recently cleaned plant and reopened on a limited basis
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