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The New Normal in New Orleans

For the city's restaurant community, the year since Hurricane Katrina hit has been a time to redefine their reality and reimagine their future. Pete Wells reports.

For people in New Orleans, life is divided into two chapters: before the storm and after the storm. Storm is an oddly understated word for the 100 mph winds that peeled roofs off houses, but that's what locals call it. As if Katrina doesn't deserve a human name. They say: This happened before the storm. Or: Oh, that was after the storm. It's always one or the other, and the difference between them is all the difference in the world.

Outsiders talking about New Orleans these days tend to use terms like rebuild, recover, reconstruct. The problem with these words is that they imply that the city can turn the clock back to August 28, 2005. Anyone who lives there knows that this is a fiction. Nothing is quite the same, and nobody today is quite where they thought they would be. What follows are three tales of lives in the restaurant world that have taken unexpected turns.

Before the storm, Brett Anderson wrote restaurant criticism for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Before the storm, Corbin Evans grew vegetables and raised hens on a farm and owned a restaurant on St. Charles Avenue called LuLu's in the Garden.

Before the storm, Allison Vines-Rushing and her husband, Slade Rushing, were two days away from opening a restaurant on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain that would, they hoped, bring New York City standards of service and cuisine to Louisiana.

Brett Anderson evacuated to Oxford, Mississippi. As a restaurant critic in a town with no functioning restaurants, he could have taken a long vacation, but he started looking for a way back to the city the next day. He finally got there on September 4, when he joined up with a small band of reporters who were somehow putting out a newspaper without phones or electricity.

In that first week, Anderson went to eastern New Orleans to get on one of the boats that were searching for survivors in flooded houses. "So we went out there," he says. "It's surreal. You're on a highway but you're going the wrong way and people are launching boats off the end of on-ramps. It's insane. There was somebody from NPR and Houston television, and they're all standing on this ramp waiting for boats to come in. There was all this debris, empty Coke cans, and in that debris was a full body bag and what looked to me like a quilt covering a body. And nobody was reacting to it. People were standing among dead bodies waiting for boats."

The scene at the on-ramp was an extreme version of a basic truth about New Orleans after the storm: Nothing was normal. You just had to adjust or you wouldn't make it. In Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood, the self-ordained street preacher shouts, "Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there." Last September, this described every survivor of Katrina. In some ways, it still does.

Corbin Evans returned to New Orleans on October 1. On the way, he stopped at his 10-acre farm for the first time in a month. The farm, a hundred miles north of the city in Mississippi, had been whacked by Katrina, but Evans's absence caused most of the damage. The collard greens were overgrown, weeds choked the squash patches, and 16 chickens were dead or gone.

When he got back to LuLu's, he was relieved to see that it was almost untouched. But his employees had been mostly college students, and they were scattered around the country. Without a staff, and without the farm that supplied half of his ingredients, there was no way to open again. Then, like some other chefs with working kitchens, he was hired to prepare "FEMA breakfasts," waking up at 3 a.m. to cook eggs for 300. After a while, though, his landlord complained that he was in default on his lease because LuLu's wasn't really a restaurant anymore, and Evans agreed in November to close for good. By that time, he was almost too exhausted to care.

In May, Slade Rushing and Allison Vines-Rushing left Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar in New York City to take over an old hotel on three acres in Abita Springs, Louisiana. They had done New Orleans food in Manhattan; now, at the restaurant they rechristened The Longbranch, they would do Manhattan-caliber food outside New Orleans. As Katrina closed in, they drove north to Mississippi in their pickup truck with a cooler full of sweetbreads, foie gras and beer.

Abita Springs had only minor flooding, but the winds had knocked down what looked like every third pine tree. As the couple drove around the bend to their new property, Slade says, "I had my hands over my face like I was watching a horror movie." Three trees had dropped on the cottage where they lived, bashing in the roof. Another tree—an enormous, ancient cedar—had missed the restaurant by inches. Slade hauled his chain saw out of the truck and got to work. The couple moved into a smaller cottage next to the restaurant with walls made of rough-sawn planks. Plants grew through the gaps in the boards, and so many mosquitoes got in that they hung a bug zapper over their bed so they could sleep at night.

