Have you hugged your favorite chef lately? How about that restaurateur, manager, waiter or bartender who always has your back, asks about your family by name and lets you know you’re being hosted, not merely served? When was the last time you clasped hands and extended the bond?
If it’s been a while, now might be the time to change that, since a steady beat of disturbing news and deeply moving losses in the restaurant community have made clear we can take nothing for granted.
The long summer is predictably rough on the New Orleans restaurants, and early autumn is often when restaurants that have been struggling close up shop. We’ve seen a succession in the past few weeks, including some real surprises. That will always get people thinking about the restaurants they value, and maybe asking themselves if they’re holding up their end of the relationship that keeps them vibrant.
But our chefs and restaurant people have been on my mind lately for different reasons. There’s the spat of dining room robberies, which have stirred a virulent reaction even in a city where horrendous crimes are commonplace. It has put people in the business on edge, and the strain of tension is evident. Will they be next? Will customers stay away? I haven’t seen the industry quite so communally stressed since the BP oil disaster.
Then there’s the mortal toll of time, natural but no less heartrending. In just the past year, I’ve penned obits for a veritable pantheon of great and beloved New Orleans restaurant people:
Chris “Bozo” Vodanovich, the oyster impresario of Bozo’s seafood restaurant, at 86;
Dick Brennan Sr., co-founder of Commander’s Palace and Mr. B’s Bistro, patriarch of highly influential restaurant family, at 84;
Tony Angello, king of the “feed me Mr. Tony” feast at his Tony Angello’s Ristorante, at 88;
Willie Mae Seaton, whose Creole soul food font Willie Mae’s Scotch House became a phenomenon late in her life, at 99;
Joe Segreto, the “restaurateur’s restaurateur” and consummate host through decades of great restaurants, at 75;
Paul Prudhomme, the incomparable, the “visionary” and the “ambassador” of Louisiana culture everywhere, at 75.
They were each extraordinary people who probably would have succeeded in any field where they devoted themselves. But they chose restaurants, which is why we relate to them so much and why we may feel that their passing hits close to home. And taken together, the departure of so many greats from our dining community is starting to look like a shift of the generations.
Any business may fold. Sadly in this town, any can be victimized by crime. And we have to remember that even our living legends are mortal in the end. Set all these factors in the restaurant realm, however, and they affect us differently.
We have a different relationship with our restaurants than other businesses. They’re part of our culture and identity in New Orleans. They’re part of what our city gives to the world, and what it gives us for living here, even when that isn’t so easy.
That’s why amid all this recent restaurant news New Orleans people might hear something personal. Maybe it’s a cue to reconnect with your favorites. It could be a call to arms to support what we value. At the very least, it’s a call to dinner.