Greg Sonnier has been trying for more than 12 years to start over, ever since Hurricane Katrina forced the New Orleans chef to shutter his Esplanade Avenue restaurant Gabrielle and sell the flood-damaged building.
He promised himself that after the storm he'd bring the restaurant back somewhere new, once he found a spot that fit the bill. He and his wife Mary settled on that spot May, a little blue and yellow building at 2441 Orleans Avenue a short ride from the French Quarter.
The former Chinese restaurant and grocery sits on a nondescript block in the city's Treme neighborhood with a used car lot and abandoned church nearby. The church's pastor, Sonnier explains, skipped town after the storm. When the James Beard-nominated chef saw the building—with a house-like exterior that reminded him of the New Orleans classic Mandina's, a restaurant which itself had to mount a come back after Katrina—he couldn't help but think: a restaurant belongs here.
Sonnier first opened Gabrielle's doors in the '90s and served his brand of contemporary Creole cuisine up until the storm. He named the restaurant for his eldest daughter, which—barring any last-minute interruptions—will reopen this month.
The neighborhood that he's chosen for Gabrielle's comeback is in a transitional phase. It includes both legendary NOLA spots like Willie Mae's Scotch House, as well as a Whole Foods. Treme's gentrification is one of a thousand byproducts of a storm the city has spent more than a decade trying to get past. That the Sonniers have planted their flag there also demonstrates, in a small way, that the Big Easy remains a work in a progress more than a decade on from Katrina.
"I'm definitely nervous," Sonnier confesses. The new place, of course, will be measured against the old. That can't be helped. But so much has also changed since he first started serving his signature dishes like slow-roasted duck at the original Gabrielle. For one, Sonnier will be joined by Gabrielle herself, who was only a few years old when the restaurant opened, but has now graduated college.
She's coming on board as manager of the front of the house. "When she was 9 or 10, she didn't really like the idea that a restaurant was named after her," Sonnier recalls, laughing at the memory. "And then when she got to high school, she thought it was kind of cool. Eventually, I do hope to say that this will be her restaurant. In years to come."
There's also a neat symmetry to Gabrielle coming back to life at this moment. It's been closed more than 12 years about the same amount of time it was in existence the first time. "I never considered not bringing it back," Sonnier says. There were times it might have been tempting. He's cooked in other restaurants here and there, all while continuing his search for a new home for Gabrielle. And he's gotten close at least once before, plunking down money for a place on Henry Clay Avenue that he abandoned after getting caught up in a vortex of red tape and local politics.
The new space, in terms of size, will be similar to the old—50 to 60 seats, Sonnier estimates. It's less than a mile from the original spot. A new chapter, as well as a homecoming. And then when you add in the fact that Gabrielle will be there this time, it'll be, in a way, like getting to know the place again for the first time.
"New Orleans, there's no other city in America like it," Sonnier said. "I love the people I grew up with. The food, the architecture. There's a lot to be said for our music, our culture—our uniqueness, if you had to just put it in one word. I fought hard to bring [Gabrielle] back, and I can't wait to be open."