Wayne Baquet stands in his restaurant, Li'l Dizzy’s. - photo by Kate Ellis
Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, Susan Spicer -- these are names of celebrity chefs the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau exalts to entice tourists back to the city. But long-time restaurant owner Wayne Baquet says his food - Creole soul food - has helped lure hundreds of New Orleans natives back home.
"The first thing they wanted to do after they saw their property and cried a little bit was come to Dizzy's and get some red beans and gumbo," he says.
Wayne Baquet moves around his restaurant, Li'l Dizzy's, with energy, purpose and a keen gaze. In conversation, he talks like a coach planning a scrimmage. Baquet has been in the restaurant business for nearly 40 years. Li'l Dizzy's, his twelfth restaurant, sits on a corner in the historically Creole neighborhood of Treme (pronounced trem-AY). The restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch. It mainly serves locals, including a good portion of the city's police and politicians.
A cook takes a brief pause in the kitchen at L’il Dizzy’s Café - photo by Kate Ellis
When hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast in August 2005, Baquet evacuated to Atlanta with 35 other family members. He lived with half of them in his daughter's house for two months. Baquet's job was to cook breakfast for the entire clan. It began to drive him nuts. "I couldn't find the things I wanted to cook with," he explains. "You couldn't find the kidney beans, red beans, you couldn't find pickled meat. We had to make our own hot sausage," he says. So Baquet beat a path home.
Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans restaurants. Li'l Dizzy's was no exception. It got flooded by the storm and looted twice. According to the Louisiana Restaurant Association, New Orleans had more than 2,100 restaurants before the 2005 storm. That included fast food joints. Two years later, roughly 1,400 have reopened. Not waiting for insurance payouts, Baquet spent his own money reopening the restaurant. It was one of the first places you could get a meal in the Treme after the flood waters receded.
In post-flood New Orleans, places like Li'l Dizzy's were a necessity. To many returning residents they were as important as electricity and sewer service. Practically speaking, many people did not have functioning kitchens. They needed a place to go eat. But restaurants also became informal recovery centers where neighbors could find each other. At Li'l Dizzy's, "It was like a family reunion everyday," Baquet says.
Baquet comes from a prominent Creole family with roots in the city he can date back to the early 1800s. Most black Creoles in New Orleans descended from free people of color. Some had purchased their freedom as slaves. Others were the children of white slave owners and black slave mistresses. Still others came by way of Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean after slave revolts in the early 19th century. Baquet says the food of the Creoles is a product of this complicated blend. "It's a mixture of French, Spanish, American Indian and African food," he says, "even some German and Italian."
In New Orleans, free people of color made up a proud, distinct society. They prospered in the Treme as business owners and fine craftsmen - including stone masons, brick layers, fine finish plasterers and wrought iron workers. They are the people that helped build some of the oldest, most architecturally distinct neighborhoods in New Orleans, including the French Quarter. And, of course, they helped create the city's unique cuisine.
At Li'l Dizzy's, the menu includes jambalaya, red beans and rice, homemade hot sausage, crawfish pies and Baquet's signature, Trout Baquet.
The lunch-time crowd at Li’l Dizzy’s Café - photo by Kate Ellis
"Trout Baquet is a dish we created about 30 years ago and we've made probably a million Trout Baquets over the years," Chef Baquet says. "We grill trout, we top it with lump white crab meat and a lemon butter sauce. It's a simple dish; it's excellent." Baquet pauses thoughtfully, then adds, "The mixture of crab meat on top of trout is just as good as it gets."
New Orleans food inspires big talk and, well, a lot of talk. Here's how food and wine writer Malcolm Hebert describes it: "Creoles and Cajuns not only want to know what you have eaten, but what are you planning to eat for the remainder of the day as well as for tomorrow? Then they will tell you what they have eaten, will eat today and what's on the menu for tomorrow."
To make New Orleans livable again, of course the roads, the levees, the sewers must be rebuilt. But so must the cultural institutions. These include important art centers and music halls, but also local joints where folks drink beer and eat Po' Boys. These are often the places that make people want to come back for good.
People returning to New Orleans yearn for the familiar. They want the sounds, smells and tastes they knew before their city flooded. Eating warm, sweet bread pudding at Li'l Dizzy's can make a person feel at home, even if the house is gone.
Meg Lousteau, a housing preservationist living in the Treme, tells the story of two friends who evacuated to a city in North Carolina. Before Katrina they lived near Lake Pontchartrain. Their house took 11 feet of water. Since the time they fled New Orleans, her friends struggled mightily over whether to return. Occasionally the couple would come back to New Orleans and look at houses, "but it freaked them out too much," Lousteau says. All her friends could think about was how much water had been in their house and how much they'd lost.
A few months later, Lousteau says, her friends thought again. Now they're buying a house. Lousteau recalled, "My friend said if she had to eat dinner at Applebee's one more time, she was going to lose her mind."
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