Food March 2006

Open for Business

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

Loyalty and the tug of home were what made most restaurants reopen, as families—both biological and collegial—reunited. In mid-September, JoAnn Clevenger, proprietor of the Garden District restaurant Upperline and a defender and champion of her city and its food, called her husband back from England, where he works half the year, and her son from St. Louis, where he teaches philosophy, to help with the cooking and to serve customers. Alex Patout, a well-known local chef, cooked on the line to help out. Tacked to the front of the airy, bright, tearoom-like restaurant were three shirt cardboards inscribed with “We’re glad you’re here!” The menu was simplified, but offered the kind of food I most want to eat, each dish speaking of local ingredients and local cuisine: fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade; duck and andouille gumbo; Cane River country shrimp with mushroom, bacon, and garlic served over crispy grits.

At the Southern Foodways Alliance conference, Clevenger had described the impossibility of finding people to work because housing was so rare, and recounted how neighborhood spirit helped people get up and running; she cheered on neighbors like Clancy’s, an uptown hangout and the place Anderson went for his last meal before evacuating the city. Clancy’s became one of the first restaurants to reopen, on October 17. Although it is owned by a native Iowan, Brad Hollingsworth, it has become practically a club for the multigeneration Garden District families who rely on its unfussy Creole food.

When I stopped by Clancy’s, it was just past eleven, almost three hours before the city’s curfew, but dinner service had ended, and the cooks and managers were having a nightcap at the bar. The place felt like a jazz club after hours, when the players swap stories and wind down. Everyone smoked. Nash Laurent, the maître d’, put Armand Jonté, the guest chef, in a headlock to wish him good night. Jonté, whose Mississippi gulf house was swept to pilings, was working in the kitchen with Steve Manning, an old friend of his. The group talked fondly of the school-less high school teacher and the wine salesman who had both come in to wash dishes after the reopening. After a few laughs about regulars like the “vodka ladies,” Michael Laurent, who had come back to help his father, brought the conversation around to where every conversation ended up or started. “Okay, who’s living at their own house?” he asked. He and his family were living at his in-laws’. Only three hands went up.

Informal and formal networks are working to bring back the small eating places most at risk—the po’ boy shops and gumbo dives that have always given the city its character. (I saw markedly more white faces in December than on any of my previous visits to the city over two decades.) The Southern Foodways Alliance in November announced a series of “volunteer vacation” weekends to help rebuild Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a modest but legendary restaurant serving what many consider the city’s finest fried chicken, made by the eighty-nine-year-old Willie Mae Seaton. “No experience is necessary!” the alliance promised, throw- ing in the incentive of dinners with Elie, the Times-Picayune columnist, and the writer Pableaux Johnson (whose recent Eating New Orleans, pub- lished last summer, is now as much testament as guide).

The Brennans, the first family of New Orleans restaurateurs, began trying to find jobs and housing for displaced workers immediately after the storm, operating a job Web site (at " out of a family member’s restaurant, Brennan’s of Houston. Dickie Brennan, owner of three French Quarter restaurants, kept 400 workers on his payroll for five weeks after the storm, while two employees worked full-time on the phone to find out where people had landed and whether they would come back, giving out all available information on how to file FEMA and insurance claims.

When I visited Bourbon House, the first of Dickie Brennan’s three businesses to reopen, the ornate two-level restaurant was bright and crowded, like something out of the Diamond Jim Brady era; most of the customers were reconstruction workers and locals who had come back, but I did notice a very few obvious tourists. Bourbon House was the first in the French Quarter to serve fresh Louisiana oysters again, and an owner of a well-established seafood distributor stood behind the shucking bar for four nights to reassure diners about safety. “People weren’t concerned,” Steve Pettus, a managing partner, told me with surprise. “They were like, ‘Gimme oysters.’” Pettus spoke of how good the fish was: “The guy who catches catfish for us called up right away and said, ‘I’m here, I’m still fishing.’” Several chefs told me that the very lack of restaurants competing for the best ingredients helped them find even better fish and seafood than usual. Local produce would be another matter; Brennan had already held a benefit for farmers around Baton Rouge who had long supplied local restaurants. Attracting diners was no problem, he said. “You go outside the restaurant and it’s gloom and doom, it’s hard work, it’s a bad day I’m having. You get inside and people see each other, hug each other. Eating out is therapeutic.”

On my last morning I began, as I had each previous day, with biscuits from Mother’s, a home-style Creole cafe­teria near Canal and Tchoupitoulas, and chicory-laced coffee from Café Du Monde, a ten-minute walk away on Decatur Street, along the waterfront. I noticed a landmark that hadn’t been open before: Central Grocery, an Italian-American emporium with imported pasta, cheeses, and the city’s premier muffulettas—cold-cut-stuffed hero sandwiches on fat baguettes soaked with Central’s famous olive salad. The bread, the salad, and the sandwiches had been back for only three hours, I was told by Larry Tusa, one of the three owners. He and his family had been determined to reopen, he said, in time to celebrate the store’s hundredth anniversary, on February 28.

Tusa used to live in the Lakeview neighborhood, very near the 17th Street Canal break. His house was ruined. A neighbor and friend since grade school had seen his wife drown; Tusa had counseled another friend against suicide. He would never go back to Lakeview, he said. Neither would his father, Charles, in his eighties, who plans to move to a condo on higher ground. “He worked all his life for this and this city,” Tusa said, gesturing at the long, old-fashioned deli counter and the workers behind it—four of the original ten. “If I didn’t have this business, I’d be in Houston with my daughter.” But stay he would. “New Orleans is one of the gateways to the United States, and I don’t think they should forget us. Don’t give anybody false hopes. Commit to whatever it takes to rebuild.”

On my way back to the hotel to pack, I stopped, distracted, at Aunt Sally’s Praline Shop, one of the few souvenir shops to have reopened on the very touristy riverfront strip. The manager was on the phone; she covered the mouthpiece to call out to me, “Sir, is Central Grocery open?” I’d bought a jar of olive salad, and was carrying a bag showing the store’s big green logo. Yes, I said, as of three hours ago. “Central’s open!” she said excitedly into the phone. “You’ll have lunch today.”

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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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