Katrina may have overpowered New Orleans, but it couldn't wash away the Big Easy's zingy version of comfort food—buttery sweet potato biscuits, crabmeat po'boys, lemon pudding cake. Mimi Read, who was born and bred there, profiles six local star chefs and restaurant owners who are determined to let the good times—and some great cooking—roll again.
The First Responder
Restaurant August 301
Four days after hurricane Katrina paralyzed New Orleans, John Besh sneaked back into its barricaded streets. "I thought I could do the most good by feeding people," says Besh, 37, chef and owner of Restaurant August.
By text-messaging friends and family, Besh scrounged up 750 bags of rice, 1,000 pounds of red beans, and several huge stockpots and propane burners. Undaunted by the lack of electricity, he set up a makeshift kitchen in the driveway of his house in nearby Slidell, Louisiana. "We had a boat on a trailer, and we loaded it up with ice chests full of hot red beans and rice," Besh says. "Then we stacked on a couple of boom boxes and drove the boat into the accessible neighborhoods of New Orleans, blaring zydeco music."
Besh has since reopened Restaurant August, where his culinary imagination ranges all over the map—from ravioli stuffed with short ribs to Moroccan spiced duck with foie gras. Off-duty, though, he's been cooking the old-fashioned New Orleans food he turns to in times of stress. "When I was overseas in the Gulf War, I literally dreamed of soft-shell crabs and speckled trout with crabmeat on top," says Besh. "They were the dishes of my childhood."
Indeed, his four sons are already experienced eaters of soft-shell crab po'boys—or what Besh calls BLTs. Made with crisply fried buster crabs layered on split French bread with Creole tomatoes, lettuce, and a few shakes of Crystal hot sauce, they "just scream New Orleans," says Besh. "And that's what we need. We may have different last names, skin colors, and religions [in this city], but our food and music define us. Right now they're pulling us together."
Sweet Potato Queen Susan Spicer
430 Rue Dauphine
Susan Spicer has won heeps of awards for her free-spirited fusion of American, Mediterranean, Latin, and Asian cooking—but she should also get a prize for equanimity. Before Katrina, the 53-year-old co-owner and chef of Bayona, a top-notch restaurant in a charming French Quarter cottage, lived with her family in New Orleans's lush Lakeview area. One day after the storm, two nearby levees broke, flooding her home with six feet of water and turning her neighborhood into a sepulchral zone of gutted houses and dead trees.
Spicer wasn't distracted for long. "You quickly get accustomed to the idea that it's just stuff," she says cheerfully. "After I lost my house to a fire eight years ago, I really didn't fill it up that much. Sure, you lose pictures and sentimental things, but I have my memories."
Spicer and her family sat out the storm in Jackson, Mississippi, where she spent one memorable morning baking sweet potato biscuits to soothe everyone's nerves. "They're warm and they make the house smell good and buttery," she says. "We spooned honey on them for breakfast, but they'd be very nice for dinner with smothered pork chops."
Months later Spicer is back in New Orleans, camping out at her mother's. "The scope of this whole situation is huge," says Spicer, who is once again serving her fans dishes like coriander shrimp with black-bean cake. "Running a restaurant has a lot of resonance," she says. "I'm not just feeding people—I'm definitely feeding souls."