NOLA Chef Sue Zemanick has seen the best and worst of times, but says dining in the South’s most hospitable city has never been better.
Sue Zemanick got out of New Orleans just in the nick of time. In the last weekend of August in 2005, the recently promoted executive chef of Gautreau’s had her head down preparing, ironically, for a busy weekend and a hurricane party (social events held during mild hurricanes in the South). No one, including Chef Zemanick, knew just how bad this one would be.
“People started calling the restaurant saying they weren’t coming in, and I looked at the [weather] radar and thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s headed straight for us,’” says Zemanick. “We iced down everything and closed up shop.”
In the hours before Katrina hit, Zemanick hadn’t planned to leave, with her second-floor apartment in the higher-ground Uptown neighborhood. But at the insistence of friends, she decided to caravan with a group out of the area and into Lafayette, Louisiana, about two hours away.
Meanwhile, back in NOLA, severe winds from the hurricane blew through the roof of the 30-year-old Gautreau’s in the Uptown neighborhood, exposing the dining room and all its elements to torrential rain. The severe damage tied up insurance money and forced owners Patrick and Rebecca Singley to close the restaurant for more than a year.
Chef Zemanick’s story is like that told by many other chefs working in the city 10 years ago when Category 3 Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, resulting in broken levees and catastrophic flooding. While the French Quarter primarily remained safe from the flood, many restaurants still closed down because it was unsafe for residents to return to the city.
Restaurateur and NOLA native Dickie Brennan came back to a partially flooded Bourbon House restaurant and coolers full of rotting meat. Leah Chase was forced to completely close the legendary Dooky Chase restaurant in the Ninth Ward, the hardest-hit area. At Gautreau’s, the doors were being blown off the coolers because of the gasses from rotting product.
Still, many chefs and restaurant operators returned and tried to feed the community. Some helped set up mobile kitchens to feed rescue workers, while others, like Brennan and John Besh who were able to open their restaurants more quickly, did the best they could with limited supplies and paper plates.
When she was finally able to return in October, Chef Zemanick strove to feed people as well, taking the restaurant on the road, in a manner of speaking. While Gautreau’s remained closed for renovations, she traveled to the homes of people who had frequented the restaurant to cook dinners and host chef-driven dinner parties meant to liven spirits.
That was New Orleans 10 years ago. Now, the NOLA story is quite different.
“I can’t believe how fast time has flown,” Zemanick says. “Now there are more than 400 restaurants and a lot of options to choose from.” In fact, many say New Orleans is even more vibrant, lively, and spirited than ever before, and the city now includes many mid-range restaurants like burger joints and pizza parlors.
In 2003, when Zemanick first came to NOLA from New York, she says, “It had a small-city feel. You couldn’t walk down the street without seeing someone you knew, and if they didn’t know you they would say hello and introduce themselves. Now, there are many new faces in the city.”
One thing hasn’t changed: The Big Easy still remains a city of consummate hospitality. “People are some of the most gracious and hospitable in the country, and they live life to the fullest,” Chef Zemanick says. “Gentlemen at the restaurant always stand up every time I come to the table—there’s nothing like that kind of Southern hospitality and chivalry.”
Gautreau’s fully embodies that spirit of Southern hospitality in a fine-dining, white tablecloth ambiance. Zemanick compares the intimate 65-seat restaurant to someone’s dining room, complete with antique mirrors, and a group of regulars who have been coming for decades. “It has that old New Orleans charm where everyone knows each other and you feel like you’re in a secret dining club,” she says.
Chef Zemanick was only three weeks into her new position as executive chef when Katrina hit. Before that she had served as the restaurant’s sous chef, and the year prior as a chef at the famed Commander’s Palace. When Gautreau’s reopened in February 2007, Zemanick was able to put her mark on the new restaurant and carve a place for the restaurant amid the growing competition.
A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America who has clocked time at numerous New York City restaurants, Zemanick relies on classic French cooking but brings a global flair to Gautreau’s. Having specialized in seafood at the CIA, she has worked to bring in a lot of different types of fish from around the country, not just from the Gulf. And while she focuses on local ingredients, sourcing seasonal produce from small farmers in the area, she also introduces more worldly ingredients. Think delicacies like pork short ribs cut from the belly and braised in a broth of cardamom, orange, and ginger, served alongside carrot cardamom purée, English peas, spring onions, and sautéed radish.
“I don’t really do what’s trending, necessarily,” Zemanick says, describing her cooking style. “I’m not a molecular gastronomy type of chef. I’m more a purist when it comes to working with ingredients.”
Once, she even tested out a vegetarian, wild mushroom pierogi—or Polish dumpling—that many of her Southern clientele had never before experienced. It was that dish that l anded her a huge honor in Food & Wine as one of the magazine’s 10 Best New Chefs in 2008. She later earned a spot among the finalists for the James Beard Rising Star Chef Award in 2009 through 2012, and just last year, she was awarded Best Chef: South from the James Beard Foundation.
“A lot of the national press we have gotten has helped bring in new customers,” Chef Zemanick says. “Before, only people ‘in the know’ came into the restaurant, but now we are very busy, which is great.”
While Zemanick introduces at least five or six new dishes and specials every couple of weeks to keep things interesting, she’s learned she cannot remove some of the signature Gautreau’s dishes—like the caramelized banana split, with banana bread, butterscotch, vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, and toasted walnuts.
“I was so sick of making that dish that I once took it off the menu, and customers told me they wouldn’t come back until I put it back on,” Zemanick says.
Another popular dish, the duck confit, also draws crowds, with its crackling skin and tender meat. And, many argue Gautreau’s has the best roast chicken in the city, served with “nothing more than salt, pepper, smashed potatoes, hericots verts, and crispy shitake mushrooms.”
Still, Zemanick gets excited about seasonal foods, from sourcing ramps and halibut in the spring season to tomatoes and all types of fruit in the late summer and autumn. More recently, she has started working with a small supplier out of Denver who swaps product like pork and other meat from farms in Colorado with New Orleans seafood like crawfish and other Gulf varieties.
These days, Chef Zemanick, 34, stays true to her roots, trying to remain as hands-on and consistent as possible, but admitting that many chefs her age might spend more time out of the kitchen at events or other business endeavors. She breathed a sigh of relief when the Gautreau’s owners decided to close their second restaurant after just a year.
“I’m still the first one here every morning and I stay until the last dish goes out,” Chef Zemanick notes. “I try to also maintain my own prepping and cooking and have a hand in everything that goes out. Consistency of the restaurant is the one thing that brings people back the most; I’m kind of OCD about it. I want the dish we served a week ago to taste exactly the same the next week.”