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The Long Road to Rebirth

Months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans restaurants are rebuilding, but nothing is easy in the Big Easy right now

Mitch Frank
Posted: December 23, 2005

The day after Thanksgiving in New Orleans, Remoulade opened for dinner for the first time since Hurricane Katrina struck the city. But by 9 p.m., the casual Cajun eatery—part of Arnaud's, one of the city's palaces of Creole cuisine—was forced to close again, when the you-know-what hit the fan, almost literally. A balky municipal sewage line underneath Bourbon Street clogged, and smelly waste began to back up. The staff had to quickly shut things down, hoping to have more success the next day.

Four months after Katrina breached the levees, New Orleans' recovery efforts are progressing slowly. Some of the city's half-million residents have come back and are rebuilding their homes and businesses, but no one knows how many. Estimates range between 5 percent and 10 percent.

For the culinary community, the recovery has been as tedious and painful as it is for others. According to the Louisiana Restaurant Association, 26 percent of the 3,400 restaurants in the greater New Orleans area have reopened, but only 300 of those are in the heart of the city, Orleans Parish. Owners and chefs are grappling with every problem imaginable, from cleaning out or demolishing damaged kitchens, to securing new appliances and supplies, to finding staff in an empty city. A few restaurant owners have decided to simply walk away.

But most are doing what they can to rebuild, knowing their businesses are crucial to New Orleans' long-term survival. Tourism is the Crescent City's leading industry, and good food and good drink are essential to its identity. "It's great to help get the city back up on its feet," said Katy Casbarian, part of the family that owns Arnaud's and Remoulade. "And it's great to see people being so selfless."

After weeks trapped out of town, followed by constant delays, the chefs and owners of some of the city's best-known restaurants—including those that hold Wine Spectator awards for their wine lists—managed to reopen in time for the holidays. Others are still repairing the damage and replacing the extensive wine collections that were lost to the summer heat.

Anxious to Open

Despite the mishap at Remoulade, Arnaud's was the first of the historic, formal French Quarter restaurants—a pantheon that includes Antoine's, Galatoire's and Brennan's—to reopen, on Dec. 1. To make that possible, the Casbarians parked a refrigerated trailer on Bienville Street, not far from the main entrance. While the city went several weeks without power, rotting food destroyed Arnaud's walk-in coolers. Almost every restaurant in town has been waiting for replacements.

Archie Casbarian, his wife, Jane, their children, Katy and Archie Jr., and their Doberman, Bacchus, rode out the storm in the French Quarter, evacuating only after the flooding. By the time they returned, water had leaked into the restaurant's upper floors through the wind-damaged roof. Four of the 13 private dining rooms were heavily damaged; the ceiling collapsed in several places.

Creole spot Arnaud's has faced one setback after another.
Although the water damage has been completely replaced, it's not so easy to do the same for Arnaud's extensive wine collection, which cooked in the summer heat. The restaurant had a standard collection of mostly French and American wines, along with the Proprietor's List, a collection Archie built through auctions and winery visits over the last three decades. "We popped open a bunch of different wines, and one might have been fine while the next, in a similar style, wasn't," said Katy. "So we are writing it all off because we don't want to risk serving a bad bottle."

All the Casbarians' hustle to reopen first, paid off, however, as they won substantial holiday season business. Several companies booked rooms for parties, and the upstairs rooms are reserved for a wedding reception on New Year's Eve.

Emeril's of New Orleans, in the Warehouse District, reopened to a packed house on Dec. 8, after repairing damage from rain and rotting food. Looters also hit the Grand Award winner, shattering a picture window and stealing wine and liquor. But many of the best wines lay safe in a cooler in a warehouse next door. After sampling various bottles, members of Lagasse's wine staff believe much of the collection survived, according to company vice president Eric Linquest. Lagasse's French Quarter eatery, NOLA, which also suffered minor water damage, reopened a week after Emeril's.

