Wednesday, December 14: On this warm New Orleans morning, the Faubourg Marigny is as charming as get-out: shotgun houses funked up with color, low-slung trees, sleepy streets. It nearly feels just fine. But a guy I pass greets me, like everyone here greets everyone, and when I ask “how ya doin’?”, his response is “been better.” The houses are tatooed with that ubiquitous X, the quadrant at the bottom signifying the number of dead within. Lots of zeroes I’ve seen so far. But X still marks a sad spot.
I’m crestfallen when I get to Elizabeth’s (“Real food done real good”). Bob cribbed from Elizabeth’s for the praline bacon in Cuvée’s chopped salad. Here, it’s doused in sugar, “infused with pecans”, as the lady on the phone told me, and carmelized. I’ve walked all the way to the Bywater for it. The waitress calls me “hon” when she tells me that breakfast is done for the day. New Orleans starts work at 8:30 in the morning. Five to 11, and beefy men in trucker’s caps are already sitting down to pulled pork and ham po’boys.
Back in the Marigny, Mary Logsdon soaps kitchen racks on the sidewalk. La Spiga, her bakery and café, caved in from the storm. Mary and her daughter Dana made artisanal breads, blueberry crisps, seasonal Queen cakes, turnovers, pies, tarts, biscotti. Her Mid-City home flooded, Mary evacuated to California. “We had a wonderful time there, but we said, ‘This isn’t us.’” Now, they’re cleaning, repairing, writing a business plan, hoping for an SBA loan. “We don’t have any start-up money. We have to pay our employees.”
Unlike big chain operations, shops like Mary’s didn’t have business interruption insurance. “Nor did I have spoilage insurance. I didn’t know anything. Recently, I got a letter saying I needed to pay my premiums. I called the insurance company. The man said, ‘Do you want to go ahead and pay, then?’, and I said, ‘But you haven’t told me boo about these things.’”
At Cuvée, AM sous-chef Lindsey Fetzer is running the wait staff through their pre-service meeting. “Sell one cheese plate, y’all’ll make me happy.” She rattles off the special (soft shells), the amuse (hazelnut tart), the soup du jour (lobster bisque), the pairing for the foie gras du jour (duck and plum tart). The dining room is cool and dark and smells of fresh pine. Lindsey worked at Cuvée before Katrina. “Coming back and cleaning was the worst experience of my life,” she says. “The hotel hired a hazmat crew. They took care of the walk-ins, but they forgot about the low-boys. Me and Bob were trying to get product in. The water wasn’t safe, so we were boiling every single drop. I was almost like, ‘Bob, I can’t . . .”
Lindsey had evacuated with tonight’s sauté guy, Kent. Kent’s home in the Lower Ninth Ward was “so far under water, there was no use salvaging anything.” Now he’s living Uptown. “It’s a different world up there. I’ve lived in New Orleans for 11 years, and people ask me directions up there, and I don’t know what to tell them.” The restaurant initially felt different too. After the storm, “when I first got back, it was a fish plate, a meat loaf plate, a pulled pork plate. I was like, ‘This is what we’re doing??’”
A waiter comes in to ask what to charge for a side of marrow mash. Lindsey tells her 15 bucks. “Marrow is hard to come by now,” Lindsey says. “The supplier told us we had to take all or nothing, so we got, like, 10 pounds of it. They charged us an arm and a leg.” “We still haven’t been able to do the degu menu,” says Kent. “The fresh lobster, the Taylor Bay scallops, the game – getting them’s a pain in the neck.”
Depleted supplies, downscaled menu and dirty work aside, the
cooks at Cuvée aren’t leaving New Orleans, and they’re definitely not leaving
Cuvée. “Sometimes you love the food and
hate the people, or you love the people and hate the chef,” says Lindsey. “This is the first time I’ve ever loved
everything about a place.” Even Robin,
the newest cook, who gets ribbed for his inexperience, is sticking. “I’ve been a chef for nearly a year. I was a mechanic before. Mechanics didn’t seem like happy
people. I like seeing happy people
At La Côte Brasserie, Jon Wheeler, the sous chef from René Bistrot, is having a drink. René Bajaeux’s French bistro in the Pere Marquette Hotel sustained two feet of flooding and is being gutted for a rebuild. Jon’s been cooking for FEMA and Home Depot workers at the Residence Inn down the block. “All buffet. Frozen carbs, frozen veg. We try to put interesting proteins in there,” including New Orleans classics. After years of cooking Bajeux’s fine dishes, Jon found the chow line demoralizing. “But then a manager comes in one day – a local guy – and he stops dead in his tracks. ‘Is that sausage gravy I smell?’ he asks. As soon as he said that, I knew: I was doing an important thing.”