When I started covering the restaurant industry nearly 20 years ago, one of my first business trips was to New Orleans to write about a recently formed group devoted to independent restaurants. The group was not based in New Orleans, but member Ralph Brennan of the famous Brennan family of New Orleans invited the gathering to his hometown during Mardi Gras. I had never been to Mardi Gras before nor witnessed such a mind-blowing spectacle. For that matter, I had never seen a city like New Orleans, which is like nowhere else on the planet. The Big Easy can be like your crazy Uncle Ernie, who wears wild shirts, does magic tricks and drinks too much. Your parents warn you about him, but you'd rather spend time with him than with any of your "normal" relatives.
During Mardi Gras, New Orleans is in full Uncle Ernie mode. But Ralph lived miles away from the Bourbon Street madness in the sophisticated Garden District, where he hosted a party for the group. It was a catered event and we were sipping Champagne and eating shrimp the size of our fists in between casual strolls out to the street, where passing parades rolled their way toward the French Quarter. I kept thinking then that this restaurant magazine gig was going to be a good one. Since then, I've always had a fondness for the city and the Brennan family.
Like you, my heart sank last month while watching a televised Katrina rip her way through that city and others. In addition to the mayhem and shattered lives, I wondered if New Orleans would ever be able to recapture its unique flavor and personality. That remains to be seen, but I'm betting on the Big Easy and the Brennans, because neither are pushovers.
Meanwhile, the restaurant industry has once again proven that it has the heart of a giant. By now, millions of dollars will have been raised by you and your brethren. Twenty years covering this industry and I'm still awed by your humanity.
That independent restaurant group I mentioned earlier? It faded away long ago. But in its place came the Council of Independent Restaurants of America (CIRA), and it's not sitting idly by. Rather than focus solely on collecting financial aid, CIRA is working to help restaurant workers displaced by Katrina find jobs across the nation.
The independent organization, which has 17 chapters and more than 700 member restaurants, created this much-needed job bank. Its chapter members and other culinary groups, including the James Beard Foundation and Chefs Collaborative, have posted hundreds of restaurant jobs in dozens of states on its website: www.CIRAjobs.org . Restaurants are also encouraged to use the site to help arrange housing and transportation for workers. New Orleans alone is estimated to have more than 3,000 restaurants and 55,000 workers, most of them displaced.
The Brennan family has also taken action, creating the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Disaster Relief Fund. Send donations to the fund c/o Brennan's of Houston, 3300 Smith St., Houston, TX 77006.
With your help, New Orleans will rise again.