The company's third area restaurant, Emeril's Delmonico steakhouse, will be closed for months. "We had a meat-aging room on the second floor," said Linquest. "I won't go into details, but protein, when it decomposes, turns to liquid. It got into several areas." A disaster-consulting firm had to tear out almost everything in the back of the building.

Lagasse's reputation has also taken a hit. Some locals, including the restaurant critic at the Times-Picayune, have accused the celebrity chef of abandoning the city. Lagasse has not made many visits to New Orleans, as he has been on a book tour, but he has used his appearances to appeal for help for his adopted hometown. In addition, he started a relief fund to help his displaced workers, and he recently held a benefit event in Las Vegas that raised $1.4 million to help children displaced by Katrina.

"[The criticism] hurt our feelings," said Linquest, who has been working with FEMA to put trailers in Delmonico's parking lot so staff at the other restaurants have a place to stay. "It was unfortunate and inappropriate because the city is trying to get back on its feet. A lot of businesses are leaving. To take your shot at the people who have already said they're committed to staying is ill-timed."

Among the other restaurateurs committed to reopening are the owners of the historic Antoine's in the French Quarter. The crew had been rushing to complete repairs by Christmas Eve, but Rick Blount, the fifth-generation CEO, admits that was a bit optimistic. A wall on the 200-year-old building's fourth floor collapsed during the storm, allowing water to pour in, damaging the kitchen, flushing the gas lines and buckling interior walls. Now the restaurant hopes to serve its first customers on Dec. 29, in time for the New Year's weekend. Only the Annex, traditionally reserved for regulars, and the smaller Hermes room will be available. Many of Antoine's veteran waiters will not be back yet; they lived in devastated St. Bernard Parish and are now far away. The maitre d', Cliff Lachney, drowned with his son in their flooded Lakeview home.

A Long Way to Go

The Brennan family, whose various members own 10 New Orleans restaurants, has been able to reopen five of them. Brennan's, the city's other Grand Award winner, has no target reopening date. Extensive water damage needs to be repaired, rotting food stored on the upper levels dripped through the floors, and a magnolia tree collapsed in the courtyard. Rebuilding on the French Quarter restaurant began this month after insurance agents finished their assessments. The biggest casualty was the 35,000-bottle wine collection, which included gems such as an 1870 Château Lafite Rothschild. After testing the wines, beverage director Harry Hill and the adjusters determined they were largely cooked. "We intend to start fresh and build a new cellar," said Hill. The insurance company took the collection and will auction it off to anyone interested in owning a piece of history—or in taking a chance and opening a bottle.

The other branch of the Brennan family (the two wings have been estranged for decades) is dealing with plenty of its own problems. Bacco, Red Fish Grill, Ralph's on the Park, Bourbon House and Café Adelaide have all reopened. But Mr. B's Bistro in the Quarter, which took both rain damage and flooding, won't open until spring at least. Palace Café will most likely be closed until January, and Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse will have to be completely rebuilt.

Commander's Palace, a Garden District jewel since 1880, won't reopen until March, and that's a tentative goal. The roof of the distinctive aqua and white Victorian building has been repaired, but the inside is being completely gutted after massive water damage. "The old gal took a big hit," admitted Ti Martin, daughter of matriarch Ella Brennan. "We have to rip everything out, but we will have a brand-new, 126-year-old building when we get done with it."

For Martin, the waiting game is painful. She is also rebuilding her house in flood ravaged Mid-City and is living for now with her mother and her aunt Dottie Brennan in their house next to the restaurant. "I tried to keep them away from the restaurant as long as I could, but they are much happier being here." Martin has been organizing charity efforts, working at Café Adelaide and dealing with a staff shortage.

She has also been testing Commander's Award of Excellence-winning wine collection. The unglamorous but functional wine cellar is heavily insulated and has no exterior walls, so the temperature may not have skyrocketed. "I walked in here and said, 'Oh well, let me break out the Chassagne-Montrachet and see how we did.' And that was fine, so, 'Let me try another.'" Looking for a second opinion, she organized a tasting with some experienced area wine hands, and the results were promising. Even a Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny 1945 (96 points) still tasted like bottled magic. "Everyone was waiting for a bust, but everything was great," said Martin. "So far, so good."

