Bittersweet 

A culinary remembrance of New Orleans before Katrina|a report on its uncertain fate now

Deadly weather could be advancing on New Orleans. The forecasters can't yet say for certain. It's early July, a month into hurricane season, and the local newspaper reports that newly formed Hurricane Dennis has the city on edge. The news stations discuss possible evacuation strategies.

Aside from typical summer mugginess, though, our first day here beams cobalt bright. Some of the Southern Foodways Alliance field trip attendees from other parts of the country joke that if Hurricane Dennis does come, we can simply shack up in the hotel, catch up on sleep and raid our snack bars.

And while the members who live in the Big Easy don't share in the outsiders' blithe humor, it's hard even for them to feel worried. We've gathered to seriously chow down, like we do every year on the SFA's field trip to an ebullient gastronomic outpost of the South. The local organizers -- chefs, food writers, dedicated chowhounds -- have painstakingly arranged a N'awlins-style snarf fest for us.

During a bus ride through the rippling sugar cane fields of Louisiana, native food expert and author Marcelle Bienvenu gives us her crash-course explanation of the difference between Creole and Cajun cuisines: Creole food is city food, Cajun food is country food. Oysters Rockefeller, crab meat Sardou with hollandaise and artichokes, cherries jubilee, baked Alaska? That's Creole. Jambalaya, etouffee, crawfish stew and homey bread pudding? Cajun. And gumbo? A universal dish cooked distinctively different by Cajuns and Creoles.

I squirm and salivate at the mention of all these iconic dishes. How long till we get to the next restaurant?

Over a tummy-stretching two-and-a-half days, we sample signature handiworks by the city's renowned chefs. Austin Leslie, whose restaurant Chez Helene was the inspiration for the short-lived '80s TV series "Frank's Place," feeds us gutsy black beans soused on rum. Susan Spicer of the French Quarter's upscale Bayona dresses crispy smoked quail salad in bourbon molasses vinaigrette. The group piles into legendary soul food restaurant Dooky Chase for lunch on day two. Chef Leah Chase honors us by making gumbo z'herbes, a greens-laden variation traditionally eaten on Holy Thursday.

We linger at Dooky Chase for a tasting and lecture on bread pudding. Among the offerings is a custardy pudding dropped off in a small crock by 88-year-old Willie Mae Seaton. Her tavern, Willie Mae's Scotch House, was canonized in May with the James Beard 2005 Americas Classics award. The crock is literally scraped of its contents by greedy spoons.

Even as I shovel in roast beef po'boys and muffulettas at noontime on Saturday, the trip's last full day, my thoughts wander to dinner. The finale at Restaurant August is the meal I've been anticipating. Chef John Besh's cooking has been heralded locally and nationally as the next evolution in New Orleans fine dining.

click to enlarge TRADING SPACES: John Besh's formal banquet room at Restaurant August is now used as a storage area for supplies to help feed FEMA workers. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • TRADING SPACES: John Besh's formal banquet room at Restaurant August is now used as a storage area for supplies to help feed FEMA workers.

The dinner was to be hosted at an old plantation house 15 minutes outside New Orleans, but fears about Hurricane Dennis have intensified, and it is decided that we should stay in town. We'll be supping in the stately banquet room at Restaurant August instead. No one feels deprived.

Our ranks have thinned slightly but perceptibly. Husbands and wives are heeding the call of nervous spouses to head home before the threat of harsh weather turns to reality. I take shameless advantage. One seat at our table remains empty. A server appears with the first dish and inquires, "Is anyone sitting there?"

"Oh, absolutely," I answer quickly, as some of my tablemates glance at me warily.

The first course is cochon du lait medianoche -- a gentle version of a Cuban sandwich made with sweet bread and Louisiana pork -- and a melon salad garnished with basil and glistening with sugar cane jus. I polish off my helping, then switch my plate with the uneaten portion next to me. I wolf it down as well. Carefully, I jostle the absentee's chair so it looks recently occupied, and rustle the napkin to make it seem casually tossed.

"Yes, he's finished," I say to another server as she reaches for the empty plate at the vacant setting.

Some of my fellow diners lob disapproving looks at my scheme. But after the second course arrives, they start asking to share in my payload.

The meal becomes a guided tour through the entangled influences that have shaped New Orleans' cuisine. The second dish -- tomato and caramel tarte inversée -- is one that will happily haunt my memories. A square of puff pastry has been spread with a gloss of local Louisiana goat cheese. Atop this lay three precise columns of oval grape tomatoes, each painstakingly roasted and peeled (for 150 people -- that's nearly 2,000 of those miniature suckers!). The tomatoes are then burnished with a thin lamina of caramel. The effect is smoky and sweet, a collusion of French technique and American chutzpah.

Molasses-glazed ham hock consommé -- an urbane presentation of good old-fashioned pot liquor -- is followed by tawny slices of duck scented with cinnamon, allspice and black pepper. It hints of the powerful African contributions to local cookery.

