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NEWSWEEK: Viva the New Big Easy

Three years ago, barely a month after Katrina destroyed his house and scattered his employees, chef Donald Link reopened Herbsaint with a menu of iceberg salads (the only lettuce available) and andouille-enhanced meat loaf, comfort food he hoped would appeal to the 10,000 or so shellshocked residents who'd returned, as well as to the contractors who'd all but taken over the town. John Besh opened Restaurant August a few days later serving dinner only, which left his days free to feed an enormous oilfield cleanup crew, a contract he'd secured in order to keep his business afloat—days before the storm, he'd closed on the building that housed his restaurant. "People like myself and Donald knew our only salvation was to be defined by our hustle," Besh says. They clocked 20-hour days, paid even their absentee workers in full and, as though ignited by adversity, created the most inspired menus of their careers. The first spring after the storm, Besh won the James Beard award for best chef in the Southeast, Link won the following year, and both have since bought or opened additional spots (La Provence and Luke for Besh; Cochon and the upcoming Butcher and Swine bar for Link).

While Besh and Link may be, justifiably, the most visible faces of the new New Orleans restaurant community, they are among a diverse group that now includes a Caribbean tapas bar, a Jewish deli (Stein's, whose motto is "Looking for a po' boy, go somewhere else") and a fine-cheese purveyor. "The restaurant scene today is much more vibrant," says Besh. "Even older places that had been resting on their laurels had to get reinvigorated." Two venerable institutions, Commander's Palace (which spawned the careers of Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse) and Gautreau's, both of which suffered heavy storm damage, indulged not just in long-overdue makeovers, but also infused their menus with new ideas.
Gutsy outsiders, lured to the city by the opportunity to contribute to its culinary renaissance, have added even more energy. Creole cooking, the nation's only indigenous cuisine, was born, after all, of a mix of cultures (African, French, Spanish and, later, Italian), and it requires new blood to keep it fresh. Tariq Hanna, who grew up in Nigeria and England, is now pastry chef and partner at Sucré, a sleek midcentury space with house-made chocolates, gelato and incredible macaroons. "We're here, all of us, to breathe new life into the culture," he says.
Hanna, who had a secure post in Detroit, cashed in his 401(k), tattooed a fleur-de-lis on his arm and "never looked back." Likewise, Richard and Danielle Sutton, proprietors of the St. James Cheese Co., took a gamble. "Nobody had ever opened a place devoted purely to cheese in the entire gulf region," Richard says, adding that New Orleans's traditional rich gumbos and sauces are not exactly conducive to a big cheese plate after dinner. But it turned out that the locals were "pretty adventurous."
Like the original contributions to Creole cuisine, some of the additions have happened more organically. Mexican workers, thankfully, flooded the city after the storm, and some of the food stands that opened across the city to feed them have morphed into full-fledged restaurants. At El Gato Negro, the margaritas have already acquired a Creole twist. In addition to limes, they are made with satsumas, loose-skinned, highly aromatic mandarin oranges that thrive in south Louisiana, and they are quite possibly the best margaritas I have ever had. After Gustav left most of the city without power earlier this month, the restaurant was back up and running within three days. Viva the new New Orleans.
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