Five years ago, on August 29, a powerful hurricane struck the Gulf Coast of the southern United States, killing more than 1,800 people and causing billions of dollars in damage to states along the coast. Much of the flooding and many of the deaths occurred in and around the city of New Orleans. And in an extra blow to the economy, the city's tourist attractions were especially hard-hit. But, if the New Orleans' restaurant scene is any indicator, New Orleans is definitely on the way back.
Tour guide Mary Lacoste, a former teacher, has been showing visitors around New Orleans for 15 years. Though five years have passed since Hurricane Katrina pounded the city, Mary says the damage it caused is still on people's minds. The question tourists most frequently ask is whether business is coming back to the French Quarter, the most famous and liveliest part of New Orleans.
"Not as fast as I would like," she said. "The [stores] in the flooded area were ruined for a while but the ones in the non-flooded area came back but there is no business. They are starting to pick up now I would say."
Mary has her first tour group of the week, and part of the tour takes the visitors inside what is perhaps the most famous restaurant in New Orleans: 170-year-old Antoine's. It has 15 beautiful and distinctively-decorated dining rooms. Countless famous people have dined here over the years, including popes, presidents, dukes and generals.
At Antoine's and many other restaurants in the French Quarter, visitors are most anxious to sample one of the delights New Orleans is famous for: Creole cooking.
"Creole cuisine is a cuisine based on many different cultures, but French and Spanish being the two predominant. New Orleans is considered the melting pot of ethnicity and cuisines," said Brian Landry, who is executive chef at another New Orleans landmark, Galatoire's. "It's not quite as old as Antoine's - it has only been around for 105 years - but its Creole gumbo is known far and wide. Its major ingredient is roux, a traditional French thickener."
"The thing with the roux is that it is just equal parts of fat and flour so you can make it with vegetable oil, you can make it with butter, you can make it with animal fat like duck fat; depends on what type of gumbo you are going to make," Landry continued.
The restaurants of New Orleans have passed down their traditional menus and cooking styles. Even though the chefs may change, the flavor of the food stays the same. But when a popular chef leaves one of these restaurants he or she becomes highly sought after - elsewhere in the United States and even in other countries. The city lost many chefs to kitchens farther afield after Hurricane Katrina.
Taste of New Orleans Returns
Chef Joseph Faroldi from K-Joe's Restaurant is working to entice many of those chefs back to the city. But he says it is hard work.
"Because of the economics prior to the storm and after the storm, so many people were displaced," he said. "When people around the world, around the country, realized that they [had] New Orleans chefs, New Orleans cooks, they did everything in their power to keep them."
The global financial crisis is forcing many people who do come to New Orleans to spend less. But there is one establishment that seems as busy as ever: the nearly 150-year-old Cafe Du Monde.
"The Cafe Du Monde is a traditional French coffee shop in New Orleans," said Burton Benrud, Jr., who is one of its managers. "Cafe Du Monde means the coffee of the world, coffee of the people. Here we serve cafe au lait and beignets."
Cafe au lait usually is made of coffee with hot milk, but here they add chicory to give it a distinctive flavor. A beignet is a kind of fried French-style doughnut.
Cafe Du Monde's famous cafe au lait and beignets
"It is the only food product we serve at Cafe du Monde. We roll our dough flat and cut the dough into squares and fry them in cottonseed oil. Then we cover them with powdered sugar. The beignets have their own unique flavor; it's hard to describe and extremely popular," Benrud said.
Judging from the long lines outside and the many people being served, Cafe Du Monde is one of those attractions visitors just can't bear to miss, just like the Creole cuisine and the jazz music. It's yet another sign that the city known as "The Big Easy" is on the way back.