After dinner, the organizers give out Guardians of Traditions awards to deserving folks who keep New Orleans culinary traditions alive: sno-balls made with fine shaved ice and homemade syrups; Creole cream cheese made from grass-fed cows; filé powder ground with a mortar and a pecan wood maul; po'boys served in modest lunchrooms.

We cheer with abandon, both to celebrate these artisans and assuage our fears about the encroaching weather. When Restaurant August chef Besh and his staff emerge from the kitchen to take a bow, we roar even louder.

Sure enough, New Orleans' moody, moss-lined streets are spared once again when "Dennis the Menace," as the press has dubbed the hurricane, veers far east of us. The city is indeed charmed. On my drive back to Atlanta, I don't encounter a single drop of rain. And I'm already jonesing for a return visit to Restaurant August. Next time, I laugh to myself, it'll cost me double to eat two of everything.

Seven weeks later, Hurricane Katrina shatters the charm. The city drowns in a cataclysm of toxic water. Its people, its singular food culture and its future become imperiled in an instant.

John Besh, it turns out, is one of the lucky ones.

Restaurant August is in New Orleans' Central Business District, where its elevation kept away much of the floodwaters. Strong winds and some minor looting left the building that houses the restaurant with only a few broken windows.

Yet there's no denying the new realities Besh faces. When the SFA dined in his banquet room in July, 57 cooks and servers were on hand to help churn out a meal for 150 people. The restaurant currently operates with 12 staff members.

Besh reopened his doors for business Sept. 28, a month after Katrina struck. "I couldn't wait for the insurance money," he says. "I had to get back to work." Just six months earlier, he had bought the restaurant from its original owner, real estate developer August "Duke" Robin.

When he first regained access to his kitchen, Besh immediately began cooking red beans and rice to feed the overtaxed police and rescue workers. Now FEMA pays Besh to cook three meals a day for 600 civil servants working in nearby St. Bernard's Parish. The lovely wood- and brick-lined banquet room where I'd savored my last dinner in the city has been transformed into a storage area for supplies to help feed FEMA workers.

Besh, a clear-eyed local boy who took a tour of duty with the Marines during Operation Desert Storm in the midst of his early culinary career, remains stubbornly optimistic. "Our menu has never been more exciting than what it is now," he boasts. "We have a much smaller staff, but in many ways it's the strongest staff I've ever worked with. The esprit de corps is just inherent -- no one has to be reread the mission statement.

"So the touchy-feely side is fantastic. We're paying our bills. But the banquet business is gone. The tourist business is gone. And we expect it to be 2008 before enough of it returns to be a reliable part of our business again."

Downstairs, the customers eating at Restaurant August are almost exclusively locals. "It's an amazing thing when there isn't anyone we don't know in the dining room," says Besh. "It's a really hardcore following returning to us."

He pauses. "The only thing that worries me is ... dining here is something of a celebration for those coming back to the city -- even an act of defiance. We have a menu right now that would rival anything we've ever cooked, and yet the economy is going bust around us. I wonder what will happen to business when the locals stop celebrating."

In October, just three months after the field trip to New Orleans, the Southern Foodways Alliance members have assembled again for its annual symposium, this time in Oxford, Miss., whose quixotic college town locale in northern Mississippi belies the destruction suffered by the state's Gulf Coast to the south. For the many New Orleanians in attendance, the quaint square and autumnal foliage are a painful counterpoint to the devastation they're still confronting back home.

The official theme of this year's symposium is "Sugar and the Sweet Life," but after Katrina hit, everyone knew what the real topic would be. Between workshops on "The Physics of Biscuits and Jam" and an oral history on "sweetea," we discuss, grieve and ponder the future of New Orleans.

In bars, restaurants and hotels across Oxford, we swap notes on which NOLA restaurants are open, about to reopen, or show no signs of opening. Nationally acclaimed Bayona will resurrect soon, we hear. Susan Spicer's restaurant received only minor damage from the hurricane, but her stepchildren had no schools to attend. Her family has been staying in Jackson, Miss.

"Spicer's house was/is in Lakeview [another severely impacted neighborhood]," reports Sara Roahen, who wrote restaurant reviews for New Orleans' alternative newspaper, the Weekly Gambit, for five years. "Her husband has gutted it down to the wall studs; they're waiting to see what happens to Lakeview in general before going further with renovations. They plan to rent a place in New Orleans beginning in January [when city public schools are set to reopen]."

click to enlarge Austin Leslie (left), who fed his famed fried chicken to generations of loyal customers, died of a heart attack in Atlanta after an exhausting evacuation from New Orleans. - WEEKLY GAMBIT
  • Weekly Gambit
  • Austin Leslie (left), who fed his famed fried chicken to generations of loyal customers, died of a heart attack in Atlanta after an exhausting evacuation from New Orleans.

Commander's Palace and Antoine's, two renowned old-liners, remain shuttered. Galatoire's, which started life in the French Quarter in 1905, plans to launch a branch in Baton Rouge before reviving its original location.

Two of Emeril Lagasse's New Orleans restaurants are scheduled to reopen the second week of December. Lagasse has infamously stayed away from the city, and though he has hosted fundraisers for Katrina victims in New York City, the gesture has done little to sweeten the locals' soured attitude toward him.

