Like most New Orleans residents, the city's top restaurant owners and chefs have been forced to take refuge in other parts of the country. Now they're playing a difficult waiting game, trying to find out how much damage Hurricane Katrina and its floodwaters inflicted on their businesses and when they can return to begin rebuilding. In the meantime, they're trying to track down and help their scattered staff members and organize relief efforts for their city.
No one can guess how long it will take to truly rebuild, but the restaurant industry is a crucial part of that effort. More than 10 percent of New Orleans residents work in culinary businesses. Arguably more than any other American city, New Orleans lives by its food.
The first priority for restaurateurs has been to track down loved ones and staff and make sure they're safe. The owners of Commander's Palace had a scare when one employee called on a cell phone from the roof of his house as waters rose around him. "He said, 'I'm going to die,' and then the phone went dead," said Alex Brennan-Martin, general manager of Brennan's of Houston and son of family matriarch Ella Brennan. Fortunately, the employee was soon rescued and made contact later.
Commander's Palace, a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner in the Garden District, suffered several broken windows and a hole in the roof but was not flooded, according to Brennan-Martin. Commander's general manager, Steve Woodruff, was able to briefly visit the restaurant this week. "I asked him about the wine cellar—he went silent and then said he forgot to look," said Brennan-Martin. "But it's cooked." After two weeks without power and temperatures over 90 degrees, wines in all the city's top cellars are most likely damaged, even in locations that stayed dry.
Commander's staff members, who are being kept on the payroll, have settled in multiple locations, but many followed the Brennans to Houston. Ella, her sister Dottie Bridgeman and other family members are staying there for the time being. They've also made contact with cousins Dickie Brennan, owner of Award of Excellence winner Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse, and Ralph Brennan, owner of Bacco and the Redfish Grill. (Both are partners in Award of Excellence winner Mr. B's Bistro.) They have not spoken with and are estranged from the branch of the family that owns and operates the Grand Award-winning Brennan's Restaurant in the French Quarter.
Brennan-Martin and his family have been helping with various charity events for victims of the storm, including an open house at Brennan's of Houston Friday night that was expected to draw 1,000 guests. The family has also been working closely with the Council of Independent Restaurants of America.
Emeril Lagasse, who owns three restaurants in his adopted city, including the Grand Award-winning Emeril's New Orleans, has relocated his company's operations to Atlanta for the time being. His staff is working to relocate all their New Orleans employees. A company vice president was able to enter Orleans Parish and inspect all three restaurants on Friday, but the company was unwilling to comment on any damage yet at Emeril's New Orleans, Nola and Emeril's Delmonico Restaurant and Bar.
One top French Quarter destination that did suffer damage was Antoine's. The Quarter did not flood heavily, but the hurricane collapsed part of a wall on the 4th floor of the historic restaurant. Roy Guste, a former general manager whose family owns Antoine's, rode out the storm in his French Quarter apartment before leaving for California. Guste says the collapse only affected some offices and that the restaurant could open as soon as the city does. But photos of the collapse showed a 20-foot hole in the side of the building. CEO Rick Blount was able to inspect the restaurant, and he says the 23,000-bottle wine cellar appears fine.
Details on the whereabouts of other restaurants' employees remain sketchy, though some have had better luck than others. Nate Thacker, a waiter at the Best of Award of Excellence winner The Dakota Restaurant in Covington, north of Lake Pontchartrain, said that all employees of that restaurant have been accounted for, as are the ones at its sister establishment, Restaurant Cuvée, in New Orleans' Central Business District. But many won't be back at work. "Sad to say, there are some who have called and said, 'I'm moving permanently to Vermont or Georgia, and I'm not coming back,'" said Thacker. "A lot of lower-income people, that's the route they're taking because they lived on the South Shore and their apartment's gone—everything they own is gone."
Cuvée owner Ken LaCour said that while neither of his restaurants suffered flood damage or looting, Cuvée's future may simply be a matter of trial and error. "There's been a lot of talk that over the next couple weeks, New Orleans has no intention of letting the French Quarter and Central Business District sit there dormant," he said. "They're going to try to encourage some people to go down there and be guinea pigs with what it's like to have a business in a dead city. At this point it looks like we might be one of the guinea pigs."
Other restaurants, such as Smith & Wollensky, remain in the dark as to the health of their New Orleans property and its employees. Of Smith & Wollensky's 70 New Orleans staffers, roughly half have made contact so far. However, Allison Good, vice president of communications, said that all employees are still on the payroll, and the company is setting up a fund to help its workers relocate to and work at other Smith & Wollensky locations. As for the restaurant itself, "the information is shaky," Good said. "We have pictures that people sent us, but it's still really hard to tell right now."
Wine importer Jack Jelenko, of Partners Wine Marketing Group, was able to get into his home suburb of Metarie two days ago. "In our area, the water is receded, but it looks like a war zone," he said. He was only able to take some possessions from his house before the neighborhood was closed off for three weeks, during which time attempts will be made to restore power to the area. He was not able to get to the Central Business District, but "there are some bars that are open," he said. "They have no power, but are serving shots of stuff. People are desperately trying to regain the New Orleans experience."
Jelenko predicts a good portion of the population is planning on coming back as soon as they have services like water and electricity. "It may not be the New Orleans that will have the 33,000 obstetricians from Ohio in, but there is definitely going to be a population that's back in sooner rather than later," he said, referring to the city's convention business. "The people who have the financial staying power to weather three or four months, they're going to be open in four to six weeks."
Brennan-Martin says his family would like to reopen Commander's as soon as possible, but doesn't know how feasible that is when not even water for cleaning is available. Antoine's Blount insists the restaurant will try to reopen as soon as it has clearance from city officials, though Roy Guste says it may offer a limited menu for a while. But he insists he's not concerned for the long-term life of his family's restaurant, which has been open since 1840.
"My ancestors operated this restaurant during the Civil War," said Guste. "My grandfather served food during the Depression and kept Antoine's alive. We're going to do the same thing."