Restaurants Feed New Orleans' Recovery: 'I Knew I Had To Come Back' : The Salt After Hurricane Katrina wiped out the city 10 years ago, locals fought hard to preserve their deep-rooted cuisine. But devastation also brought opportunities for more experimental eateries to move in.

Restaurants Feed New Orleans' Recovery: 'I Knew I Had To Come Back'

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New Orleans is a city celebrated for its food. Think beignets, red beans and rice. But 10 years ago, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, food was hard to come by. Many markets and restaurants were either underwater or out of commission. Well, now, a decade on, there are hundreds more restaurants in New Orleans despite a smaller population, and menus have expanded. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports now on the role of food in the city's recovery.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Dooky Chase Restaurant is best known for its signature fried chicken. Baskets of the perfectly-seasoned bird are sizzling in the deep fryer during lunch hour. But the real magic happens early in the morning when Leah Chase, now 92, arrives to prepare the day's specials.

DOOKY CHASE: I'll make a little meatloaf. I made meatloaf today, smothered pork chops. I did oyster and artichoke soup.

ELLIOTT: Dooky Chase is a landmark in New Orleans' historically African-American Treme neighborhood. Sitting to give her legs a rest at a table in the bustling kitchen, Leah Chase says when her father-in-law Dooky and his wife Emily first opened the restaurant in 1941, it was groundbreaking.

CHASE: The so-called Creoles of color didn't have any place to go, but they knew my father-in-law and mother, so they would come here.

ELLIOTT: In the decades that followed, Dooky Chase became a fine-dining destination for civil rights leaders, musicians and, most recently, presidents. After Katrina, the storied restaurant was under drive 5 feet of floodwater. But Chase had no hesitation about rebuilding.

CHASE: I knew I had to come back. I knew I could come back. How, I didn't know.

ELLIOTT: Dooky Chase received an outpouring of financial support from around the country. The family moved into a FEMA trailer across the street and started over, reopening in two years.

CHASE: I was fortunate, really. So now what I try to do is do what I can to help get the rest of us up going, get the rest of of our city - you got to battle; you got to go all the way.

ELLIOTT: That resolve was inspirational, says food writer Lolis Eric Elie.

LOLIS ERIC ELIE: Each time a restaurant like Dooky Chase came back online, it reminded us that others among us were dedicated to the return of our city.

ELLIOTT: It took nearly eight years for another Treme landmark - the Circle Food Store - to reopen. It was the city's first African-American-owned grocery, dating to 1939. Elie says the return of such authentic neighborhood places is a comfort.

ELIE: The big fear was that New Orleans would come back as a caricature of itself or as a sort of Disneyfied version of itself.

ELLIOTT: That didn't happen in part due to the raw determination of locals to preserve what they had despite the chaos of the government response in the aftermath of the storm.

DONALD LINK: You know, I consider it a pretty defining moment. I'm sure a lot of people will say the same thing.

ELLIOTT: Chef Donald Link had the downtown restaurant Herbsaint and was about to open another - Cochon.

LINK: Here you are, you know, evacuated from your home and knowing that your home is destroyed and most of the city is gone. And if you listen to the media, the news, it'll be six to nine months before anybody can come home. And I'm like you can't say that. This is my city. This is my home. No one's going to tell me when I can come back or not.

ELLIOTT: Link says two weeks after Katrina, he and his father fashioned fake passes in order to get past the National Guard checkpoints that surrounded the city. Herbsaint was not flooded. He says he found the tables still set, but the food had spoiled.

LINK: A hundred degrees, no air conditioning, no electricity - it was rotten. It was bad, real bad.

ELLIOTT: He wore a gas mask to clean out the walk-in cooler and tried to reach staff spread around the country. In five weeks, Herbsaint was serving food again. Link says being able to eat from real China was like therapy for people who had lost everything.

LINK: Inside these walls, everything felt normal. You know, it was just kind of like those first restaurants that opened were, like, this beacon of hope that everything's going to be all right. It can be done.

ELLIOTT: Herbsaint remains a popular spot in the New Orleans business district.

LINK: Soup today is going to be lamb with collard greens and...

ELLIOTT: Link has since opened four more acclaimed restaurants, part of a food renaissance here that has spread to parts of the city that had languished even before the storm.

LINK: Because, you know, being honest, you know, before the hurricane, New Orleans felt really stagnant. And, you know, it's all the sayings like, you know, the Big Easy, the City that Care Forgot - kind of like, yeah, whatever's wrong, we'll just deal with it or ignore it. And this thing - this, like, busted that wide open.

ELLIOTT: On Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, named for a local civil rights leader, the city has targeted a once-blighted commercial corridor for redevelopment. Now, along with storefront churches, a fresh food market is preparing to open. There are new museums, art and cultural centers, nonprofit headquarters and restaurants.

ADOLFO GARCIA: How are you?

ELLIOTT: Chef Adolfo Garcia opened Primitivo earlier this year along with his partners Jared Ralls and Ron Copeland. Garcia had one restaurant before Katrina. Now he's involved in four.

GARCIA: You'll find a location that may not be what the posters consider the best location in New Orleans, but there's an opportunity. There's, you know, real estate that needs some work.

ELLIOTT: The property was in foreclosure. A redevelopment grant helped to renovate the corner building that had been a day care. Now rough-hewn walls and an open kitchen welcome diners to enjoy meals cooked over fire in Primitivo's open grill and brick and steel oven. Garcia says the post-Katrina rebuilding period has opened the door for more experimentation in what had been a mostly traditional restaurant scene.

GARCIA: It's given opportunity to other people. All the young guys, the next generation, they don't have to have a trout meuniere restaurant. They can do whatever they want. They can do Filipino food, Asian, Latin food. They can do whatever they want. There's all these opportunities out there.

ELLIOTT: Outside, food writer Lolis Eric Elie says seeing the new commerce on the Boulevard is encouraging, but...

ELIE: Unfortunately, I don't see people who have lived in this community over generations as being the customers for this kind of place.

ELLIOTT: That's been a recurring concern as New Orleans has come back. The city's population is up to about 80 percent of pre-Katrina levels, but it has about 30 percent fewer black residents than it did before.

ELIE: The battle of New Orleans now has been between the needs and demands of the new people moving in and the needs and demands of the people who have been here forever. And I don't think either one should outright win. But the bottom line is that the folks who've been here forever are the ones who built this city.

ELLIOTT: Questions of gentrification have swirled around another redevelopment project touted by the city - the historic St. Roch Market. The light-filled hall lined with food stalls opened earlier this year in the shell of an open-air market that dates to 1875. Retired policeman Ed Perkins is waiting at a counter for a spicy chicken sandwich, reminiscent of the po'boys once sold here. He's not troubled by the new look, he says, because the St. Roch had been abandoned for so long.

ED PERKINS: These were rough areas. You know, this was - most people drove through here 60 miles an hour with their windows rolled up, you know? But it's turned around.

ELLIOTT: Perkins says it's only fitting that food is part of the city's recovery.

PERKINS: New Orleans is food and music and hospitality. I love it. It's tradition. It's New Orleans.

ELLIOTT: This is the real New Orleans, he says. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

BLOCK: And we're marking the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina all this month.

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