Until Hurricane Sandy slammed into New York and New Jersey in October, New Orleans was perhaps the biggest urban natural disaster story the country had ever seen. Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, the city has gotten back on its feet, regrouping after the storm of a lifetime.
Now, New Orleans isn’t just rebuilding what it was before. It’s beginning to move forward. Across, the city, new people, places and points of view are adding flavors to an already rich gumbo. People who weren’t in New Orleans before Katrina are helping to craft the city’s future. And places that have been derelict since the storm, and even before it, are coming back to life.
This New New Orleans has many of the elements of other successful cities. It’s attracting entrepreneurs, through the same kind of incubators you find in Silicon Valley. Young professionals, like the Emerging Philanthropists of New Orleans, a grassroots giving circle, are contributing money and time. Big name companies, like General Electric, are making investments and creating jobs.
But the most visible evidence of the New New Orleans is in the city’s food industry, which has doubled in size since before Katrina, and which has broken away from some of the traditions of the past. If New Orleans once rested on its food laurels, as critic Alan Richman proclaimed a year after the storm, it’s not doing so any longer.
“The best thing that happened with that experience, with Katrina, was that it forced people who were on their knees to come back and compete,” says restaurant owner and entrepreneur Joel Dondis (above).
“Whoever came back was going to get better. The beauty is what you see today.”
%Gallery-170745%Before Katrina, it might have been hard to conceive that New Orleans would have a new burger joint visited by star chefs in a neighborhood previously deemed unsafe. Or, in a city where supermarkets were the only place to buy meat, that MBAs from Tulane University would open a butcher shop.
No one could have imagine gumbo and music festivals and a concert series in a downtown park that nobody used. But all that’s happened in just the past weeks and months.
The New New Orleans is not without its obstacles. The French Quarter and much of the Central Business District are a construction zone, with the city scurrying to build a street car spur and make other improvements before the 2013 Super Bowl.
Crime remains high, and unwary tourists can get robbed at ATMs or rolled by unsavory characters late at night if they don’t have their wits about them (as can happen anywhere). Almost every neighborhood is still rebuilding in some fashion, and streets can be shut and rerouted on a daily basis with little explanation.
But the new New Orleaneans are pushing forward, anyway, and many of them are building on the city’s past as they create new opportunities.
Joel Dondis has been a part of the New Orleans culinary scene for a generation, but since the storm, he has pressed forward with new ventures in desserts, fine dining and casual meals.
One of his post-Katrina restaurants, Grand Isle, named for the island at Louisiana’s tip, sits squarely in a tourist zone, flanked by the convention center on one side, Harrah’s Casino on another, and faces a courtyard where visitors in name tags stroll in the noonday sun.
Inside, Grand Isle is the epitome of the expansive seafood restaurants you find on any shore, with tile floors, wood trim, big windows, and waiters bustling with platters of shellfish and pints of beer.
But Grand Isle didn’t exist before Katrina, Dondis explains, gesturing around the room. “This was a parking garage.” He built the place from scratch, drawing on the Gulf Coast tradition for ocean fishing and shellfish gathering, and it’s now part of a restaurant organization with five businesses and 400 employees.
The walls, made from cyprus wood, are decorated with stunning black and white photographs by legendary local artist Fonville Winans. Others show vintage scenes of VIPs at big game fishing clubs, beaming at their catches of giant ocean fish.
The New Orleans-dominated menu seems familiar, but the dishes have twists – the shrimp camanida po’boy has a citrus butter and Asian slaw, the blue crab claws are marinated instead of fried as they might be elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, and the gumbo has house-made andouille sausage. The chef, Mark Falgoust, also makes his own boudin, the meat and rice mixture served warm in Louisiana gas stations.
They’re making boudin, too, at Cleaver and Company, a just-opened butcher shop a few miles away in Uptown. It’s joining a growing trend across the country for high-end meat markets, supplied by local farmers, where cutting and curing takes place on the premises. All of Cleaver’s meat comes from within 200 miles of the tiny shop.
Cleaver, which opened at the end of October, had a line of customers waiting outside the door on its second Saturday in business. Simone Reggie, one of the Tulane-educated business partners, guided customers to three sheets of butcher paper taped to the wall that listed the cuts of beef and pork as well as the poultry available that day.
A delivery man brought boxes of ducks through the front door as a man at the counter gave specific instructions for how he wanted his ribs prepared: “I want a St. Louis cut, with the fly removed,” meaning the top flap of meat. Seth Hamstead, Reggie’s business partner, said he didn’t mind the instructions, because Cleaver can’t prosper without educated customers.
“People are making more of an effort to preserve the culture of New Orleans,” he said. Hampstead, who got his undergraduate degree at Tulane, worked in Chicago but chose to return to Tulane for his MBA. There, he met Reggie, who had worked for Chef John Besh as well as Cintas Corporation, and the pair concocted the idea for the butcher shop.
“You’ve had a change in the workforce. People aren’t staying in jobs 50 years any more,” Hamstead said. “They’re going off to do their own thing.”
Of course, New Orleanians love nothing more than a good party, and one sign of how far the city has come took place in November. Emeril Legasse, known as much for exclaiming “bam!” on his Food Network program as for his restaurant empire, held his second annual Boudin and Beer fundraiser on a temperate November Friday evening.
A year ago, the original Boudin and Beer attracted 1,500 people and 25 chefs from New Orleans and Mississippi, who prepared their version of boudin and served samples from individual booths. This year, the number of chefs swelled to 59, from all over the country, with beer and cocktails flowing and live music and dancing that went on into the night.
The varieties of boudin were as varied as the chefs, with grilled boudin, boudin kiev, seafood boudin, even nutria boudin prepared by New Orleans chef Susan Spicer. People crowded around Mario Batali as he cavorted with belly dancers, and laughed at the hot moves of the 610 Stompers, the area’s most popular men’s dance troupe.
The event was held in New Orleans’ warehouse district, not far from the convention center, which played such a tragic role in Katrina. But the area has rebounded to become a center for artists and museums, and restaurants like Cochon, the center of the universe for chefs who cure their own meats.
Many of those chefs ended up the next day on Freret Street, a seven-block district in the Uptown neighborhood that is filling up with bars and restaurants, creating a trendy new entertainment area miles from the Quarter, in both attitude and atmosphere. Others wound up nursing their hangovers at La Petite Grocery, another Dondis restaurant, and spooning up gelato at Sucre, his patisserie helmed by chef Tariq Hanna, which opened only months before Katrina.
After surviving four hurricanes – Ivan, Katrina, Gustav and most recently, Isaac – Dondis says he’s come up with a formula for how to get his places down to minimal loss. Sucre never lost power during Isaac, and became a kind of general store for New Orleanians, who came in as much to charge their phones and use wifi as they did for sundaes.
“Power and data connectivity,” Dondis says, have turned out to be the criteria for coming back from a storm. Throw in food, and they’re an analogy for the New New Orleans, too.
NEXT: A Stroll Down Freret Street
For more on the New New Orleans, click here.
[Photo credits: Micheline Maynard]