What's Cooking in New Orleans

Kim O'Donnel
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 14, 2007; 1:00 PM

washingtonpost.com food blogger Kim O'Donnel just returned from a week as a volunteer chef in New Orleans with CulinaryCorps. When she wasn't cooking, Kim filed daily dispatches, detailing her experiences there and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in her blog, A Mighty Appetite.

On Thursday, June 14, at 1 ET, Kim fields questions and comments on the state of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, 22 months after the storm.

Catch up on previous transcripts with the What's Cooking archive page.


Kim O'Donnel: Hey folks, I'm so thrilled that we could organize a special hour devoted to the state of New Orleans and the Gulf coast. As many of you already know, I've just returned from a week in the Crescent City working as a volunteer chef with CulinaryCorps and have been sharing my experiences in my blog, A Mighty Appetite. It was my first visit in several years to New Orleans and my first visit ever to Mississippi's Gulf Coast. There is much to be sad about yet there are many reasons for which to be hopeful. The people of this region are a determined, impassioned bunch, who are bit by bit, rebuilding their homes, their communities and their cities. I was in awe by the devastation and humbled by their tenacity and goodwill. A week does not an expert make me, but I'm happy to answer your questions on what's happening in this area, 22 months since "the storm," as it's referred to locally. If I can't answer your question, I'll try to point you to resources for further info. I've got wwoz.org streaming from my computer (a top-shelf community radio station in NOLA) and have whipped up a glass of Coolbrew, the amazing iced coffee extract only from New Orleans. Let's eat...


Dorchester, Mass.: Has Dookey Chase's restaurant returned? I am seriously missing gumbo up here in the north. What about the Scotch House?

Anything up and running in the Parish (St. Bernard Parish)?

Kim O'Donnel: Yes! Leah Chase, who's still cooking at the age of 84, has recently reopened her family institution, Dooky Chase; I was sad to miss meeting her on the first night of our trip, as my flight was delayed, but caught her doing a demo at the Creole Tomato Festival over the weekend. She's a special lady. And yes, Willie Mae's Scotch House is now open, thanks to the rebuilding efforts of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and she's back making fried chicken. I will put it out there to those in the know on what's happening in St. Bernard...


New Orleans, La.: Thank you for visiting! It's true that we do not want to be forgotten, but we also want the attention to be positive, and I believe your focus on culinary experiences that are still available is a step in the right direction.

How big of a role do you believe the unique culinary traditions of the city have played in the rebuilding efforts of New Orleans?

Kim O'Donnel: This is a great point worth making over and again, and a great question for further discussion. Earlier this morning, I was listening to wwoz.org, as I mentioned in my intro, and "What is New Orleans," the song by trumpet player Kermitt Ruffins came on. The first line goes like this: "New Orleans is...Red beans and rice on a Monday night." And for the first few minutes of the song, all the references are about food, what makes New Orleans the special place that it is. You know, when the levees break and the houses come tumbling down, people still have their recipes and their memories of dishes prepared by their grandma and aunties. I think food is the glue of New Orleans, and it extends to all levels of humanity -- serving a hot lunch in the Lower Ninth, going to a free crawfish boil at a local bar, eating Frank Brigtsen's grits and grillades.


Fairfax, Va.: Hi Kim --

I, too, made a recent trip to New Orleans and stayed at the Dauphine Orleans on Dauphine Street.

My question is did you happen to take in a meal at the Louisiana Bistro just down the street? I was very glad I did. The chef there offers a 'chef's creation' menu option where you can throw yourself at his mercy and go on a three, four or five course culinary adventure.

The meal we had was fantastic, and the delights ranged from a delicious southern fried steak (filet mignon as it turned out ...) to alligator-wrapped asparagus. The chef's specialty seemed to be delicious sweet and sour sauces in which both flavors simultaneously blended and stood out with equal boldness.

(Signed, not the chef or owner -- just a newly minted fan!)

Kim O'Donnel: Thanks for the tip. I didn't get there, no, which is why there's next time. I already have a list of places I want to experience for the next visit, which I am planning before the end of the year.


Alexandria, Va.: Patty and Paul Constatine had a restaurant in the Garden District, I believe on Maple St. It was Constatins's. Do you know if it is still there? Patty was the chef.

Kim O'Donnel: I just looked in the most recent edition of Zagat Survey's "Best of New Orleans" and didn't see Constantine's mentioned. A Google search got me zilch as well. Anyone know of the whereabouts of these chefs?


