Just two days after Hurricane Katrina barreled into New Orleans, chef John Besh, an ex- Marine who served in Kuwait and fought in Desert Storm, was already tapping his national network of military buddies to marshal resources — from propane tanks to red beans and rice — to feed workers, refugees and evacuees.
“Everything is under water. Everybody’s life is upside down. The world is coming to an end. The sky is falling. I mean, it was one of those chaotic situations you only see in combat, and here it is in my city,” Besh recalled in an interview at Restaurant August, his flagship restaurant and one of the first to reopen after the storm.
Katrina thrust Besh and other chefs into the role of first responders. Those who lived through the painful and frustrating aftermath say it is impossible to overestimate the importance the food and hospitality industry played in the earliest recovery efforts. Four years after the storm, an army of chefs, urban farmers and community activists continues to painstakingly rebuild the fisheries, farms and neighborhood food systems.
“I figured I might lose the restaurant, but God is calling me to help people in any way I can,” said Besh, a New Orleans native. “Not only did I feel that way ... other chefs and staff felt that way. That is the only reason we’re here today, thriving.”
Located in a historic, four-story French-Creole building at the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Gravier streets in the central business district, August features elegant yet innovative contemporary French cuisine based on locally grown ingredients.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Besh had earned a laundry list of prestigious culinary awards, from scoring a victory for andouille sausage in his match-up with Mario Batali on “Iron Chef America” to a coveted James Beard Award for best chef of the Southeast.
But Katrina gave a new focus to his culinary mission.
“I served red beans and rice to this cat, and he says, ‘This is nothing like my mama’s!’” Besh recalled. “I started thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ Even in this time of turmoil and strife, we share this common thread. All of us — white, black, rich, poor, red, yellow. And that common thread of food is nothing more than an expression of a culture that only exists here.”
Besh has rewarded employees who stood by him after the storm by helping them open and run their own restaurants, including Luke, a brasserie in the grand New Orleans tradition. He has pitched in to get other venerated culinary landmarks, such as Willie Mae’s Scotch House, up and running. He has joined forces with Vietnamese farmers with a guarantee he will buy whatever they grow. He has even been tapped by Louisiana’s lieutenant governor to prepare meals for the media.
Most recently, he hit the road to promote My New Orleans: The Cookbook, a lavish tome of 200 recipes, memoirs and photos published by Kansas City-based Andrews McMeel. One week after its release, the cookbook is already in its second printing.
“I had the desire to document and preserve some of the good stuff,” said Besh. “What we have is a national treasure. We have something really unique here: the only indigenous urban cuisine in the country. So I think the important thing for me to do is to make the argument that we all own this.”
Food justice for all
New Orleans has a reputation as a city that eats and entertains lavishly. But beyond the fringes of the French Quarter, 65,000 blighted, vacant and abandoned properties are scattered throughout the city.
Charley Richard (pronounced REEshard) figures the surge pushed seven feet of water into his mid-city neighborhood. Homeless, he wound up living and working with his wife in their RV for the next two years while renovating his quaint New Orleans shotgun double on South Cortez Street and the rental property next door.
Eventually, Richard, who works as a consultant for the sugar industry and publishes Louisiana Cookin’ and the Sugar Journal, also bought the two-story building adjacent to the rental property. Formerly a hangout for prostitutes and drug dealers, the building has been reborn as the Ruby Slipper, a neighborhood cafe serving Southern breakfast and lunch.
Across from the Ruby Slipper, a butterfly floated past brilliant purple hyacinth peas growing along the fence of Little Sparrow Farms, a lush, organic garden.
The street appears well on its way to recovery. Just don’t get Richard started on the ramshackle house with the “no trespassing” sign that stands between his house and Mandina’s, the century-old, family-owned, cotton-candy pink Creole restaurant on the corner that went through a nearly $2 million renovation.
“It’s an eyesore. We’ve offered to buy it, but they don’t want to sell,” Richard said, adding he had recently filed a complaint with the City Council.
Meanwhile, the abandoned properties — coupled with an enviable 12-month growing season — have nurtured one of the largest urban farming movements in the country.
Little Sparrow Farm is set on a 100-by-40-foot strip of land tended by Marilyn Yank, program director of New Orleans Food and Farm Network, known as NOFFN, and a neighborhood resident. Yank got permission to use the land from the owner, who lives in the house next door. With startup costs for the garden at $3,000, Yank grew about $9,000 worth of produce; she keeps some of the bounty for her own use and sells the rest from the garden every Sunday.
“There is a huge opportunity here,” said Daphne Derven, executive director of the network. “Huge not only to bring back urban farms that were here, but to transform some of these sites.”
Although NOFFN does not own any of the urban farms dotting the city, the nonprofit organization provides help with land-use negotiations, grower education and training for its volunteer corps.
Not far from Richard’s neighborhood is the Hollygrove Market, a bustling farm and store in the mostly black, working class neighborhood rapper Lil Wayne calls home. NOFFN has helped transform a plot of land that was a pile of rubble a year ago into urban gardens supplying 300 community-supported agriculture members who stop by to pick up their $25 box of produce each Saturday.
But Derven points out that many of its poorest residents still lack food security. In New Orleans East, for instance, there is only one supermarket to serve an estimated 65,000 residents.
“Many people are gardening to improve the food on their table or to reduce their food bill and/or to supply revenue to support themselves by raising food they can sell,” Derven said.
The Rev. Vien Nguyen of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church is tapping into the agricultural heritage of his community by partnering with chef Besh to work on the creation of the Viet Village Urban Farm, a project that combines a 28-acre, multiuse farm and market with a retirement center.
“We provide our own food,” said Nguyen, who received the 2008 Eileen Egan Peacemaker Award from Pax Christi USA for his dynamic work after the levee failures. “If something like Katrina should happen again, that’s what it’s about: self-sufficiency.”
Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.