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New Orleans: Where local food matters

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Buying local is a popular trend that's grown across North America in recent years, but it has taken on special importance in the post-Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans.

 

Celebrity chef John Besh says the 2005 hurricane spurred an interest in locally sustainable food as a way to support the city's businesses and put New Orleans as a whole back on steady, financial footing.

 

I recently visited New Orleans to cover the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and discovered a city largely recovered, but still baring visible scars of the catastrophe. Tens of thousands of buildings remain abandoned. Like many other sectors, some restaurants that shuttered their doors after Katrina still have yet to open. Some never will.

 

But Besh, who found some measure of success in the post-Katrina years and has seen his restaurant empire double to four, says it took 3 1/2 years before he made a dime.

 

The 2006 winner of the James Beard award as the best chef in the Southeast and a finalist that same year in The Next Iron Chef, Besh has made an effort to make his efforts 60 per cent locally sustainable and urges other restaurants to follow suit.

 

If the millions of dollars spent on groceries by New Orleans eateries went to local rather than out-of-town businesses, Besh suggests the city might recover more quickly.

 

Though Besh is now successful, he says it was a struggle at the beginning. He had just bought out investors in his one location, Restaurant August, and feared the mounting bills following the storm.

 

An 'esprit du corps'

 

But the Louisiana chef decided to spread the wealth to his employees, or as he jokes, "dabble in socialism."

 

Many of his workers' homes were left in ruins so he turned a couple floors in one building into employee barracks.

 

"It created such an esprit du corps among our staff and that's what helped us," said Besh in an interview at a conference.

 

Restaurant August was one of the first to open its kitchen post-Katrina and Besh helped other restaurants get off the ground.

 

In the face of "seemingly insurmountable odds," a new culture of business emerged where people and restaurants worked together.

 

"It's never been a cushy place to live. We only live here because we love it," he acknowledges. "It's that passion to resurrect our city that pushes us. It's a story of survival."

 

And he predicts that in the future New Orleans will become better than ever and a model city. 

 

"I'm so damn proud of where we are now," he smiles.

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