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.”
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.