Saturday, December 10: Northeast of the French Quarter, the Creole neighborhood of the Seventh Ward, like New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview, sits in ruins. Block upon block upon block – hundreds of them, thousands of houses – hollowed by flood, crumbling with mildew, marked by the symbols of search-and-rescue (“No Dogs Inside. Fed Fish. 2 in Tank DOA.”), utterly abandoned. And in the midst of the wreckage, on a corner of AP Tureaud Avenue, the door is open at Bullet’s Sports Bar. A barbecue is throwing up smoke on the sidewalk. I’ve driven 1300 miles in 48 hours from New York City intending to work in some professional kitchens and find out what's become of the restaurant industry. Now I’m lost. Here’s life. I climb from the car. “How’d you like a boneless, skinless breast?” the construction worker at the grill asks me. I turn to one of the little boys who’ve been running in and out of the bar, “What neighborhood is this?” He answers me, in almost a whisper, “New Orleans.” The chicken is tangy and moist. Someone’s offering me a beer. Yes, indeed, this is New Orleans.
I find my way past the broken-down jazz joints and the piles of debris to the Warehouse District not far from the Quarter. The Renaissance Arts Hotel – a beautiful, modern facility with comfortable, colorful furnishings and friendly, gracious service where I am to stay for a week and a half – is crawling with military contractors, guns strapped to their thighs. Chuck Subra, the chef at the hotel’s restaurant, La Côte Brasserie, is doing a brisk business in New York strip steaks. The valet shows me a cellphone photo of his ravaged apartment building in St. Bernard Parish.
There is a swath of the city that appears undamaged. It hugs the river from the Marigny just east of the Quarter through the Central Business, Warehouse and Garden Districts to Riverbend at the Jefferson Parish line to the west. I drive Magazine Street into Uptown's Garden District, where, amid the boutiques and bars, the only sign I see that something has gone awry is an enormous, yellow Hummer stenciled “Military Police” muscling its way downtown. At The Savvy Gourmet, the weekly De-vacuation Party is in full swing. Uptown residents sip Pinot Grigio and work through small plates of crabcakes and scallops beneath the cookware shop/café/culinary school’s vaulted ceiling. There is hilarity and graciousness. It is Saturday night in New Orleans.
But it is far from typical. In a city that dislikes things to change, everything has. The Savvy Gourmet’s chef, Corbin Evans, has landed here after shuttering his own place, Lulu’s in the Garden. (For one thing, he couldn’t find staff – staffing’s become everyone’s chronic problem.) The Savvy Gourmet itself was only two weeks old when the storm hit. This party, and the café part of its business altogether, are innovations designed to keep business afloat. The conversation around our table, where Savvy Gourmet partners Aaron Wolfson and Peter Menge, produce purveyor Jim Bremer, Emeril Lagasse Foundation Director Kristin Shannon, my friend Kristen Remeza, her husband Rimas and others have gathered, centers on the hurricane and its complicated aftermath, its effects on the culture and its food. Should there be a Mardi Gras? Which restaurants are re-opening? Which restaurants should re-open? Where was Emeril?