Monday, December 12: Bob Iacovone, the chef at Cuvée, grows cranky straining his stock. He’s got a chinoise filled with simmered lobster shells tucked into a Chinese cap. It’s perched over a rectangular vessel, and he’s been beating it with a sauce pan for the longest time. “This is my least favorite job,” he says. “It’s so boring. Now, if I had a dishwasher . . .” Bob’s regular guy, along with eighty other people, was evacuated in a Boeing 737 chartered by businessman David Perez and is apparently being accommodated in San Diego. “No, hell, boss,” he tells Bob, he’s not coming back. “I like it here.”
Nobody has a regular dish guy. The folks at that end of the economy had their residences swept away. In their place are Mexican guys who do clean-up or construction during the day. At night, they might wash dishes. “Dishwasher du jour,” someone calls it. That, or the cooks scrub the pots.
In light of this circumstance, I am relieved to discover that, when I load a flat, the machine starts up of its own accord. I have succeeded in washing dishes. Today is my first day on prep at Cuvée, a wine-focused Creole-Continental restaurant in the Central Business District’s St. James Hotel. Bob shows me to the uniforms. “The linen guys are hurting for jackets.” Mine reads “Palace Cafe.”
I rough-chop carrots, celery and onions for that stock, for the grilled redfish over andouille and scallion hash with blackened jumbo shrimp and bouillabase broth. I trim and score breasts for the syrup-cured-smoked duck breast and whole confit leg with walnut-bleu cheese risotto, seared Hudson Valley foie gras and pear glacé. For the toiles on the apple cobbler crêpe with sour cream ice cream and pomegranate caramel, I make sticks of a Granny Smith apple with a mandoline, pastry chef Christy Phebus hovering over my imperiled wrists. Granted, I haven’t worked back-of-the-house since high school. But prep is soothing; methodical and repetitive. In a city turned on its head, I feel its appeal.
Purveyors arrive. The produce company is down to three trucks from 20. The meat guy sends someone else’s order. The dairy? “That’s been the most messed up thing.” Bob’s so paranoid about the dairy that he thinks they’ve stiffed him on the heavy cream and half-and-half until he finds the box. Cuvée opened in early October. They first tried vegetables from Baton Rouge. The stuff was rotten. “You know it’s bad when they mess up an onion.” So, until his suppliers got up and running, Bob shopped at the grocery store. The linen guy arrives. “You got jackets for us?” Sure enough, they don’t.
Pastry chefs are almost as hard to come by as dishwashers and jackets. Bob’s got Christy Phebus a couple times a week. She used to work at Cobalt, in the Hotel Monaco nearby. The hotel’s closed, though Kimpton, which owned it, paid her with benefits until now. “I couldn’t have afforded to come back otherwise,” she says. “I would’ve had to sign a lease and start working elsewhere.” Now, exhibiting an entreprenuerialism that’s new to a New Orleans native, Christy and her partner, Nolan Ventura, are hiring themselves out as intinerant pastry chefs to high-end places like Cuvée, Dakota, Herbsaint and Muriel’s. “I’d been at Cobalt for two years and invested a lot in that place,” she says. Katrina put the work into perspective, though. “Things I used to complain about in the kitchen wouldn’t even faze me now.” When I leave, I go to dump my jacket in the laundry bin. Bob stops me. “You’d better save that.”
Mother’s is around the corner at Poydras and Tchoupitoulas, has been for 67 years. It’s a stand-in-line-forever-for-your-debris-and-gravy tourist trap. A tourist trap lacking in tourists. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, it's just me and three members of the Louisiana National Guard. They’re stationed at the Convention Center and bored out of their wits. “Four of five years I been in the Guard, I been activated,” one of them tells me. “Ain’t no fun.” But at least they’re in New Orleans where it’s relatively safe and the eating is good? He shakes his head. “Our catering service is from Ohio. They made jambalaya. It was tomato paste with rice.”
I go Uptown for a real New Orleans meal. It’s Monday, so local food writer Pableaux Johnson, who’s staying at a friend’s house while his roof is repaired, is making red beans and rice. “Monday was wash day. While you washed the clothes, you left a pot of beans on the stove,” Lolis Elie, author of Smokestack Lightning Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country, explains as we sit down to spicy, andouille-laden bowls. “You couldn’t ruin beans.”
Kim Severson of The New York Times just flew in. “You gonna go to shrimp farms?” I ask her. “Don’t say ‘shrimp farms’,” Pableaux corrects me. “We have wild shrimp in Louisiana.” Pableaux’s travel book, Eating New Orleans: From French Quarter Creole Dining to the Perfect Poboy, came out in June. Pableaux shakes his head. “It’s dead in the water.”