One day in mid-September, the owners of The Longbranch found a sheet of plywood, wrote OPEN FOR BRUNCH 11-2 in green spray paint, and propped it up against one of the downed trees in the front yard.

Brett Anderson usually avoided talking to local chefs in person, but in early September he was down by Harrah's casino when he ran into John Besh holding a gun. "What the hell are you doing?" Anderson asked. Besh, the chef and owner of Restaurant August, also has a steak house in the casino, and he'd rounded up some of his friends from his days in the Marines to escort a Harrah's executive into the darkened building.

"I'll fill you in later," Besh shouted. "But I'm glad it's okay for me to recognize you in public now!"

As more reporters returned to the Times-Picayune, Anderson moved off the general disaster beat and back to restaurants. The story, of course, was who was open and in what form. When he found a kitchen that seemed to be back in action, he'd introduce himself.

"Before the storm I always did interviews over the telephone, because of the anonymity thing," Anderson says. "But that went out the window in September. It seemed silly to think about not compromising my identity when 80 percent of the city was under water. And in the early days, there were no phones. If I wanted to find out what was happening, I had to walk into a restaurant and say, 'Yo, I'm Brett from the newspaper—are you guys open?'"

For three years, Corbin Evans had taught cooking classes for the Savvy Gourmet, a high-end kitchenware shop Uptown on Magazine Street. It reopened on October 12 and, amazingly, announced that classes would resume in November. Even more amazingly, the classes sold out. "People would come in shy and nervous," Evans recalls. "Then after class we'd sit down and eat, and inevitably, the meal would start with everybody telling their story. They'd bond for the night because they all had the storm in common. Plus, some of them were redoing their kitchens, so they had questions about that."

The Savvy Gourmet business plan depended on revenue from busloads of tourists trooping in for three-hour lessons on Creole cooking. But business plans drawn up before the storm had as much reference to reality as a Tolkien fan's hand-drawn map of Middle Earth. The owners decided to rearrange the back of the store, bring in tables and chairs, and start an ad-hoc, lunch-only restaurant. They asked Evans to do the cooking.

All over the city, chefs were working in situations that would have been unthinkable a few months earlier. The dishwashers, busboys and waiters were gone because their homes were gone. People at the tip of the labor pyramid dropped back down a few levels. Established chefs such as Susan Spicer and Gerard Maras found themselves juggling hot pans on the line. Restaurant August's Besh, another celebrity chef, had set up propane burners in his front yard in early September and ran red beans and rice to a triage hospital and a National Guard base. Word got out, and soon he was handed catering jobs, running 1,000 meals a day to oil men and disaster-relief crews. Just before the storm he'd taken out a mortgage on his restaurant's building; catering saved him from bankruptcy.

Corbin Evans had trained with Spicer and Maras and had already run two respected restaurants. Now he was happy to be fixing sandwiches in the back of a store. "I was so burned out from sleeping three hours a night," he says, "that the thing at Savvy actually looked pretty good."

Up in Abita Springs, Allison Vines-Rushing and her husband were scaling back their dreams. "Before the storm, we were going to have a staff here that's not like anyplace else," Allison says. Now there was no busboy, no hostess, no sommelier. They did have a maître d' but let him go after he refused to seat some customers because they had failed to call for reservations—on a night when the restaurant was empty. Allison, who'd won a Rising Star Chef award from the James Beard Foundation, traded her sensible kitchen shoes for high heels and waited tables while her husband cooked.

That might have been all right, but some of her customers—residents of the North Shore, mostly, who were relatively unscathed by the hurricane—complained about the service. "There were lots of times I'd just be fuming!" she says. "You know, don't they get it? That we just can't have what we had before? That it's just not going to be that way?"

