Finding a Niche for New Orleans Restaurant Workers

An effort is under way to find work for the many employees of New Orleans' famed restaurants. Debbie Elliott speaks with waiter Ross Gray, restaurant owner Alex Brennan Martin, and Nancy Gray of the Haraseeket Inn in Freeport, Maine.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

New Orleans is nearly as well known for its food as its jazz. There were, before Katrina hit, some 3,500 eating establishments in the city. The 60,000 people who worked in those places are now without jobs. One of them is Ross Gray(ph), a waiter now staying in Birmingham.

Hello, Mr. Gray.

Mr. ROSS GRAY (Former Waiter): Hello, Debbie. How are you?

ELLIOTT: I'm good. How are you doing?

Mr. GRAY: You know, considering, pretty well. Pretty well.

ELLIOTT: You waited until Tuesday to get out?

Mr. GRAY: Yeah. It was--I tried to get out Sunday, but that just wasn't possible. And even the day that we did get out, my neighbor and I, we had to move about two and a half tons of bricks that had fallen into the driveway in order to get the car--the one car that had the gas in it--to get that out.

ELLIOTT: So now you find yourself somewhere else, without work. You had been working as a waiter in the French Quarter?

Mr. GRAY: At one of New Orleans' oldest and most finest, at Arnaud's Remoulade. And with all of our meeting space and banquet space you could seat 1,300 people in there. And so, I'm going to say just from our place alone, there has to be 250 people out of work when you consider the front of the house, and the cooks and all the support staff, yeah.

ELLIOTT: So you're staying with friends now in the Birmingham area?

Mr. GRAY: Correct.

ELLIOTT: Can you tell me what you've been doing? Have you thought about what's next for you?

Mr. GRAY: The main thing I'm doing to make myself feel productive is applying for every kind of aid to which I might be eligible and also looking for work on the Internet that I've been able to look at by going two blocks away to a great little library here in Homewood, the Homewood Public Library. And a lot of leading restauranteurs and hoteliers created this site three days ago for displaced Louisiana hospitality workers, cirajobs.com. I've already gotten two pretty good firm offers: one in Florida and one in Chicago.

ELLIOTT: So I want to talk to you a little bit more about being a waiter in New Orleans, a place where the restaurant culture is just so prominent. That's what many people think about when they think about New Orleans. And waiters there kind of have a special place, don't they?

Mr. GRAY: We do. It's not like other places. It's a very respected art form, and most experienced waiters, like myself, really respect the multicultural traditions of what went into making New Orleans cuisine that they'll taste today; the Native American influence with corn. The contribution of the slave population, African-Americans, has been irreplaceable. The word, `gumbo,' comes from a West African term, king gumbo, and that literally means okra. But they just truncated it to be gumbo. Jambalaya, which most people have heard of, that is shu--the French word for ham, jambon, and then, a la yaya. And yaya is the West African word for rice; ham with rice.

ELLIOTT: So I'm curious. Where do you think all of this knowledge that you have is going to work at, say, a resort in Sarasota or at a restaurant in Chicago?

Mr. GRAY: What I can tell you is that most people don't know much about New Orleans cuisine. But I love it and I've studied it and, if you can master that and some of the terms, then working at a steakhouse in Chicago or Sarasota or Miami or wherever is probably not going to be that hard for you.

ELLIOTT: Well, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. GRAY: Hey, Debbie, I--you know, I'm hoping that anybody that can hear what I said will take a life's lesson and say learn your business, know the resources and find out how to get help when you need it. And when the government things have let us down, private resources and private companies are pitching in, and that's a very good story.

ELLIOTT: Ross Gray, formerly a waiter in New Orleans, now living with friends in the Birmingham area. Thanks, Ross, and...

Mr. GRAY: Thank you, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: ...good luck to you.

Mr. GRAY: Take care.

ELLIOTT: The Web site Ross Gray mentioned is cirajobs.com, C-I-R-A, as in the Council of Independent Restaurants of America. They've created the site with the help of the James Beard Foundation and other food groups, and they've set up the New Orleans Hospitality Relief Fund. One of the CIRA members behind these efforts is Alex Brennan-Martin. He owns the restaurant, Brennan's Houston and he comes from a pre-eminent New Orleans' restaurant family, think Commander's Palace. After the hurricane hit, Brennan-Martin knew people would need cash, but also jobs, and the Internet job bank was born.

