How the South's Beloved Commander's Palace Is Feeding New Orleans' Frontline Heroes
Playing it coy has never been the institutional strong suit at Commander’s Palace. If the peacock blue-striped awnings didn’t loudly declare the fanfare woven into the New Orleans establishment’s DNA, the jazz band marching through the dining room on any given Saturday and Sunday just might. Since its doors opened in 1893, Commander’s Palace has been New Orleanians’ go-to for celebratory brunches and festive dinners. The novel coronavirus has now forced the beloved gathering place to temporarily close its doors, but co-proprietor Ti Adelaide Martin and her team have found other ways to keep the restaurant’s hospitable spirit alive.
In the weeks since they stopped service, Martin and her team have donated a thousand teddy bears to healthcare workers’ children and sold gift cards and established a relief fund to support Commander’s Palace employees who have been laid off.
“We’ve tried to do a lot, but heavy on our mind was that while we’re certainly being hit hard in our industry by this, the real heroes are in the hospital,” says Martin. When one of her managers discovered Devin De Wulf and the Krewe of Red Beans’ Feed the Front Line NOLA initiative, Martin immediately called De Wulf to offer support.
“He’s feeding people in the hospital; he’s buying meals from the restaurants that are still doing takeout to help them stay afloat; and he’s paying musicians to be delivery drivers to do it,” she says. “It’s exceptional.”
De Wulf and his team’s weeks-old nonprofit has created a win-win-win for the city, feeding healthcare workers at all 15 local hospitals with food purchased from area restaurants and delivered by out-of-work artists and musicians. Feeding New Orleans’ frontline is an enormous undertaking—and one that costs about $20,000 each day.
To help raise funds, the Commander’s Palace crew will be lending their own talents via virtual cooking and cocktail demos, in which they’ll ask viewers to consider a donation to Feed the Front Line NOLA. They’re also auctioning off an 8-person dinner party to be enjoyed post-pandemic, featuring five courses prepped by Chef Tory McPhail, wine pairings by Wine Guy Dan Davis, and service by Commander’s Palace waiters. The starting bid rings in at $15,000 with all profits going to Feed the Front Line NOLA.
“You might have heard of our term here, second line. It comes from jazz funerals… The band would be first in line, and everyone else fell second in line,” says Martin. “We’re falling second in line behind Devin and his team. Sometimes, it’s best to be first. Sometimes, it’s best to realize somebody is doing something so damn well and just support them. And that’s what we’re doing in every way we can think of.”
A New Orleans native, Martin is no stranger to hard knocks. And in some ways, her city’s battered past is a light at the end of the tunnel for the restaurateur and her team. “We’re probably a little better-situated emotionally, and in other ways, than most places,” says Martin. “I even think that’s true of when we come back. When you reopened a restaurant after Hurricane Katrina, it was very, very interesting things you had to do: Food was served on plastic; you had to boil all the water that you used. It was a strange, hard way to operate a restaurant, but a lot of New Orleans did it. But we also know that it didn’t last forever.”
That this is all temporary—that Commander’s Palace will one day open its doors again—is what’s driving the restaurant family. “We keep talking a lot with our team about how we can’t wait to get the band back together,” says Martin. “And we are gonna get the band back together, and we are gonna come back strong.”