A New Orleans Chef is Sharing What Living Through Katrina Taught Her About Community

And how it will help her better serve the service industry during the coronavirus outbreak.

Kristen Essig and Ana Castro
Photo: Kristen Essig

In New Orleans, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic triggered some familiar and not-so-welcome feelings. The Crescent City is currently under a stay at home mandate, as are most states now, and folks who went through the Katrina-related levee failures in 2005, are experiencing sense memories of walking largely deserted streets, and noting strings of handwritten “We’ll Be Back” signs along stretches of neighborhood commerce.

For a city that thrives on hospitality and openness, quarantine has a different feel than evacuation — with different implications at just about every turn.

New Orleans’ storied culinary traditions are built on a strong layer of neighborhood restaurants — from the humblest corner po’boy shop to landmark fine-dining establishments tucked down a residential side street. Local loyalties run deep, especially during times of large-scale crisis, when our walking-distance joints provide solace, sustenance, and as much sanity as we can expect from the Crescent City.

One of the “social distancing” measures instituted by Mayor Latoya Cantrell hit the city’s hospitality industry particularly hard — restricting restaurants and bars to a “pickup and delivery” model without mandating outright shutdown as the COVID situation unfolds. That restaurants are deemed “essential services” is a salve for the city, but forces those who run them to reconfigure just about every aspect of their businesses to have a remote shot at weathering the pandemic — the effects of Katrina, but writ much, much larger.

For chef Kristen Essig, today’s challenges are informed by lessons learned during the city’s last overwhelming trauma.

“During Katrina, everything went downhill so quickly,” she remembers. “We were evacuating to my family’s place in Tampa and got stuck on the Lake Pontchartrain bridge, feeling hopeless.”

The drive — nine hours on a normal day — took 36 hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic as the storm churned in the Gulf.

“Katrina had the immediate impact, it passed, and then we came back. I took months to build strength and rebound. But this is different. Its international. You can’t just go somewhere else.”

Essig runs two popular Uptown restaurants— the James Beard Award-nominated Coquette and newly-opened Thalia — with her partner, chef Michael Stolzfus. And during the past weeks, they’ve adapted both businesses to best serve hard-hit hospitality workers, beleaguered first responders, and the larger community in a time of slow-moving crisis.

As the first “stay at home” orders went active, the chefs closed both dining rooms, let the older Coquette operate on a pickup-only basis, while the smaller Thalia transformed into a community kitchen at a moment when the vast majority of New Orleans’ restaurant workers found themselves simultaneously out of work.

“There’s just so much out of our control, we want to focus on the people we… well, we used to employ.”

Working with a skeleton crew of cooks and managers, Essig and Thalia’s chef, Ana Castro, developed a program to provide a simple “family meal” (simple pre-shift staff ritual to sustain during a long night’s service) for the newly laid-off team and other restaurant workers facing the industry’s new reality.

“We started cooking for our team and expanded it for teams from our friends’ places, but we’re trying to help as many people as we can.”

Each afternoon, the team provides a daily simple meal for the restaurant community with a variety of new safety protocols that speak to our current moment. People make appointments by text, bring their own transport vessels, and use hand sanitizer before and after entering the pickup space. Only 5 people are allowed in the space at time, allowing for adequate physical distance and are reminded of standard food safety procedures. The restaurant keeps a log of who’s in the room for future reference.

“These are things that we have to start thinking about, and to be really smart and conscious about all these protocols as this develops.”

The program feeds from 25-60 people per day. The team is also working with a local social organization (The Krewe of Red Beans) to feed hospital workers and other “front line” medical workers confronting the virus’ effect head on.

It’s a new reality that’s changing with every passing news cycle and is putting the improvisational skills of the post-Katrina era to good use.

WATCH: NOLA Culinary School Is Hosting “Cooking in Quarantine” Lessons on Zoom

“For right now, we are approaching everything in 2 to 3-day bursts and trying to 'steer into the skid’ as much as we can,” Essig says. “We’re learning as much as we can, as fast as we can. And we’re trying to approach this with what we call ‘pragmatic optimism’ — working as hard as we can while being realistic every day.”

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