The Comeback Kid Wayne Baquet
Lil' Dizzy's Cafe
1500 Esplanade Avenue
Six months before Katrina hit, Wayne Baquet opened a 12-table café called Lil' Dizzy's in an old stucco building not far from the French Quarter. Right away the place was jammed. Police officers, firemen, mail carriers, and neighborhood folks lined up for Baquet's blissful crawfish bisque, fried chicken, and sweet potato pie—recipes he learned growing up in the back of his father's Seventh Ward restaurant and honed while running 11 places of his own.
When the levees broke, Baquet's truck, old Mercedes, and condominium were steeped in four feet of water; Lil' Dizzy's was looted, its roof crushed by a tree. He absorbed this news at his daughter's house in Atlanta, where he was holed up with 14 family members, nearly all of them storm-tossed evacuees. Then Baquet did the one thing that comforts him most—he made an enormous meal of eggs, cayenne-spiked sausages, golden biscuits, and steaming Cheddar cheese grits. "I like cooking everything, but breakfast is my passion," he says. "It has all my favorite foods, including a great cup of coffee. I can cook it up before the craziness of the day starts."
And the days since have been crazier than anyone could have imagined. After months of work, Baquet is once again serving his jazz brunch at the newly reopened Lil' Dizzy's Cafe. His Creole soul buffet is starting to draw lines of people. And just like old times, it's more than worth the wait.
Hometown Hero Ralph Brennan
Red Fish Grill 115
Bourbon Street 504-598-1200
As he watched new footage of his city flooded to its rooflines, Ralph Brennan, 54, sat on a borrowed bed in Jackson, Mississippi, and wept. Then he got moving. Part of the clan of restaurateurs that owns Commander's Palace, Mr. B's, and other well-known New Orleans hot spots, Brennan has long been an industry leader. He drove to Baton Rouge and helped the local Board of Health officials rewrite guidelines that would allow New Orleans restaurants to reopen even with the city's tap water still tainted. Their solution: serving food on disposable plates and using bottled water to clean vegetables and pots.
"I thought it was important for restaurants to get up and running as fast as possible," says Brennan. "I wanted to send a message to the rest of New Orleans—and to the country and world—that the city is coming back."
Thirty-three days after the storm, Brennan's Red Fish Grill was the first major restaurant in the French Quarter to reopen. With the ghostly city still strewn with debris, the mood at the bar was surprisingly jubilant. The dining room was packed not with the usual crowd of well-off tourists but with catastrophe clean-up workers, reporters, and a few disoriented natives who devoured lightly charred redfish fillets draped over mounds of spicy red rice.
This was manna, New Orleans style, especially for those who'd been taking their nourishment from Salvation Army food trucks. Comfort food, Brennan believes, means using pure, familiar ingredients in soothing, no-nonsense ways. "It helps people to feel things are normal," he says, "even if they aren't."