Food March 2006

Open for Business

A post-Katrina visit to the restaurants of New Orleans, where eating out has become essential group therapy
Also see:

Five reopened New Orleans restaurants
Capsule reviews by Corby Kummer.

The Sazerac
The New Orleans cocktail of choice. By Corby Kummer

In December I had dinner with friends at Lilette, a French bistro with exceptionally polished food on Magazine Street, in New Orleans. The friends, the menu, and the well-heeled, old-line crowd were identical to those at a dinner I’d had at the same restaurant in late July. If anything, the room had a brighter gleam, and the food was even better than before—more focused, as if the cooks were taking a special, private pleasure in doing what they know how to do. The only visible differences from my visit five months earlier were the view through the plate-glass windows of lined-up branches, disembodied kitchen cabinets, and mattresses heaped on the sidewalk, and a bright-pink sign from the Office of Public Health taped to the front door: Approved for Re-opening Following Hurricane Katrina.

Of course, much was very different. Our young waiter had run several city magazines that vanished with the storm; he came back because he didn’t want to leave the city. Other friends at a table I later joined talked of how many times they had moved in the past three months, the gas and hot water that were still sometime things, and whether their jobs would continue and they could keep paying the rent, which rose after the storm. The bonhomie at our long table both masked and was fueled by their having no idea how long they could afford to live in the place they loved most.

This was how it went over several days of dining in New Orleans restaurants that had reopened as soon as they could: immaculate food prepared and consumed with joy, need, and uncertainty. At August, a tony restaurant with what may be the most ambitious and original food in the city, Tywon Morgan, a host, practically danced up and down the stairs between the kitchen and the banquet room. He explained when he stopped by our table. “Our first private party!” he said. “Sixty people! Business is coming back!”

He was reflecting the anxious optimism I had heard expressed by restaurant owners in recent days. They were hoping for customers in three waves of increasing magnitude: families and business people who would return for the opening of schools in January—the first test of how many residents would actually come back; revelers for Mardi Gras, which, everyone hoped, would kick-start the crucial tourist trade; and conventioneers, the biggest question mark of all, who would trickle back as early as spring.

John Besh, the chef and co-owner of August, cooked as if he were unconcerned. True, the city’s wine supply had been badly depleted. “Definitely a post-K list,” said Brett Anderson, the restaurant critic of TheTimes-Picayune and my friend and guide, as he opened August’s leather-bound wine menu. Lolis Eric Elie, a columnist for the paper and, like Anderson, a passionate, witty chronicler of city life since the storm, reminded him of the many wine cellars that had been lost completely, notably the 5,000 bottles at Susan Spicer’s Bayona.

But the food was even better than what I had tasted in July. A plate of chilled seafood was startlingly fresh, with little crescents of Louisiana shrimp and beautifully sweet crabmeat in ravigote sauce, the Tabasco-spiked mayonnaise that is a New Orleans hallmark. Besh, who cooked at the elegant Windsor Court Hotel, across the street, made his name with nouvelle cuisine–influenced dishes based on solid French technique and using many local ingredients. I had, for instance, pumpkin soup drizzled with pumpkin-seed oil and garnished with crab flakes, and pheasant breaded with panko crumbs, sautéed and in a sweetish sauce reminiscent of Chinese food. But since the storm Besh had begun to include the dishes of his bayou youth and the city’s heritage, such as that ravigote sauce and gumbo at Friday lunch, the Sunday supper of New Orleans.

Besh clearly saw a void that needed filling. He had made August an elegant and innovative alternative to Antoine’s and Galatoire’s, but neither of them had yet been able to reopen. Antoine’s, the 800-seat landmark that claims to have invented crabmeat ravigote, lost its maître d’, Clifton Lachney, who drowned with his son; the restaurant also suffered damage to a brick wall that would take months to repair. Galatoire’s, which claims to be the home of shrimp remoulade, went ahead with long-contemplated plans to open a branch in Baton Rouge, promising to reopen its Bourbon Street flagship early in the new year.

This was outright treason in a city that had already suffered unexpected indignities: Emeril Lagasse, New Orleans’s best-known chef, kept a low profile after the storm; the corporate owners of Ruth’s Chris Steak House immediately pulled up stakes and moved their headquarters to Orlando, claiming that Ruth Fertel, the tireless and much-loved founder of the chain, would have pragmatically done the same. “It just isn’t so,” her son, Randy Fertel, said solemnly and angrily at an October conference of the Southern Foodways Alliance, in Oxford, Mississippi. The news from Galatoire’s was particularly galling. “First the storm, then the floods,” Anderson wrote when announcing the Baton Rouge defection. “Now hell is apparently freezing over.”

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Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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