Willie Mae Seaton is determined, too. She had been cooking great soul food in relative obscurity until last year, when she was recognized at the James Beard Foundation Awards as one of America’s Classics. The audience, moved by the slow resolve of her 88-year-old gait and the sincere sparseness of her acceptance speech, cheered and cried. She promised them that whenever they made their way to the Crescent City, she would be there.
She is 89 now. The shotgun double house that is both home and restaurant was flooded. The furniture, the fixtures, all lost. But she had a plan. Her son Charlie serves as sous-chef, purveyor, and handyman. He would get the place ready. It didn’t seem to occur to her that, at 71, Charlie might not be the ideal candidate. She still hopes to open, but where will she find the money and manpower to do so? The owners of Gautreau’s, Dooky Chase, Gabrielle, and Commander’s Palace would also like to return soon, but they, too, face costly repairs.
All true new orleanians, born or transplanted, have a Creole spirit. Our joie de vivre, we have long joked, marks us as redheaded stepchildren in the vanilla American mainstream. But what was once humor is now a dreadful cloud. We worry that our nation will not help us rebuild our homes and levees. We live and we cook now with an intensity that reminds the world and ourselves of what will be lost if New Orleans is lost. The day Restaurant August reopened, red beans and rice were on the menu. And the Friday lunch menu boasts a down-home seafood and sausage gumbo among John Besh’s decidedly nontraditionalist offerings. “I’ve got something I’ve got to get off my chest, and here it is,” he said. “I don’t want to serve a damn thing here unless it has roots that stem from all those crazy bloodlines that built New Orleans.”
To understand us now, you must learn the most popular phrase of our new lexicon. We speak of “pre-K.” It has nothing to do with early childhood education and everything to do with that long-ago period before the hurricane. This reference point precedes the answers to such questions as “Do they have valet parking?” Post-Katrina, the storm is invariably the main topic of our conversations. But, as in pre-K days, breakfast talk is spiced with anticipatory statements about where one will go for lunch or dinner. No restaurant is more talked about than Donald Link’s Herbsaint. Meatloaf remains on his lunch menu as a vestige of those days immediately after his October opening, when he sought to serve comfort food. But it is his chile-glazed pork belly with beluga lentils and fresh mint and his banana brown-butter tart that now dominate discussions of his restaurant.
Fears were raised a year and a half ago when chef Thomas Wolfe bought Peristyle from the popular Anne Kearney. Would the hearty fare from his self-named restaurant across town run roughshod over her meticulous, classic creations? The answer is that, both pre-K and post-K, Wolfe has proved adept at serving dishes as elegant as those Peristyle diners had come to expect.
Two restaurants that were scheduled to open around the time of the hurricane simply altered their debut dates and moved forward. Uptown, Alberta serves elegant bistro food. An hour’s drive across Lake Pontchartrain in Abita Springs, Slade Rushing and Alison Vines-Rushing have transplanted the award-winning food they created at Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar in Manhattan to an environment closer to their Mississippi and Louisiana roots. At the Longbranch, their bacon-topped reinvention of Oysters Rockefeller may be the most exciting new dish I’ve tasted, though the smoked lamb rib served alongside the rack of lamb with wilted romaine and tomato jam has had my taste buds dreaming.
These days, you feel more a part of the restaurant family than before. You know that some of the cooks may well be doubling as dishwashers and that dress codes have been relaxed. Cuvée still requests attire befitting the opulence of its gold-leaf ceiling and its wine list. Chef Bob Iacovone is aiming for lushness, as is evidenced by his opening salvo of foie gras crème brûlée. But post-K fine dining means jeans are acceptable, though not encouraged. Of course, the waiter will still swap the standard white napkin for a black one that won’t get light lint on your dark pants.
Once you leave the restaurants, you are often confronted with stark reality. Many neighborhoods are still empty; many streets unlit. This is already a long letter. I didn’t intend it to be. But it has taken me this many words to explain to myself what I want you to understand about my hometown. Despite the pronouncements that our beloved city is too dangerous, too hurricane-prone for human habitation, we fully intend to rebuild. Put simply, this place, above all others, is where we wish to live.
Red beans and ricely yours,