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Published: Sunday, 5/11/2008

Feeding New Orleans: The city's restaurants were vital to recovery after Katrina

BY KATHIE SMITH
BLADE FOOD EDITOR
Drago's Seafood Restaurant in Metarie, La., near New Orleans set up refrigerated trucks in its parking lot and gave away food. Drago's Seafood Restaurant in Metarie, La., near New Orleans set up refrigerated trucks in its parking lot and gave away food.
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NEW ORLEANS Three years after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the Crescent City, New Orleans is experiencing a rebirth and the food community is very much a part of that recovery.

In the beginning, it was slow going, says Elizabeth Williams of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Now we are on the way back. People see we are able to host a large group of people.

But in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, the people of New Orleans and relief workers were in desperate need of food.

The restaurants right after the city reopened were absolutely essential, Ms.

Williams says.

When people evacuated they spread out all over the country and for those who returned in the first few weeks, 80 percent of the city was under water, according to Ms. Williams.

The restaurants that could open played a crucial role in the recovery, she says. They

cooked and gave food to firemen, police, and first responders.

Gradually, as more people moved back, more restaurateurs fixed up their restaurants and began to open for business.

A lot of times chefs houses were under water but they reopened the restaurants, she says.

Mary Beth Romig of the New Orleans Convention and Visitor s Bureau, who with

her husband lost their home and possessions, says so many restaurants located in flooded neighborhoods lost everything.

You saw incredible acts of generosity.

Tommy Cvitanovich (coowner of Drago s Seafood Restaurant in Metairie, La.) brought refrigerated trailers into a parking lot. He was feeding people for free. I went to a meeting of Lakeview residents. He was out there with pots and pots of food

for free. Paul Prudhomme and Chef John Besh did the same. They fed the first

responders for free.

Many restaurants couldn t open because water was not available.

Feeding people

At Drago s, water came up to the door step, says Mr. Cvitanovich.

We had some wind damage and one building got eight inches of water. One manager stayed here. I came back a few days later. The day after, we started serving food right away.

With many of his employees living nearby, he had a staff of 10 to 15 people.

A week later, they were serving food to the U.S. Coast Guard personnel who were filling the breech at the 17th Street Canal levee.

Bridgette Parker of Zatarain's dishes up a crawfish boil at a recent reception at the Riverwalk in New Orleans. Bridgette Parker of Zatarain's dishes up a crawfish boil at a recent reception at the Riverwalk in New Orleans.
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For eight weeks we gave away meals. People were waiting in line, he says.

For five weeks the meals were given outside the restaurant. When the restaurant reopened, Drago s moved the effort to Lakeview where the need was greater.

There were no fast food restaurants, no convenience stores or grocery stores open, he says. Most people brought food (from outside the area) Food sources were non-existent.

Trucking food

Dudley Passman of Zatarains Food Service, located across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans, says we got wind damage not flood water.

The difficulty was getting trucks in to service customers. Communication was a problem. It was everybody doing what they could. Our immediate need was feeding our neighbors.

A USDA food manufacturing plant in Donaldsville, Chef John Folse & Co., didn t loose electricity or flood, says Michaela York, director of communications. We were able to help those who were flooded. Companies from across the nation sent product like 200 cases of chicken strips, cases of cordon blue, and other foods. We got this food to shelters.

There was so much confusion at that time. We used our trucks because refrigerated trucks were in short supply. Everybody that lost refrigeration needed refrigerated trucks.

Slow Food

The storm damaged the food and restaurant industry in other ways, too. Slow Food New Orleans founder by Poppy Tooker says that post-Katrina there were many weeks when there was no New Orleans French Bread. Because of the air and water in New Orleans, it can only be made here, she says. Before the storm there were half dozen places that made New Orleans French Bread. After the storm, it decreased by half.

As for Louisiana oysters: Many of the oyster beds were covered in silt. The oysters smothered and had to be reseeded and there was scarcity, she says.

The satsumas crop, a mandarin orange with loose skin that came to New Orleans in the mid-1800s, was damaged. The water sat on the citrus trees for weeks. It got trapped between the levees. When the water was pumped out the trees were dead, she says. It takes 10 years to regrow citrus.

One citrus farmer suffered some damage but the levees didn t breach so they had a crop to sell. But no way to sell without the Farmers Market, she says. Using the online newsletter food chain, she set up a way that the oranges could be shipped.

Help came from other quarters. I got an e-mail from Slow Food friends in California who wanted to help, says Ms. Tooker, who is involved with the Crescent City Farmers Market. So different conviviums around the country adopted a farmer or a fisherman.

Restaurants reopen

The legendary Brennan family is credited with inventing the Jazz Brunch, signature dishes copied around the country, and training famous chefs including Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme. The next generation of Brennan restaurateurs are cousins who own and operate nine of New Orleans most popular restaurants.

Dickie Brennan owns three of the restaurants that faced varying degrees of challenges after the hurricane. Dickie Brennan s Steakhouse flooded; the Palace Cafe in a 100-year-old historical building with a bake shop and refrigeration on the third level had spoiling products with no electricity, and Bourbon House was part of the recovery.

From the day we opened our doors, it was customers, he says. People had come home to repair. They were looking for food. We work with small farmers and regular fisherman. We were able to patch together individuals who could supply us with product. His cousins had similar stories with their restaurants. I fell into the category with a lot of support, he says. We had 55 individuals on the payroll. We lost two who relocated. I continued to pay everybody. Internally our people wanted to be part of the rebuilding.

We helped by going to peoples houses and helping them get back in the house, says Mr. Brennan. Housing was a big deal.

We are well on our way to making it as great a city as it ever was, he says now.

Coming Tuesday: See The Blade s Food page for classic New Orleans foods with recipes.

Contact Kathie Smith at food@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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