New Orleans’ Chefs Prove Hurricane Katrina was No Match for the City’s Enduring Spirit

New Orleans’ Chefs Prove Hurricane Katrina was No Match for the City’s Enduring Spirit

Ralph Brennan

The makeshift sign for Red Fish Grill just after the Brennan family reopened the restaurant.

New Orleans is sassy, colorful, musical place where no one is ever a stranger. The people of Nawlins always offer a warm welcome and something delicious to eat, no matter how desperate a host’s circumstances. Gracious hospitality is almost a religion in the Crescent City, and natives love any excuse to throw a party. They are consummate hosts with a the-more-the-merrier attitude to entertaining and it’s easy to understand why New Orleans is justifiably proud of its food culture.

Cajun and Creole cuisine and cooking traditions go back centuries and are part of the city and its people’s identity. New Orleans residents were devoted food-lovers and an appreciation for good food is engrained in them from birth. Ask anyone to share a fond memory and they will invariably tell you about food: a mouthwatering crawfish étouffée their favorite aunt used to cook, King Cake at Christmas, or birthday celebrations at Brennan’s and Banana’s Foster for dessert.

In NOLA, the most important people — the ones revered and respected in the community — are not politicians. They’re the loyal restaurant and shop owners that have buoyed people’s spirits and kept them well fed and employed during civil war, economic depression, and natural disasters. The joy of serving and eating good food binds people together like a deeply flavored Cajun roux, and old family dining institutions are the lifeblood of the food culture and the local economy.

When Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29, 2005, destructive flooding caused the city to lose electricity, sanitation services, and access to fresh food and water. Entire neighborhoods were under water and thousands of people became were forced from their homes and became internal refugees. Surrounded by fetid, poisoned water infested with vermin, snakes, alligators, and dangerous debris, those who couldn’t escape did what they could to survive. Without any help from the outside, local restaurant and shop owners rallied to feed people and offer sanctuary.

One of the vanguards was Ralph Brennan, patriarch of the Brennan family, one of New Orleans’ oldest and most beloved restaurant families, along with other local food people like Emeril Lagasse, John Besh, chefs from other cities, and expat native sons like D.C. area chef/owner David Guas of Bayou Bakery.

In 2005, the Brennan family employed 300 people in their restaurants, and Ralph Brennan didn’t waste any time charging into the breach. He harnessed his considerable resources and made keeping his employees, their families, and other residents, housed, fed, and employed. For Mr. Brennan,

“The disaster of Katrina put New Orleans to the test, and it's forced us to be stronger and smarter. As a restaurateur, my most significant concern in the immediate aftermath of storm was getting in touch with our 300 employees to make sure they received the paychecks that were crucially needed to get by after the disaster. It was especially hard reaching those stranded in the Houston Astrodome. The experience prompted a complete change in our company policy — each of our restaurants now has its own 68-page highly detailed hurricane plan, with a detailed outline for pre-storm preparations, a communications plan, a technology plan, a loss of essential services plan, a return to work plan, and up-to-the-minute personnel, supplier, and emergency contact information with over 800 numbers.”

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