NEW ORLEANS – Already, the chefs of New Orleans want to get back to their kitchens.
It could take months, though, to know the extent of the damage to what was one of the nation's most vibrant restaurant scenes. And years for the tourists who fed it to return to the home of gumbo (search). And jambalaya (search). And andouille sausage. Dirty rice and crawfish, po'boys (search) and oysters.
"In New Orleans, people live for food and it's going to be one of the first things as people come back," Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, said this week.
"You're going to see people cooking pots of etouffee out on the streets to feed their family and friends even before they have power in their homes," he said from temporary offices in Baton Rouge.
New Orleanians are serious foodies — 1 in 10 work in the industry — who are steeped in a culture of spicy, seafood-laden Cajun (search) and Creole (search) dishes that grew out of the region's ethnic hodge-podge of immigrants and slaves.
It's difficult to underestimate the influence New Orleans has had on the nation's palate. This is the city that made television chefs Emeril Lagasse (search) and Paul Prudhomme (search). This is where Tabasco rules.
The rise of New Orleans cuisine came at a time when Americans were insecure about American food, when classical French was the only real cooking, said Alex Brennan-Martin, whose family operates numerous restaurants in the region.
But this scruffy, robust, in-your-face fare — a little French, a little Spanish, Italian and Irish, a lot African and down-home Southern — changed how Americans thought about food.
"It wasn't trendy. It wasn't a fad. It was food that had been being cooked for hundreds and hundreds of years," said Brennan-Martin. "There was the realization that, 'Hey, we've got something here.'"
But with the city's nearly 3,500 restaurants shuttered or ruined by flooding, looting and fires, and its residents now scattered across the country, the survival of that culture is in question.
Restaurateurs such as Kenny LaCour, owner of Cuvee Restaurant just outside the French Quarter (search), say rebuilding and preserving that culture is a priority, like writing down a dying grandmother's recipes.
After seeing news footage of flames near Cuvee, LaCour feared the worst for his 5-year-old restaurant, which served contemporary Creole dishes such as Gulf fish with crawfish and baby lima beans, Serrano ham and a spicy saffron sauce.
LaCour got lucky. The flames didn't reach Cuvee, his building was mostly undamaged and his staff made it to safety. This should have been a month to celebrate; Bon Appetit magazine just named Cuvee one of the city's best restaurants.
"It was a great honor, unfortunately we don't have a city to be best of right now," said LaCour, who is certain his restaurant will reopen. Someday. He couldn't guess when.
It's such unknowns that haunt restaurateurs, said Brennan-Martin, whose family's restaurants — most damaged, all closed — include the hallmark Commander's Palace in the Garden District.
When can they go back? When can they reopen? With staff scattered, who will work there when they do? And perhaps the biggest question — without tourists and residents, who will be their customers?
"Business won't be bouncing back any time soon," he said from Houston, where the family had gathered at its Brennan's restaurant there. "We'll be open, but substantially slower and we won't be able to employ as many people."
The good news is that the city's historic, restaurant-rich French Quarter wasn't badly damaged. But it may not matter.
Richard Martin, managing editor of Nation's Restaurant News, said recovery may be extremely slow — regardless of how many restaurants were spared serious damage — because of the collapse of the city's overall infrastructure.
And that's more than power and clean water. It's also a matter of supplies, such as the local seafood featured so prominently on so many menus. Much of the fishing fleets and processors who provided it have been decimated.
And when the restaurants do return, expect fewer, perhaps limited to the French Quarter and Garden District (search).
There also will be staffing issues. Job offers from restaurants around the country have poured in for New Orleans' 56,000 displaced food workers. During the year or more it takes the city to right itself, many will accept them.
That's good now, but could be trouble later. Star chefs who take up kitchens elsewhere might be reluctant to return when the city is running again, said Tom Weatherly, spokesman for the Louisiana Restaurant Association.
Lagasse, a New Orleans institution whose culinary empire of television programs, cookbooks and kitchen gear took interest in the city's cuisine and kicked it up a notch, probably isn't going anywhere. But for the moment, his three restaurants and company headquarters in the city are closed indefinitely.
Some restaurateurs will leave. But food is the soul of this city and those who cook it — many of whom have been here for decades — say they and it will persevere.
This is not just any food. It is Cajun with its brash, full-bodied take on pork fat and crawfish. It is Creole with its okra and red beans, butter and cream. It is oysters Rockefeller. It is king cakes and beignets.
"That is the epitome of what we're talking about right now," said Melvin Rodrigue, general manager of Galatoire's, a century-old Bourbon Street restaurant known for Creole classics such as shrimp remoulade.
"Everybody who sits down to dinner right now is talking about what they're going to have at their next dinner," he said. "That's part of the fiber of who we are and we're going to bring that back into play."