NOLA fan:: Hi Kim, loved your blog; I've been to NOLA about 45 times over the past 10 years. Pre-Katrina and post-Katrina pictures are so different. I have many friends who lived in Chalmette (just over the river) where some 30,000 people lived and the entire area was wiped out. They're starting to rebuild but it will take years. The Lower 9th Ward was definitely one of the hardest hit and still today looks the same as it did almost two years ago. I was just there in March and am surprised by the lack of improvement.

I could go on and on but I'll end with this, while at the Dauphine Hotel, did you hear about the ghosts that reside there? I will have to e-mail you separately about this, as I fully, FULLY experienced a (ghostly) visit when I last stayed there, it scared the heck out of me.

Thanks again for your thoughts on NOLA.

washingtonpost.com: A Mighty Appetite: New Orleans Archive

Kim O'Donnel: Hmm...intresting! I did NOT know about the ghosts at Dauphine, but darlin' I'm not surprised by anything in New Orleans. Please send me a note and enlighten me.

Re: your point about the devastation: It is astounding how much work there is to do. Just being in the Lower Ninth felt like the storm had just hit, I agree. One ray of hope for the Lower Ninth, though: Martin Luther King Jr High School has reopened, there was a big rededication on Sunday, and students will return later this summer. That's wonderful progress.


Volunteer / Visit?: Hi Kim, We're thinking about heading down to New Orleans in a few months to do some touristy things or some volunteer work or maybe both. Any suggestions for a week-long trip? We'd be willing to help out in any way really, and I like to cook (but am no professional). Thanks.

Kim O'Donnel: The New Orleans Craigslist has been listing volunteer opportunities since the storm. This is a great place to start sleuthing out organizations and getting ideas. Some places will take you for a day or two. One organization that may need some help this summer is Edible Schoolyard (esynola.org); the director there is Donna Caravato. Worth contacting her. I might also contact Greta Gladney at the Downtown Market Consortium; she's been instrumental in launching two farmer's markets in the Upper and Lower Ninth and has lots of programs that need a little extra assistance.


Fairfax, Va.: Did you get a chance to eat at either GW Fins or Zydeque? Tenney (the chef/owner of both) was a good friend of the family when I was young, and haven't heard much about how his places fared after Katrina.

Kim O'Donnel: Did not. Again, so many wonderful places, so little time. Thanks for giving them props. GW Fins is in this year's Zagat guide, by the way; Zydeque is not.


Lexington, Ky.: How much of New Orleans did you get to see? What would be your estimate about the percentage of the city that is still in ruins? It's sad to see a major American city still in this shape two years after the fact.

Kim O'Donnel: If you only went to the French Quarter, you'd never know that a storm came through. Seriously. I also went over to Algiers Point, across the river, and that was also unaffected. Garden District was left untouched. But Lakeview, man, what a scene. Block after block of homes still empty. The Lower Ninth,as I've mentioned, is mind-blowingly bad shape. By the way, did y'all know about Jonathan Demme's documentary on PBS recently? "Home Movies from the Lower Ninth Ward." I think it's being re-aired in July. The Holy Angels convent where we did a brunch fundraiser -- that day was the first day since before the storm that the cafeteria was being used. When a tragedy of these proportions takes place, though, it affects EVERYBODY even for those whose homes are still standing. I'd love it if locals could chime in.


New Orleans, La.: We're so glad that you and the Culinary Corps came to town! It is always a (positive) shot in the arm to have visitors, especially those who come ready to help. Are there more Culinary Corps trips planned and how can folks support their great efforts?

Kim O'Donnel: And I think I can speak on behalf of my CC colleagues that we were honored to work with y'all. Everyone was so moved by the experience. The next trip is scheduled for Sept. 14-21, then again in late November. Christine Carroll, genius behind this project, has organized online donations at firstgiving.org/culinarycorps


Washington, D.C.: What's the status of the local seafood? After Katrina and Rita many of the fish, oyster and shrimp populations were either too decimated or too contaminated for consumption.

Kim O'Donnel: Last Wednesday, June 6, was the first day of shrimping season in Mississippi, and there was much excitement. We went out on a conservation boat in Pass Christian, Miss., and got a first-hand look at the state of the oyster reefs, which were all but destroyed after the storm. They are rebounding, and Miss. oyster processors are chomping at the bit for perhaps the first somewhat normal oyster season this fall.


Fred: Hey, I live on the Gulf Coast but work in N.O. I was more than happy that the Camilla Grill reopened in April. For those of your that are tourist in this fine city, go to the Grill and enjoy real native N.O. food. Also go to Frankie and Johnnies off of Tchoupitoulas.

Kim O'Donnel: Thanks Fred. Always good to know what's open and whatcha like. Cheers.


Falls Church, Va.: Hi Kim --

I spent two weeks helping out with Habitat in St Bernard's Parish last year, and I'm saddened to hear that no much seems to have changed in the 14 months since I left.

