NEW ORLEANS — It was less than a week since the Mosquito Supper Club had lost power because of Hurricane Zeta, and rain was in the forecast. Chef Melissa M. Martin and her staff were working quickly to rearrange seating yet again. Tables were moved under awnings, staff huddled around the reservations list, and Martin jumped behind the bar to dry glassware.

On this late October evening, early dinner service was in full swing, and laughter erupted from the main dining room, home to one of two grand communal tables. Socially distanced parties occupied every corner of the Uptown cottage, their faces aglow by candlelight. But for Martin, the scene was still a ghost of its former self.

“I feel like I’m mourning the death of my restaurant,” she said from behind her mask, wiping each wine glass and holding it up to the light before moving onto the next one.

In August 2016, Martin moved the restaurant to its present location, a house nestled into a residential neighborhood two blocks from St. Charles Avenue. Strangers sat shoulder to shoulder, passing around cauldrons of gumbo and plates of jambalaya. Martin would emerge from the kitchen to regale her audience with tales of a Cajun upbringing, detailing the history of the very dishes they ate.

But of course, the coronavirus pandemic changed everything. And Martin’s sentiments reflect those felt by chefs and restaurants across the country who have been confronted by the same crossroad: evolve or die.

“Each step of evolving the restaurant, it’s happened with intention. It’s happened organically,” says Martin, 40. “But every time it’s evolved it’s been hard. Every step of change has been difficult.”

The crisis has been uniquely challenging for Martin, whose communal supper club was created for the sole purpose of bringing people together over Cajun cuisine and encouraging conversations and revelations that might not happen otherwise. And along with the pandemic, the climate crisis has ravaged the land she was raised on, threatening Louisiana’s coastline and the history, culture and recipes that come with it.

“It’s all been swallowed up,” Martin says. “Everything gets commodified, and then you lose it. You lose industries, then you lose traditions and you lose cultures.”

On March 16, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards closed restaurants indefinitely. By March 23, the city was considered an early U.S. hot spot, with Orleans Parish reporting the sixth-highest rate of known cases of any county in the nation, according to an analysis by the Times-Picayune and the Advocate. Mosquito Supper Club first cooked behind closed doors for Feed the Frontline, then for takeout-only. Finally on May 16, the city allowed 25 percent occupancy.

By then, Martin’s team was down to two longtime line cooks. The pandemic had forced her to let go of staff members, while some — such as her sous chef and front-of-house manager — moved on themselves. But in June, she reopened the restaurant’s doors with a new model and eight new hires. Noah Pais Bonaparte joined the staff as general manager and sommelier, and Rick Powanda came on board to run the newly built bar program. There are now only two seatings — 5:30 and 8 p.m. — with parties distanced throughout the cottage and its outdoor space.

In the courtyard, Martin debuted a new a la carte menu, shucking fresh oysters and stacking towers of seafood while her brother plays live music from the patio. The supper club, meanwhile, has evolved into a more classic restaurant setup, featuring a tasting menu that places Martin’s traditional Cajun dishes side by side with new offerings.

“We’ve evolved our cuisine a little bit because that’s important to me, to keep evolving,” she says. “I think change is vital. … I think it’s nice to have a little tradition, like my grandma’s oyster soup, and put that next to the crudo and say they both stand up next to each other.”

Metamorphosis is something Martin has embraced consistently, pandemic or not. In 2014, two years before the restaurant and its tables moved into their current location, the supper club began in the truest sense of the term — as a pop-up meal with a flat entrance fee.

Brett Anderson, a contributing food writer at the New York Times who was a food critic at the Times-Picayune for nearly 20 years, found himself at one of the earliest iterations when he moved back to the city after a year away in Boston.

“My first experience was when she was throwing these parties in a house down in the Marigny. There was Cajun music, and she served gumbo, and it was an amazing scene. I was so energized by this feeling of her having landed on something new under the sun,” Anderson says.

“Harnessing this Cajun spirit through music and food, and transposing it into this neighborhood party in New Orleans, it all just felt very novel. … It’s a very lasting memory I have,” he recalls. “Part of it was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m home.’”

When Martin set out to compose Mosquito Supper Club, the cookbook, she had to relinquish control. For the first time in the restaurant’s history she brought on a sous-chef, and after showing her how to run the kitchen, Martin stepped away completely to spend time writing. “It was a really huge deal for me,” she says.