That's not the case for some other restaurateurs who have decided not to reopen. Chateaubriand's Gerard Crozier has closed his Award of Excellence-winning restaurant after heavy flooding. Meanwhile, other establishments are opening temporary quarters elsewhere to earn cash and keep their staff employed while they rebuild. Mandina's and Galatoire's both opened locations in Baton Rouge in November.

Open for Service

For the few restaurants that managed to open their doors fairly early on, their owners feel pretty lucky, although life isn't much easier for them. The owner at Clancy's, a Best of Award of Excellence winner on Annunciation Street, had the foresight to buy two generators before the storm. That saved the 465-selection cellar and allowed the Uptown restaurant to be one of the first to reopen, albeit for dinner only.

Cuvée, a Best of Award of Excellence winner in the Central Business District, was able to open just a month after the storm. The small eatery took only minor water damage, and the staff at the St. James Hotel next door spent portions of the storm and its aftermath at Cuvée's bar, helping themselves to some liquor but also keeping looters away. "We were very lucky," said Jeff Kundinger, general manager and wine director. "We're making lemonade."

The 6,000 bottles in the cellar seem to have been lucky too. "I have tasted 400 bottles in the past two months and I have not tasted any heat damage," said Kundinger. "The cellar never really got over 74 degrees, because it's insulated so well with an interior brick wall." However, he lost his 1,500-bottle personal cellar; his entire home, in heavily flooded Lakeview, had to be destroyed. Kundinger, who now flies every few weeks to visit the rest of his family, who are staying in Milwaukee, said, "It made me realize that rather than saving [wine], buy it to drink. Don't wait."

Cuvée's biggest obstacle to reopening was clean water. Health inspectors approved the restaurant to reopen at the end of September, but it had to use bottled water and paper plates for a few days because the tap water wasn't safe for drinking or washing. Then on Oct. 4, the water was declared safe, and Kundinger broke out the Riedel glasses as the restaurant resumed full service. "It was interesting having a 700-selection wine list and pouring everything in plastic cups," he said.

Almost 75 percent of Cuvee's waitstaff was back at work by then, but things were much worse in the kitchen. Before the storm, chef Bob Iacovone had an 11-person crew. When he came back, he had one line chef, who was promoted to sous-chef. To get adequate supplies, Iacovone had to make daily trips to grocery stores in the suburb of Metarie. "I'd fill up two carts and spend over a thousand dollars," he said. "I'd get a lot of funny looks."

He's now up to a staff of five, but it's hard to fill the entry-level positions because those workers lived in hard-hit areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward and Chalmette. Employees who would like to return have no place to stay and have had to enroll their kids in other schools. The Louisiana Restaurant Association has parked a ship on the river to provide temporary housing, but there's little privacy.

Each day at 5 p.m., Iacovone heads over to where demolition crews get off work, asking if anyone wants to make some extra cash. The men, mostly immigrants, work from 6 p.m. to midnight, but have to be back at their construction jobs at 7 a.m., which means few come back to the restaurant. "Basically we have a dishwasher du jour," said Iacovone. Restaurants that once paid $6 an hour to entry-level staff now have to offer $10 to $20. People have become New Orleans' most precious commodity.

Therein lies the city's biggest hurdle. Until more of its residents come home, businesses cannot truly resume normal operations. Although customers are plentiful while few restaurants have opened their doors, they may be in short supply once more places reopen. Those are matters restaurant owners and chefs cannot control. They must depend on the struggling city government to restore vital services and on the federal government to rebuild and strengthen the levees that ring the city.

"It's hard to watch," said Martin, sitting in the courtyard of a gutted Commander's. "It's very difficult to feel that the world has moved on to the next disaster, and we have yet to solve our problems. But I feel like the citizens are starting to come together and coalesce around the most important issues. We'll get going, and the politicians can join us or not."

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