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.”