Cooking is much more up my alley than construction was, and I'd love to go back and volunteer again -- do you know of volunteer opportunities in the kitchen that don't require being a skilled chef?

Kim O'Donnel: Great question. CulinaryCorps filled the gap of offering service opps for those with culinary skills, but there was one person on our team who hadn't gone to culinary school. I will say, though, she was thrown right into the fire, so to speak. It was grueling work. I'm headed to Southern Foodways gathering next week and I'll inquire. I also want to say that Crescent City farmer's market might take short-term volunteers, but I can't vouch for that.


Washington, D.C.: Kim -- kudos for your trip down and great coverage of your experiences. Besides making the effort to visit the city firsthand and support the extraordinary cuisine/culture, what suggestions would you give to others who want to supportive of N.O.'s progress? Are there organizations there that you perceive as doing good work and warranting financial support, for instance?

Kim O'Donnel: As Frank Brigtsen, chef/owner of Brigtsen's told us, "Come visit us, come meet us and listen to our stories." The director of the Crescent City farmer's market said that our visit was like a shot in the arm. People are geniunely thrilled that you cared enough to get on a plane, book a hotel, support the local economy and make them feel loved. I'm a little uncomfortable endorsing one nonprofit over another, honestly. To me, investing in youth is really key. They are the future of New Orleans and have been shortchanged through this mess.


Your contact info: is it: Kim.Odonnel@washpost.com?

Kim O'Donnel: actually it's:



New Orleans, La. : In terms of other volunteer opportunities:

Hands On Network has been doing incredible work mucking out houses, feeding volunteers, etc.

Hands On Network/

Emergency Communities needs volunteers of all kinds, with all kinds of skills.

The local Second Harvest food bank can always use volunteers to pack food bags, sort food, etc.

Kim O'Donnel: Thanks for adding onto this thread!


Washington, D.C.: Hi Kim! I am with Share Our Strength and just wanted to thank you for going down to NOLA as part of the Culinary Corps. As you probably know, Share Our Strength has had not only a financial presence in NOLA since Katrina but also a physical presence. It is so valuable having people like you go down there and then come home to spread the word that their is still a alot to be done to bring NOLA back. They not only need volunteers to help in the rebuilding process but also people to go down there as tourists to support the local economy by staying in their hotels, shopping in their stores and eating in their fabulous restaurants! Thanks so much!

Kim O'Donnel: And can one volunteer with Share Our Strength? That is something I never ascertained. Thanks for your note.


New Orleans, La.: Kim-

"What is New Orleans" is a perfect example of huge role that food plays in our city. I have had the opportunity to live in a number of cities across the U.S., each with their own culinary experiences. But no place I have ever been treats food the way New Orleans does. And I believe it really does have healing powers.

One of the first things I did when I returned to the city after the storm was run over and grab a catfish po-boy from Domilise's. Biting into the po-boy, I felt a sense of hope. If I could still go to Domilise's and grab a bite to eat, things can't be that bad!

Anyway, I want to thank you again for visiting our fine city and writing about your experiences.

Kim O'Donnel: Yes! Love your story. I'm getting goosebumps.


Arlington, Va.: My daughter was a team leader in Americorps N-CCC from August 2005 through July 2006, and she spent four months in St. Bernard Parish, working on the rebuilding. Americorps teams were on site in New Orleans before FEMA got there, from what we hear, and have been supporting rebuilding efforts continually since the hurricanes hit. I don't understand why the work of Americorps goes unreported, and this wonderful organization has to struggle each year for it's funding, which is about $50 or 60 million (isn't that about 6 hours worth of what is spent in Iraq?). Anyway, we visited there in June 2006, and drove all through St. Bernard Parish, which had 100% of its buildings destroyed. It was heartbreaking and humbling, but you saw the true spirit of America in the strength of the people who were there rebuilding, and I was awed by the work that a bunch of kids under age 25 were doing for their fellow Americans.

Kim O'Donnel: Thanks for your note, Arlington. I heard repeatedly how the volunteer community has been absolutely key to the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf coast.


Alive and well in NOLA: As we approach the two year anniversary of one of the costliest disasters to his the USA and in particular the gulf coast, I want to say thanks to any and everyone who has sent financial support, construction support, (Kim's) culinary support, and more. Many of us who were born and raised here knew that something this huge could come along and Hurricane Betsy did that during my youth; however, we were clearly not prepared for the devastation that Katrina would bring. Actually, the poorly constructed and supported LEVIES were/are the issue.

Thousands and thousands of us were left homeless, jobless, school-less and more. Our infrastructure was wiped out, no schools, no stores, no banks.

