NEW ORLEANS – On Sunday morning, another slice of life is scheduled to slide back into place as New Orleans slowly regains its cultural balance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Commander's Palace, a mainstay of haute Creole cuisine and elegant dining, has been closed since Katrina's wind and rain tore off sections of its roof and swamped its interior. The award-winning restaurant plans to reopen after 13 months and a $6 million renovation for a jazz brunch.
"It has been an amazing process," said Ti Martin who, with cousin Lally Brennan, manages the Garden District restaurant known as the training ground for chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse.
Commander's reputation — it has won three James Beard awards, the equivalent of the Oscar for restaurants — remains strong. It has consistently been rated the city's most popular restaurant by the Zagat guide. This fall, Commander's will be listed in the Zagat survey, but will not be rated.
"We couldn't rate them, they weren't open," said Sharon Litwin, editor of Zagat's southern survey. "But they're not alone. There are several restaurants that we could only list because they're still closed from the hurricane. We've never had anything like this."
Commander's is the last of the city's old-line restaurants to return. The group, known for stately service and Creole cuisine for decades, includes Arnaud's, Antoine's, Broussard's, and Brennan's.
Just days before the scheduled reopening the restaurant was in creative chaos. Chairs were stacked atop each other, plastic covered the carpets, workers were painting, sawing and hammering, while in the kitchen, cooks were chopping, stirring and seasoning.
But everyone was confident that by Sunday, Commander's would again be pouring milk punch and dishing up eggs Creole, bread pudding souffle and turtle soup.
"We passed the health department inspection and the next day, for the first time in 13 months, food started coming into this building," chef Tory McPhail said. "I can't tell you how happy I am to be back here cooking again."
The building's famous turquoise, turreted exterior looks much the same as it has since 1880; the interior has been changed extensively.
Most of the building had to be gutted to the studs because of water damage and mold. Among the things lost were hand-painted murals.
In the kitchen, giant coolers had to be torn out once the rotted food was removed. More than 80 percent of the kitchen equipment had to be replaced.
"Who knew that steak would turn to liquid and seep through the floors and walls?" Martin said.
Also blown away by the storm were many of the restaurant employees, and replacing them is more complicated than putting out a help wanted sign.
Waiters work their way up, beginning as runners — people who bring the food to the dining room but are not allowed near the tables — before progressing to back waiters, front waiters and finally captains. On the way they train constantly.
"We want our waiters to have superb skills, warm personalities, a strong sense of hospitality, and a thorough knowledge of food and liquor," general manager Don Strunk said.
Waiters this week finished the last of the two-week classes that start them on the way. Instruction included the proper way to unfurl napkins and place them in laps to the arrangement of dishes on the table.
Before Katrina, Commander's had about 200 waiters. The restaurant will reopen with approximately 100, about 40 of them returning workers.
Another big turnover occurred in the kitchen. Thirty-five members of the culinary staff are gone since the storm, and only four of the longtime cooks have returned.
"They are all working at the better restaurants around the country," McPhail said.
To replace them, McPhail has hired top graduates from culinary schools in New Orleans and around the nation. The new kitchen crew has spent the last week in what McPhail calls "Creole University."
"We spend a lot of time talking about New Orleans food, they taste dishes so they can understand what we want," McPhail said.
According to the Louisiana Restaurant Association, 1,562 of the metro area's 3,414 pre-Katrina restaurants are still closed. Among those still dark are Mr. B's — another restaurant owned by the Brennan family — Bella Luna in the French Quarter, and neighborhood favorites such as Mandina's, Gabrielle, and Gautreau's.
"This restaurant is going to go the way of the city," Martin said. "If the city does well, we'll do well. It's as simple as that."