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A Gourmet Capital Gets to Work

New Orleans and the Gulf Coast start rebuilding, and restaurant owners lead the charge

Mitch Frank, Eric Arnold
Posted: September 20, 2005

Less than three weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Paul Prudhomme has come back to town. The acclaimed chef and spice purveyor, who had evacuated to Pine Bluff, Ark., returned to the French Quarter late last week to clean up K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen. The restaurant had suffered water damage and Prudhomme feared that the stifling heat would roast his wine cellar if he didn't get power back soon, but he and his crew hoped to get the place straightened up in a few days, ready to cook up gumbo, red beans and rice and jambalaya for relief workers and soldiers.

With stubborn determination and a good amount of faith, the city of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have started to get back on their feet just a few weeks after Katrina's rampage. Top restaurant owners and chefs are helping to lead the way, eager to reopen, provide aid for their staffs and organize relief efforts for their city. The restaurant industry is a crucial part of the rebuilding effort, since more than 10 percent of New Orleans residents work in related businesses and the city depends on tourism to survive. Visitors flock to the Big Easy specifically for the dining, whether it be Cajun cuisine at K-Paul's, the wine cellar at Emeril's New Orleans--a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner--or po' boys at Franky & Johnny's.

The forecast for the coming months, however, is bleak. The CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association told reporters Monday that he estimates at least 25 percent of the 3,400 restaurants in the New Orleans area will end up closing because of insurance costs, staffing issues or cash flow problems. Most of the causalities, Jim Funk said, will probably be small neighborhood eateries. New Orleans restaurants make $2.1 billion a year in sales, and Funk estimates that number will be down by $500 million this year because of Katrina. Those restaurants that survive will need to rebuild quickly and attract customers--including returning residents, relief workers and repair contractors.

Even before New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin initiated a staggered resettlement of the city on Sept. 19, and then quickly shelved his plan as Hurricane Rita headed toward the Gulf, restaurant owners braved military checkpoints and dangerous conditions to evaluate the damage to their properties. Alex Brennan-Martin, whose family owns the Award of Excellence-winning Commander's Palace, made a day trip to the Garden District last week and discovered that Katrina had inflicted less damage on the restaurant than had been feared. "There are certainly some problems but nothing like a lot of places I saw," said Brennan-Martin. "We were on one of the luckier streets." Commander's suffered several broken windows and a hole in the roof but was not flooded. Brennan-Martin, who was afraid that the restaurant's wine had been cooked by the heat, found the cellar surprisingly cool.

"We went over expecting the worst," said Cuvée owner Ken LaCour of his first foray into central New Orleans to examine the condition of his Best of Award of Excellence-winning restaurant, which turned out to be largely unharmed. "The Garden District, Central Business District and French Quarter--I've seen it look worse following a Mardi Gras."

Many restaurants in the French Quarter, which is built on some of the highest ground in the city, suffered minimal damage. But restaurants in other neighborhoods did not weather the storm quite as well. One witness reported that a leading Warehouse District restaurant showed signs of major looting. The original New Orleans location of the Ruth's Chris Steak House chain lies in the heart of the flooded area. Its corporate headquarters in Metarie was also damaged, and the company has moved to Orlando, Fla.

In Biloxi, Miss., which took the brunt of the storm, the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino was badly damaged. "We think it will be a minimum of one year, and in all likelihood longer than that, before we're able to reopen," said Gordon Absher, a spokesman for MGM Mirage, which owns the resort. Its Best of Award of Excellence-winning Port House Restaurant and Award of Excellence-winning La Cucina Italiana "enjoyed a view over the water, and the damage we sustained was from the ocean coming in our back door," said Absher. "The walls of the casino building are completely gone."

As New Orleans reopens, restaurant owners are realizing repairs will not be quick and easy. "We can't lift a finger until the insurance adjusters step in," said Brennan-Martin. At Antoine's, the French Quarter institution, a wall on the fourth floor collapsed during the storm. But CEO Rick Blount had to wait until Sept. 19 to meet with insurance company officials, engineers and contractors to get an evaluation by structural experts and devise a repair plan.

Another obstacle is staffing--most restaurant employees are scattered across the country, like many of New Orleans' 500,000 residents. It's unclear how many will rush to come back. "One of my biggest concerns will be how to get my staff back to New Orleans," said Blount, whose family has owned Antoine's since it opened in 1840. "Most of my staff lived in the devastated parish of St. Bernard. I'll be working on temporary housing."

Emeril Lagasse's company, which temporarily relocated operations to Atlanta and Orlando, is still trying to track down all of its more than 500 New Orleans employees. Along with offering jobs at his other U.S. restaurants, Lagasse has set up a disaster relief fund to assist homeless and jobless employees of Emeril's New Orleans, Emeril's Delmonico and NOLA. (The company would not confirm the damage at the three properties, but issued a statement saying that it was committed to rebuilding the city and planned to reopen all its restaurants as soon as possible.) The Brennans, Susan Spicer of Bayona and numerous other restaurateurs have also been involved in fundraising efforts.

Once restaurants reassemble their employees and open their doors, they face a struggle to get fresh supplies. The storm shattered the area's transportation and distribution networks. Cuvée's sister restaurant Dakota, just north of Lake Pontchartrain in Covington, has reopened with a limited menu, "just to get an evaluation of how well we can get supplies in," said LaCour, who is preparing to open Cuvée later this month. "We're gonna have to shift our Louisiana bounty of seafood menu to a Pacific or Atlantic menu, because the seafood market has been obliterated for a little while." If he has trouble getting supplies to Cuvée, he plans to have them delivered to Dakota and then drive them into the city.

Many restaurants are devising limited menus. "For appetizers at Commander's, you might have your choice of turtle soup, turtle soup or turtle soup," Brennan-Martin said. Prudhomme expected to cut his typical entrée prices from $26 to $10.

Keeping restaurants supplied with wine won't be a problem for the state's distributors. Though Republic Beverage has not been able to access its Metarie warehouse, the company is still able to operate out of Lafayette. Glazer's, whose warehouse is west of New Orleans, was only without power for a couple of days. "We're in good shape, our fleet is intact, and we'll be back in business as soon as our customers are able to receive," said Scott Rawlings, president of the company's Louisiana operations.

Customers, however, may be in shorter supply in the months to come. "Instead of a medical convention or an automotive convention, we're going to have a three-month-long FEMA convention in town," LaCour said.

In a city so dependent on tourism, business leaders hope to be ready for large events by the beginning of 2006. "We think we'll have 30 to 45 hotels ready by [October]. And by the end of the year we expect to have 95 percent of the hotels in more pristine condition than they were before the storm," said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is currently operating out of Baton Rouge.

Luring visitors back to the city will be a challenge, but the culinary community thinks it's up to the task. "Our biggest message is going to be: Come to New Orleans," said Marti Dalton, Lagasse's marketing director. "Come visit our city. Make a reservation."

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