The Lower Ninth still looks much like it did the day after Katrina hit and the levies broke.

Documentaries on PBS and Discovery have bought light to this but we have a long way to go.

We, here in NOLA and the surrounding areas, are extremely pleased with the support we have received; however, it will be many years before we are back to "where we once were." In the meantime, don't forget about us down here ... come on down to the French Quarter and enjoy our great food, music and venues that will provide you a great vacation experience.

(I sound like a business owner but I'm not, just a local Nawlin!)

Kim O'Donnel: Thanks, darlin'. That is one of the big take-home themes for me: It's too soon, even though it seems like too long already, to forget. There is so much to do.


Washington, D.C.: Kim,

My fiance is from New Orleans and for our engagement party he has requested that I cook up enough gumbo to feed about 50 people. First, is there a recipe that you can point me to for this large a quantity? And second, does gumbo freeze well? I didn't want to spend the day of the party cooking. Thank you as always!

Kim O'Donnel: Hey there: Check out this wonderful Web site called Gumbo Pages, which is chockful of the weirdest and most wonderful tidbits about NOLA. Written by a native New Orleanian now in Los Angeles. Otherwise, get your hands on any cookbook by Leah Chase. I like the idea of freezing your stock in advance but I don't know if I'd freeze the whole kit and kaboodle. Thoughts anyone?


Boston, Mass.: Hello Kim!

I traveled to New Orleans when I was 19 with my mom in 2001. We had an amazing time, did all the tourist-y things (cemetery tour, plantation tour, swamp tour, the zoo, the aquarium). But I remember the food more than anything, we ate beignets at Cafe Du Monde, had dinner in the Court of Two Sisters and ate ice cream in Jackson Square. It was amazing. How did you find the area/food? Do my memories hold up?

Kim O'Donnel: Boston, the food is still amazing. Lowbrow, highbrow, creole, Cajun, seafood -- it's all the stuff of dreams. You won't be disappointed if you go back.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Kim. Can you taste New Orleans history in the food?

Kim O'Donnel: Absolutely. New Orleans is a melting pot in the truest sense -- representing French, Spanish, Afro-Caribbean and African culinary traditions. The "holy trinity" --onions, bell peppers and celery -- the foundation for soups and sauces in Creole cooking, is different from a classic French mirepoix, which includes carrots. And the reason for that is that NOLA is below sea level. Root vegetables don't thrive, so carrots got the boot. That is just a little entryway into why things are done the way they are. A sandwich as simple as a po'boy -- two pieces of bread with fried oysters or catfish, maybe braised roast beef -- tells the story, or so it goes, of streetcar drivers who went on strike and needed sustance. the sandwiches were named after them, 'the poor boys.' Calas, fried rice fritters, date to the late 19th century when African slave women would sell these treats in the streets. These are just a few examples.


New Orleans, La.: Interesting fact for ya, Kim:

There are more restaurants open in New Orleans now then were open Pre-K.

Kim O'Donnel: I heard that little tidbit while there. Most interesting.


Arlington, Va.: Kim,

I was actually visiting NO when Katrina hit and haven't been back since. I'm wondering if Pascal's Manale has re-opened. I loved to get a giant bowl of barbeque shrimp and french bread there ... and they had the best bread pudding. If they have re-opened, maybe its time to make a return visit.

Kim O'Donnel: Yes, Pascal's is open, according to Zagats. Come on, book that flight!


College Park, Md.: How correct to say that food defines N.O. to a great extent. On my first visit, the first day, my wife and I sat in Jackson Sq. on a bench next to one shared by three homeless men. We listened in awe for the longest time to their intensely heated discussion: "I will NOT go to Joey's -- they remove the heads from the shrimp"; "Betty's uses too much hot sauce!"; "No!, the heat is right, but the roux is wrong!" Etc., etc. until we got up. Similar debates invloving ingredients, techniques, recipes, restaurnats and so forth were heard throuhout our week there: in bars, clubs, parks and other public spaces throughout the city.

Kim O'Donnel: The only place I'd even consider comparing New Orleans to on this topic is Italy, where food also reigns supreme and is integral to everything people experience. It is like oxygen there.


Miami, Fla.: Hi Kim,

Did you get a chance to eat at Gallatois (sp?). My lord that's good eating!

Kim O'Donnel: Galatoire's is up and running, and no, that didn't make my list this time. As I said, that's why I'm going back.


Kim O'Donnel: Thank you so much for your interest, your comments, stories and questions. I hope I've shed a little bit of light on a part of our country that still needs our full attention. And if you've been down that way, share your stories; I'd love to hear about them in my blog space, A Mighty Appetite. Here's to the Gulf Coast, one crumb at at a time! All best.


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