Brett Anderson still hasn't written a restaurant review almost a year after the storm. "I don't think there's any reader hunger for it," he says. "And places have good excuses. It's like, 'Look, we lost half our staff, I lost my house, I live in a trailer, and you're complaining about the wine list?'" Also, he says, "I would not want my name associated with the implication that things are back to normal."

John Besh supplies another explanation: "He'd probably be murdered by a restaurateur if he gave a bad review at this point. I'm not even kidding."

His anonymity is shot, of course, but even if Anderson could write criticism in New Orleans again, he might find his thoughts colored by feelings that are unusual for someone in his line of work. "As a restaurant critic, you don't expect that you will come to appreciate the courage of people you cover on your beat," he says. "It turns out that some of them are made of stronger stuff than I would have predicted. People in the restaurant community knew that if they didn't do something, the traditions of this place would die."

Today The Longbranch puts on a traditional New Orleans jazz brunch every Sunday. That wasn't in the plans, but last fall a man who introduced himself as Otis Bazoon knocked on the door. Bazoon explained that he and another musician, Steve Blailock, used to play jazz on Sundays at Commander's Palace, which would remain closed for almost a year. "Would you ever consider having live music?" Bazoon asked.

Now, as the after-church crowd goes wide-eyed over The Longbranch's whole-wheat pancakes and Louisiana pork grillades, Bazoon sits in a room on the right blowing a clarinet; Blailock gently picks a guitar. One recent Sunday, a man who has been a Commander's Palace loyalist for decades came to brunch with his son and grandson. He stopped still when he saw the musicians and began to choke up. "And then he tipped them a hundred bucks," his son says. "Because it just reminded him of real life, before the world blew up."

Corbin Evans's delicious, garden-focused cooking at lunch and brunch now accounts for almost half the revenue at the Savvy Gourmet. The store helped Evans survive after he lost LuLu's; he's not so sure he wants to run a restaurant again. "Having gone through the storm changed the way I see things," he says, "and just line cooking forever isn't going to cut it." His interests are more far-flung. He wants to promote sustainable farming. He enjoys teaching, especially when he can help students break free from recipes and grocery lists and start to cook intuitively based on what's in season at the moment.

This spring, Evans was made president of the Crescent City Farmers Market. It's down from four locations a week to two, and about 30 percent of the vendors still haven't come back. The storm put some oystermen and shrimpers out of commission permanently; other suppliers are struggling to stay in business. As a result, New Orleans chefs who once were free-range shoppers say they now go out of their way to purchase in Louisiana. "I try not to buy any produce that's not local," says Donald Link, the chef of Herbsaint and Cochon, an extraordinary Cajun restaurant that opened this spring near the convention center. "If I stop buying shrimp from Dino he's going to lose his income. If I'm not buying oysters from P&J, they can't stay open. The government has failed us tremendously, but the one amazing thing that has happened is how the community has come together to support everybody who's here trying to rebuild the city."

And Corbin Evans is looking forward to replanting his farm. Last fall, many of his trees—like trees anywhere in the paths of Katrina and Rita—broke off halfway up the trunk. The ones left standing were completely bare. The wind had ripped their leaves right off. Even the evergreens were silver. The trees looked dead, but at the end of October something happened that surprised everyone: Springtime came again in late fall, and new leaves began budding out. They were gone again after the first cold snap, but the process seemed to change the plants. Instead of sapping them of energy, it rejuvenated them. And this year's fruit crop is the sweetest anyone can remember.

"The peaches and plums are awesome," Evans says. "The strawberries were great. The pecans will be awesome, too. I'm not sure if it's because of the storm, but that's what they say. I guess it's kind of like a clean slate. It starts fresh."

Pete Wells is a contributing editor to Food & Wine. E-mail comments to him at pete.is.hungry@gmail.com.

Published August 2006
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