"Ain't nobody give a damn about no Emeril," shouts one belligerent resident during the gathering's panel discussion of New Orleans and its fate.

Chefs and journalists tick off the main obstacles to rebuilding the industry: Their staffs have been displaced, literally across the country. Many have started to set down roots in other cities by necessity. Housing for staffers who have stayed behind is limited and expensive. Insurance payments are slow in coming. Contractors are booked for months.

Many purveyors of local ingredients -- fishermen, shrimpers, farmers -- are out of business because of destroyed property, the poisoned ecology or lack of restaurants to buy their products.

Of all the voiced concerns, though, the most unanimously urgent are for the fates of the mom-and-pop restaurants: the corner joints and hidden gems that serve Cajun-Creole specialties; the Cajun-style soul food speakeasies; the only-in-New Orleans Italian eateries that combine blue collar red sauce with fried oyster plates. They sustained the plucky essence of the city, and they typically took root in the areas of town that were severely pummeled.

"Right now it's easier to find sushi in New Orleans than it is to find a good po'boy," exclaims Brett Anderson, restaurant critic for the Times-Picayune, but with seriousness in his voice. "Where did these guys go?"

Leah Chase, who fed us gumbo z'herbes and bread pudding at her Creole soul food classic Dooky Chase, is 82, yet hopes to reopen. Her 88-year-old neighbor, Willie Mae Seaton, also reportedly longs to serve her smothered chicken and Friday fried trout to regulars.

But both these modest restaurants are too damaged to serve guests in the foreseeable future.

Some never lived to nourish their customers again. Austin Leslie, who fixed us his boozy black beans our first night in town, was trapped in his home for two days after the hurricane. He was rescued from his attic by neighbors and moved to the Convention Center. He stayed there for four days before being decamped to Arkansas. He contacted his family, and then stopped again in Dallas before arriving in Atlanta.

He died suddenly of a heart attack Sept. 29. He was 71.

John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, dedicated a chapter to Leslie in his book, Fried Chicken: An American Story. In it, Edge notes the chef was "once the most celebrated Creole-soul cook in New Orleans, and his fried chicken was considered a definitive dish in the native culinary lexicon." Leslie's small chain of restaurants had fallen on hard times in the '90s, but after leaving New Orleans for a stint in Europe, he had returned to Louisiana. He was working as executive chef at Pampy's Creole Kitchen in the 7th Ward neighborhood when Katrina hit.

A jazz funeral in Leslie's honor took over Courtland Street in downtown Atlanta nine days after his passing. A day later, Oct. 9, a second funeral marched down the litter-strewn streets of New Orleans. The parade was comprised of 50 family members and well-wishers -- a small assemblage by Big Easy standards. But the vitality sparked by the procession throbbed throughout the community. It made national news as a sign of hope and a call for wayward residents to come home. Fitting, somehow, that a tribute to a spiritual leader of Crescent City cuisine would be a catalyst for rebirth and reassurance.

Lolis Eric Elie, metro columnist for the Times-Picayune and author of Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country, is earmarked as the unofficial spokesperson for New Orleans during the Oxford symposium. SFAers are a rambunctious lot with short attention spans. But as Elie speaks now, the room falls so silent you can hear the electronic hissing of the audio/visual equipment.

"After Hurricane Katrina, so much of what we visited that week is gone or missing," he tells us, referring to the July field trip. "The important point I want to make is: This is no longer the big news story. When people ask me what they can do, I tell them, 'I don't need money, I don't need a place to stay. We need help remaining on the national agenda.'

"The only way most of us want to live in New Orleans is if it's a facsimile of what it once was," Elie says later, during a panel discussion. "'New' New Orleans will be less black and less poor. Where will all the red beans and rice joints go? Katrina has quickened a process that has already been taking place. Black youth see prestige in the restaurant industry now, and they want to be chefs in the higher-end restaurants, not in small joints. Who will replace the older people when they're gone?"

"Everything's in evolution," remarks John Besh, sitting on the same panel. "In Louisiana, we don't like that."

"Yet the original word for restaurant comes from 'restorative,'" reminds JoAnn Clevenger, owner of Upperline, a Big Easy institution. "Restaurants are about strangers breaking bread together. It's an innate thing, an inborn sweetness of New Orleans. We're a city of rich and poor, black and white, sinful and sacred. Spread the word: We can make you happy."

Clevenger's words stoke reveries of the memorable meals we'd shared together in July. Later, I put a question to Besh that's been gnawing at me.

"Who supplied you with the tiny tomatoes for the tarte at the field trip dinner?" I ask. "I can't forget that dish."

"Jim Core, my dear redneck farmer friend," Besh replies with a chuckle. "He supplied the peaches for dessert, too. He and his wife run a farm that's been in his family since the late 1800s. The hurricanes blew everything they had away. But he's replanting now. We've already got leafy greens, beats and turnips from his farm that we're serving."

I hope that means Besh will have a goodly supply of those tomatoes from Core by next summer. I still can't wait to get back to his restaurant.

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