“Mosquito Supper Club: Cajun Recipes From a Disappearing Bayou” published in April. In its pages Martin details the recipes she learned from the Cajun women in her family, from brothy chicken gumbo to lump crab cakes held together with shrimp binder. She tells stories normally reserved for the tables of the supper club, and most importantly, she documents a true Cajun experience.

“Why is gumbo synonymous with Cajun food and maybe not so much Creole food? Why is spicy synonymous with Cajun food? Why do people think that blackened redfish is Cajun food?” challenges Martin. “Because someone came to New Orleans and cooked it at Commander's Palace and labeled it Cajun?”

Anderson echoes the sentiment and adds that Cajun food, despite its popularity, remains misunderstood to some degree in American cuisine.

“I think Cajun food really hasn’t been mined all that deeply, when you consider how inescapable the term is,” Anderson says. “There’s restaurants all over the place, but they have very little to do with the kind of food you have in Cajun country. There is this opportunity for exploration and preservation that I think [Martin] is seizing.”

Ultimately, the cookbook is as much about food as it is a history lesson and a grave call to action. Every several recipes, Martin breaks to detail life on the water — and highlight the peril Louisiana’s coastline faces.

The state has lost nearly 2,000 square miles of land in the past century, according to Kimberly Davis Reyher, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. Recent catastrophes, such as active hurricane seasons and the infiltration of the oil industry, have only exacerbated the crisis. The coalition has started a number of restoration initiatives, including partnering with local restaurants to recycle oyster shells into shoreline reefs.

Chefs such as Martin can help spread the word, Reyher says. “She’s reaching people that might not otherwise think about wetlands and wildlife habitat,” Reyher says. “We can’t save it all, but we can hold onto a great deal. We can hold onto our tradition of seafood. But we need more people to understand and support the work.”

Communities on the coastline have lived off the land, capitalizing on the gulf’s riches to feed both their own families and supply the Louisiana seafood industry, since the 1700s, as Martin details in her book. And now those riches are at risk, says Zella Palmer, a local food historian and chair of the Dillard University Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture.

“Mosquito Supper Club, I really applaud what they’re doing,” Palmer says. “Because it is about our coastlines, and how much we’re losing. It’s heartbreaking.”

The deterioration of the coastline forces locals to live in a state of evolution, not unlike the restaurant itself. While resources are still available in the coast, Reyher says that where fish, shrimp, oysters and crawfish live and how they’re caught continues to change, placing a burden on those whose livelihood is staked on the setups they already have. 2020 has only worsened these circumstances.

“There is a paradigm shift happening during this pandemic,” Palmer says. “And I’m hoping that after this is over, people will return to the land and return to the water and take care of Mother Earth. This is a wake-up call. The earth, God, whoever you believe in, is telling you: Listen. Return to the land. Grow more food. Share food. Become a community.”

On a Sunday evening in November, Martin is seated at a two-top on the restaurant’s front porch. It’s not long until the early service, but suddenly, the normally soft white string lights adorning the cottage begin flashing multiple, vivid colors. “Oh no, it’s happening. It’s happening again,” Martin says, spinning around to gaze at the luminescence. “But at least it’s like, fun, you know? It just says that we’re LGBTQ friendly.”

By now Ricky is on the porch as well, and they confer on what to do. “It does this every once in a while. It’s like my worst nightmare — because obviously, I’m a minimalist,” she says, gesturing toward the restaurant’s natural palette. “Then this happens and I’m just like, ‘Oh. This is life.’”

The evening’s tasting menu features sweet potato biscuits with cane butter; a grande bature oyster with bowfin caviar, shrimp boulettes and pickled banana peppers; delicate crudo with heirloom tomatoes; oyster soup; a crab cake with pickled beets; and satsuma sorbet with a fluffy cookie in the shape of an alligator.

The oyster soup is from Velma Marie, Martin’s grandmother, and she says it’s the “most important recipe in the book.” At one time passed around in a cauldron between strangers during the supper club, tonight it will be served individually, oysters and pasta shells dancing against each other in isolated bowls.

Guests begin to approach the cottage for their reservation time, and Martin instructs groups to send one representative inside. She pauses to say hello to a fellow chef on his night off, then turns back around.

“It’s sad not to see strangers sit together,” she says. “That was part of the beauty of it; it gave it a different feeling. It was kind of fun to see people come in and get scared because they were going to have to sit next to a stranger. But it is where we are right now. And we’re trying to adjust every single day to a new reality.”

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