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."
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."
Storm Troopers Greg and Mary Sonnier
3201 Esplanade Avenue
From BBQ shrimp pie to orange pound cake, the food at Gabrielle Restaurant has always been a religious experience for devotees of this small, unassuming treasure tucked into New Orleans's Mid-City neighborhood. But they'll have to wait a while for chef Greg Sonnier and his wife, pastry chef Mary to resume turning out their marvelous homespun creations.
Hurricane winds punched huge holes in the restaurant's roof and blew off a hood fan. Then the levees broke and turned the neighborhood into a lake. "The water was waist high," Greg says. "People were in boats all around." Now drained, most of the area is still without electricity, telephones, or gas.
The Sonniers spent eight weeks waiting out the disaster in a Memphis hotel room with a broken stove. During their exile, Mary kept thinking about the Meyer lemon tree that stood outside Gabrielle's windows. Homesick, she craved the lemon cake she used to serve to customers, piling their plates with big spoonfuls of whipped cream. "It's real yummy, easy, and homey," she says of the custardy dessert.
When the Sonniers returned to New Orleans, they found their lemon tree so heavy with fruit that its branches nearly dragged the ground—a small miracle, given the force of Katrina's brutality. "The building must have protected it from the wind," Mary says. "And the neighborhood kids who usually pick our lemons and oranges are gone because there's only one public school open." She gathered all the fruit she could carry and carted it to her mother-in-law's house. There she cooked up fragrant batches of cake to celebrate their bittersweet return.
Help for Hurricane Victims
Months after Katrina and Rita, thousands of people in the Gulf Coast states are still going hungry. If you want to help, you can make a donation to America's Second Harvest (second harvest.org), which brings extra food from restaurants and grocers to local shelters.
The Matriarch Leah Chase
Dooky Chase's Restaurant
2301 Orleans Avenue
Leah Chase rode out the Hurricane at a relative's two-bedroom house in Baton Rouge along with a lot of other displaced family. "Honey, it was like the Underground Railroad—20 people [living there] at once. But it was a house," says the 83-year-old owner of the city's beloved soul food landmark Dooky Chase's. "Of course I cooked for everyone. Sweetheart, who else?"
An earthy grande dame with a snowy mane and radiant smile, Chase made generous pots of jambalaya for her family. But if she'd had the proper ingredients, the stew would have been a deep, dusky gumbo—the world's best medicine when New Orleans people are feeling homesick, Chase says. "Around here, we can go a mile on a bowl of it."
Chase should know. She's been cooking Creole classics since 1946, when she and her husband, Dooky, turned her mother-in-law's po'boy shop into the first place in New Orleans where African-Americans could sit down to a well- prepared meal in elegant surroundings. Her baked chicken with oyster dressing attracted everyone in town. Sarah Vaughn loved Chase's stuffed crabs; Louis Armstrong used to drop by for red beans and rice.
After the storm, three feet of water engulfed Dooky Chase's art-filled dining rooms. But Chase doesn't doubt that she'll return to her kitchen once again. Somebody's got to keep up the old Louisiana traditions—like serving fried rice cakes on Mardi Gras morning and green gumbo on the Thursday before Easter. Sweetheart, who else?
Printed from Oprah.com on Wednesday, March 12, 2014
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