Katrina "taught me that New Orleans is bigger than me,” says chef John Besh, whose name and restaurants are synonymous with the city.
An odor of Champagne and sweat hung around him as he ambled through his cousin's cabin in Alabama. He carried a bottle from his collection of Krug in his hand, one of the few items he'd thought to bring along when he evacuated. After one final swig, it hung half-empty—almost an extension of his arm—and chef John Besh came to a stop with a fresh, yet loose plan. As Hurricane Katrina continued to bear down on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, he decided he wanted to return to the city.
A comedy of errors ensued, including a fistfight, chainsaws, running out of gas, an atlas, crooked firemen, running out of gas again, a $200 gallon of gasoline, and a return to Alabama for supplies before Besh and his pal, chef Alon Shaya, finally made it back into the city with the help of some of Besh's Marine friends. "For me, growing up knowing what Betsy did," Besh said, "what Camille did to the coast, I knew that this was more than me going bankrupt. This was going to mean an end to New Orleans."
It wasn't the end to New Orleans, and it definitely wasn't the end to John Besh, then a young chef leading Besh Steakhouse in Harrah's Casino and Restaurant August. Though Katrina devastated the city and its residents' lives, New Orleans did not disappear as some said it would. From the destruction sprung a whole new cluster of restaurants and dining experiences, including the ten eateries in Besh's restaurant group. Now many point to New Orleans as the center of the culinary revolution that is fascinating America.
But some didn't believe New Orleans's future could be tied to any profound change nationally or even locally. In the days following the storm, some still asked, "Is New Orleans worth saving?"
A September 6, 2005 Washington Post column by Columbia University geophysicist Klaus Jacob discussed the issue: "The direction of public discourse in the wake of Katrina goes like this: First we save lives and provide some basic assistance to the victims. Then we clean up New Orleans. And then we rebuild the city. Most will rightly agree on the first two. But should we rebuild New Orleans, ten feet below sea level, just so it can be wiped out again?"
Lolis Eric Elie is a New Orleans-born and Los Angeles-based writer who wrote for HBO's Treme, created its accompanying cookbook, and co-produced and wrote the PBS documentary Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans. He noted how that challenge made New Orleans chefs take stock of the city's cuisine. Instead of looking to New York City and Los Angeles, local chefs examined the foods coming out of Louisiana because they aimed to prove Jacob wrong.
"I think the storm helps inspire that for two reasons, both as an affirmative statement as to why this place is important and also as a response to people who were saying New Orleans didn't deserve to be rebuilt," Elie said. "How do you respond to that as a chef? There're all kinds of things you can say, but what else you can say and do perhaps most articulately is what you put on the plate."
Though some continued to debate the issue, it wasn't a question for those living in New Orleans. Besh and Shaya returned to the city as soon as they could and cooked for first responders, National Guardsmen, oil refinery workers, and those who'd come to rebuild. They prepared red beans and rice everyday, pouring the mix into Igloo ice chests and traveling around New Orleans, ladling it out to the very hungry.
"It taught me that New Orleans is bigger than me," Besh said. "It's not about how many awards I can win or how many plaques I can put on the wall, but feeding people [who were] truly hungry gave me perspective that I truly needed. It gave me a mission and is what fueled all of this." Here, Besh paused, considering his four cookbooks and many restaurants, and how his persona became analogous to New Orleans. "I think it also sparked others to do the same, and it all kind of came up through the biggest tragedy to hit the coast."
Besh considers Katrina to be a catalyst for the city. Though profoundly catastrophic, it allowed New Orleans to reboot; those who stayed were able to reexamine their lives, while those who came to the city for the first time helped revitalize it. The community used food as a conduit, he said, and brought a sympathetically minded and well-educated population to help change education, public transportation, housing, and other civic projects.
Shaya, who won Best Chef South at this year's James Beard Awards, moved to New Orleans in 2003. After the storm, he decided that he didn't want to work as the head chef of someone else's vision. With the help of Besh, Shaya opened Domenica, the restaurant that ultimately earned him the award. He has since opened an Israeli restaurant, Shaya on Magazine Street—something that Besh believes would be unthinkable prior to Katrina because it didn't fit within the city's or that street's traditional food consciousness. According to Besh and Shaya, the hurricane allowed them to break from tradition.
"I thought, pre-Katrina, there was a lot of resting on laurels," Shaya said. "A lot of the old guard restaurants were cooking food the tourists were coming and eating up, but what I've really enjoyed seeing is places like Brennan's reopening and having a fresh life brought into it, but still holding true to what that restaurant is all about."
But Shaya doesn't necessarily believe this New Orleans or Creole tradition pre-Katrina was septic. He instead suggested that it needed a shock to its system, and the devastation of the hurricane functioned as that spark.
"I felt [New Orleans food] was maybe stuck in a rut. There was definitely the presence of the old guard, and I almost felt stifled by it. That's what drove me to open August for that matter. I wanted a different type of New Orleans cuisine, something that paid homage to all these great ingredients but breathed new life into them. We had great restaurants, and what I loved prior to the storm was the neighborhood joints that we don't have anymore. That hurt."
That's the flipside to the change in New Orleans's restaurant industry—the death of the neighborhood restaurant. Since the storm, the city's transplant community has grown, and those transplants are often white urbanites escaping the expenses of New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
The change in the city's makeup since Katrina is noticeable.
