NEW ORLEANS - Talk to folks on the street about the “holy trinity” and you’re as likely to get a lesson on onions, celery and peppers as you are Catholicism. That’s New Orleans, a city where eating has long been a serious business.
But 10 years ago, that seemed imperiled. Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches that flooded the coast threatened that rich culinary history. Restaurants were shuttered amid the chaos and destruction; waiters, bartenders and chefs - along with the institutional memory of the cuisine they held - dispersed across the country; customers were nowhere in sight.
There would be restaurants again, of course. But many wondered whether the food scene truly could recover and return.
It has indeed. Since Katrina, the city’s food scene not only recovered, it grew. And it changed, becoming more ethnically diverse.
“I don’t know if there has ever been a transformation of an inner city in the U.S. quite like this one, and it’s really a story told through food,” said New Orleans restaurateur and celebrity chef John Besh.
He’s seen and often led the resurgence. When Katrina hit, he ran two restaurants, had 124 employees and plenty of debt. Worried he’d have to close, he nonetheless pitched in, feeding red beans and rice to first responders and others for free. But he didn’t close, and today he has 12 restaurants, about 1,000 employees and has another cookbook, “Besh Big Easy,” that focuses on New Orleans recipes coming out in September.
And Besh is just one example. The U.S. Census Bureau reports there are 11 percent more restaurants in the metro area than in 2005 - even though the population is smaller than pre-Katrina. Tom Fitzmorris, who wrote “Hungry Town” detailing the comeback of the city’s restaurant scene post-Katrina, has kept a detailed count of the number of independent sit-down restaurants in the city. By his count, there are roughly 1,400, about 600 more than before.
Not surprisingly, the established powerhouses of New Orleans cuisine - Commander’s Palace, Galatoire’s and Antoine’s, where you can get classics like turtle soup, shrimp etouffee and bread pudding with warm whiskey sauce - weathered the storm and thrived. But the growth is coming in more casual, mid-range restaurants, and it’s fueled largely by a rebound in tourism as well as an influx of millennials seeking an affordable city with culture.
The cuisine also has evolved. Restaurants serving Vietnamese food and Latin American food, previously found mostly in enclaves off the beaten track, have become mainstream and upscale. Restaurants like MoPho, Mint and Namese sell the traditional pho, but also Vietnamese tacos and basil-lemon grass martinis.
When people dispersed after Katrina, they were exposed to new cuisines, then brought those flavors back when they returned, said Amy Sins, chef at Langlois, a cross between cooking school and dinner party. She and her staff prepare Creole and Cajun food that goes far beyond the traditional gumbo and jambalaya. A recent meal featured cold smoked rib-eye with mojo verde sauce, cold corn soup and Canary Island potatoes - reflecting the city’s Spanish and Caribbean influences.
Food is ever-evolving in New Orleans, said Sins, who pointed out the influence of Germans (sausages) and Sicilians (canned tomatoes) on the city. The next transition? Honduran food reflecting more recent immigrants, she said.
“We have this internal conflict,” said Sins. “We want to hold on and preserve and embrace but we’re kind of excited about the new things that we get to try.”
The geography of the food scene also has expanded. At High Hat Cafe on Freret Street, diners dig into shrimp Creole accompanied by summer squash fritters and followed by a slice of peach and fig pie. Don’t want to choose between whipped cream or ice cream? You get both. High Hat, with its catfish baskets, fried chicken and Delta hot tamales, is now one of the anchors on a street that years ago was a culinary ghost town.
“The renaissance has happened faster than we thought it would,” said High Hat co-owner Chip Apperson.
Not that any of this has been easy. Chefs and restaurateurs across the city say life has become more financially difficult for their staffs. At Maurepas Foods in the Bywater, chef Michael Doyle said wages have remained stagnant as rents have skyrocketed, forcing many people to live father from their jobs.
Chefs also mourn the restaurants that did not survive. Besh used to take visiting chefs to Mandich on St. Claude Ave., but they never reopened. Neither did Christian’s, a Mid-City restaurant in a former church. Doyle said many of the neighborhood places that served hot lunches and daily specials also didn’t survive. “We definitely lost a lot of places that were the foundations, and I worry about that,” he said.
For now, the restaurant boom has only one outpost in the Lower 9th Ward, one of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods. Longtime resident Keisha Henry opened Cafe Dauphine with relatives - marking a rare sit-down restaurant in an area that traditionally has had only corner stores and takeout.
Amid the Katrina anniversary, she wants people to realize that some areas of the city are still recovering. But in her corner of the ward, where local families gather for a Sunday brunch of well-seasoned New Orleans home cuisine, she also wants people to realize there’s a growing community here as well.
“I feel like we deserve the finest things just like anybody else,” she said.
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