Mr. ALEX BRENNAN-MARTIN (cirajobs.com): We have about--someone told me just a little while ago--over 800 jobs already posted around the country. So we're going to take the funds from the--that are going into the displaced workers fund, and we're sitting down with people that have been displaced in the shelters and folks that just come directly to us and say, `OK, we have jobs. Where would you like to go?' `Well, I have a brother in Chicago,' say. `Well, OK, great.' We'd pull up the jobs from Chicago, he fills out a form online. Those two make the transaction and then we'll put money in his hands to get him to Chicago and to start his new life.

ELLIOTT: Have you there, at Brennan's Restaurant in Houston--have you hired anyone?

Mr. BRENNAN-MARTIN: Absolutely. I mean, the first people they found us were people that already worked, you know, for our family. And we have, but, you know, there's only so many jobs we can fill. But, you know, we've been continuing to make payroll from Commander's and, you know, the other family restaurants. And we hope to be able to do that for quite some time. But that really depends on how we work things out with insurance.

We have good business interruption insurance, but there's really a unique problem. Business interruption insurance is part of your property coverage, and no one really ever envisioned a situation where you would not have significant property damage, yet be closed for an extended period of time. So this is sort of, you know, uncharted territory.

ELLIOTT: Are you asking the restaurants that take these workers to also ante up a little more as far as helping them find housing and transportation and all that?

Mr. BRENNAN-MARTIN: Each of the people that I spoke to on the telephone or via e-mail when some of the initial offers--before we had the job Web site put together--every one of them said `And not only will we give them a job, but we'll find them a place to live and we'll help them get settled.' I--you know, restaurant people are just a different breed. I've grown up in this business, and I call us a loveable band of misfits. I mean, we have as many PhDs as we do people that never graduated high school. But we're all in this together for the same thing. We love that instant gratification that you get when you know you've pleased someone when you've served them well, you--when you've made a memory.

ELLIOTT: Alex Brennan-Martin runs Brennan's of Houston. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. BRENNAN-MARTIN: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.

ELLIOTT: The Harraseeket Inn is one of the restaurants that has responded to the call. They posted an ad looking for line cooks, servers and a chef de cuisine. Nancy Gray is the owner of the Harraseeket. It's a picturesque New England property with two restaurants in Freeport, Maine, far from the Crescent City.

Ms. NANCY GREY (Owner, Harraseeket Inn): Hi, there.

ELLIOTT: Hello, Ms. Gray. What's your inn like?

Ms. GRAY: It's a country inn. It's two blocks north of LL Bean, the original store, in Freeport, which makes it a very popular spot. We have two restaurants. We have 6,000 feet of meeting space. We do a lot of weddings. We have 84 rooms and nine town houses. There's a lot going on around here. It's about 18 miles from Portland, so it's on your way to everywhere in Maine.

ELLIOTT: Right. So do you think a New Orleans' chef will be able to find his or her way around your kitchen?

Ms. GRAY: Oh, sure. Yeah. They're artists. They're all artists and they're trained a certain way, and food is food. We may have some, you know, different ways of doing things and different recipes and stuff like that, but I don't have any problem with that at all. I know people who've gone down to New Orleans to train when they were crazy about food, and then come back here and gone to work and it didn't hurt them at all.

ELLIOTT: So maybe instead of boiling crabs, they'll be boiling lobsters?

Ms. GRAY: Sure. They're bigger. It's easier.

ELLIOTT: Now you're committed to really helping these people. Normally, I would think you would just hire someone and get them on the payroll and they would have a job. But it sounds like you've committed to actually helping people settle and find a way there and find a place to live there?

Ms. GRAY: That's--I don't know anybody that I know personally that doesn't feel that way. Everybody wants to lend a hand in any way that they can, and--because they're all going to need a job somewhere. And we felt like, `Gee, what would you do if you lost your job and your whole damn building at the same time?' You need help from somewhere. My theory is they'd do it for me. I'd like to think that's true.

ELLIOTT: I understand the community there in Freeport has already adopted a family that evacuated from the storm?

Ms. GRAY: Yes, they have. They--I went down to the drugstore today and I heard all about it. And not only that, they're getting ready to do more. And this little drugstore, which is a Brooks Drugstore--it's part of a chain. But they've already raised $27,000 and they've got one family here. What we're doing is we're passing them around from place to place. They're at the Hampton Inn right now. And we have town houses which are a little bit bigger and will take a family easily and they can cook in it, so we're going to take them. We'll be the next one in line and we'll take them for a while. I don't know how long, probably a month or so.

ELLIOTT: Well, Nancy Gray, owner of the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, Maine, thanks so much for talking with us.

Ms. GRAY: Thanks. I enjoyed talking to you. Thank you so much.

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