New Orleans is nearly 60 percent black, but almost 100,000 fewer black residents live in the city since the hurricane. Thirty-five percent of black families live below the poverty line; since 2005, their median income has only grown 7 percent. Meanwhile, the white population has grown 6 percent since 2000 and their median income has grown 22 percent.
This certainly has had an effect on the restaurant industry, at least the ones that might be considered foundational to New Orleans—the neighborhood restaurants Besh laments losing.
Barrow's Shady Inn, established in 1943 and famous for its catfish and Al Green-loaded jukebox, didn't return. Neither did Restaurant Mandich, which Zagat described as "The Galatoire's of the Ninth Ward," nor Bella Luna, with its famous romantic view. As a transplant, these are restaurants I never got to know, only learning of them from those who were here pre- and post-Katrina.
They speak of Cobalt and Lulu's, Mango House, Barrister's, Ren Bistrot, Indigo on Bayou Road, Landry's, Plantation Coffeehouse, Marisol, Gabrielle, Chateaubriand, and Nick's on Carrolton. Though not all of them were considered niche neighborhood restaurants, they helped carry the torch of New Orleans's identity before the storm and now are mostly forgotten.
Kerry Seaton Stewart noted the disappearance of many restaurants from those city streets unfamiliar to tourists. They were similar to her own, the family-run and world-famous Willie Mae's Scotch House. But she doesn't consider it a symptom of the transplants; instead, she suggests the aftereffects of the storm became too great of a hardship.
"We had a lot of great gems that didn't return, or they stayed open for a few years after Katrina and they just let it go," she said. "Katrina was hard and discouraging for a lot of families. Sometimes people went on and made a home other places, and it was just hard to transition back into that normalcy of everyday life in New Orleans."
Seaton, who serves some of the most famous fried chicken in the United States out of a former beauty shop in the Tremé, doesn't see the change in New Orleans as bad. There is much to be learned from the people coming in and to try new avenues instead of "the Big Easy way that we've been doing for the past 50 years or so," she said.
Like many other cities, New Orleans is now undergoing its own version of gentrification, and it's moving at a rate that some consider overwhelming. While many are quick to vilify those moving to New Orleans from other major cities, Elie said the real issue is as old as the city and the state of Louisiana: good governance.
"The reason they're able to move down here and buy our houses cheap is because our people no longer have good-paying jobs," he said. "Our people don't have a decent education, we live in an economy where there is very little quality work for unskilled workers, and at no point has the government of New Orleans or Louisiana seen these as major problems."
At the last Census count, the city has 42,096 fewer jobs than it did before the storm, more than 100,000 fewer residents, and 1,677 fewer businesses, but the city's restaurants remain its shining light. There are more than 200 additional restaurants now than there were in 2005.
Chef Nina Compton's recent decision to move to New Orleans from Miami only adds to that number.
Compton arrived only a few months ago to open her restaurant Compère Lapin in New Orleans' Warehouse District, where she combines the food traditions of New Orleans with her native St. Lucia.
Though her stay here has been fairly short, Compton moved here for a reason—the city and community are gaining forward momentum, all of which revolves around what food can provide. New Orleanians care about restaurants, chefs, and their role in the city. New Orleans, she said, is a welcoming atmosphere to the ambitious chef.
"People are very excited about food here," she said. "They plan their lives around food, so it made it an easy decision to move here from Miami. I've never received so many flowers and handwritten notes from different chefs and people all over the city just to welcome me. I get stopped in the street and people keep on saying, 'Thank you for moving to New Orleans.' To me, that says a lot."
Though disagreement over the trajectory of the city continues, Besh and Shaya remain stalwart in their mission to feed the hungry. Two things help this project: the growth of the restaurant industry since the storm; and Besh, Shaya, and many other New Orleans chefs working alongside a number of outreach programs and civic organizations they believe will help better the city.
"If we do not sustain this culture, we lose the culture," Besh said. "Alon has been working with Café Reconcile, Liberty's Kitchen, and Café Hope for years. These outreach programs are very necessary. We probably have a dozen of them in New Orleans alone, because how many black chefs do we have? How many of note? Very few of them when I was a kid."
This continues to push these chefs to work with the organizations who aim to combat some of the city's problems, Elie noted. Café Reconcile provides job training and restaurant skills to kids from kindergarten to 12th grade, many of whom face problems of extreme poverty, homelessness, and crime. They've also created Chefs Move!, a scholarship fund for minority students who they believe can make it in the restaurant industry. Many students end up working directly under Besh or the chefs who run his restaurants.
While some residents complain that the city's forward progression that is costing New Orleans its identity, they can't necessarily say that about the city's restaurant industry. Those within it continue to better the city by investing in its love of food and the traditions that surround it.
Hurricane Katrina gave chefs in New Orleans a goal: to prove the worth of the Creole City. That's what Besh and Shaya agreed upon when they looked at the destruction ravaged by the storm as they shuttled their Igloo chests of red beans and rice through the wards.
"We need to make it our mission, whatever we do, to use our resources to do that," Besh said. Whether it's just one meal at a time, we need to attract people back to New Orleans or we're going to lose something that was so special and truly the only indigenous urban cuisine left in America."