In a few weeks, Willie Mae's Scotch House, a New Orleans institution, will go back to serving its signature Johnny Walker-and-milk highballs.
For the first time since Hurricane Katrina, folks will eat Willie Mae Seaton's James Beard Award-winning fried chicken, some of them at a table topped with a chart of Charleston harbor, donated by Fleet Landing.
In fact, all the tables, all the chairs, and most every piece of kitchen equipment in the reborn restaurant was donated by Charleston restaurants.
The catalysts were Alice Guess and Reggie Gibson of Reggie Gibson Architect, the premier restaurant design firm in Charleston (McCrady's, Rue de Jean, and many more).
When Guess and Gibson heard that the Southern Foodways Alliance — an institute that lured the entire firm on a field trip to 'Camp Bacon' last year — was helping to resurrect Willie Mae's, they called and asked what they could do.
"Reggie sat down and made a list of all of our contacts in the restaurant industry, and we e-mailed them a list of needs," Guess says.
Every one was filled. Fish donated a sink, Berlin's Restaurant Supply gave a vent hood, a grill, tables, and chairs. Coast/Good Food Catering and The Boathouse donated tables and chairs. Peninsula Grill gave a fridge, and Jerry Scheer of the T-Bonz Restaurant Group gave a substantial cash donation to pay for a grease trap.
Not a Gibson client (he's known for decorating his own restaurants), Michael Rabin finished off the list. The Juanita Greenberg's and Andolini's owner gave a microwave, a freezer, kitchen supplies, and the deep fryer where Seaton will make her paprika-spiked chicken. (The Beard Foundation described it as "sheathed in a diaphanous crust." The award, given pre-storm in 2005, also said Seaton's bread pudding "on occasion ... limns the platonic ideal.")
Like most buildings in the Tremé neighborhood near the French Quarter, the double shotgun house where the 90-year-old Seaton lives and cooks didn't endure catastrophic damage. But she was uninsured against the thorough soaking that left her with nothing but a few gallons of vegetable oil and a shrine to Jesus.
The Friday before Thanksgiving, Guess, Gibson, and Gibson's daughter Emma loaded up a 17-foot rental truck with the goods and drove to Louisiana. With additional funding by the Gulf Coast Renaissance Fund, and led by John Currence, a chef out of Oxford, Miss., two dozen foodie volunteers from throughout the South worked through the weekend.
This was the first trip back to New Orleans since Katrina for Gibson and for Guess.
"My husband had told Reggie beforehand that he thought I was going to cry the whole weekend," says Guess, who went to architecture school at Tulane and lived in the Big Easy for eight years. Guess and Gibson saw plenty of eerie signs of stagnation, neighborhoods still mostly dark, an unharmed school with assignments dated 8/26/05 on the dry erase boards. But they also saw a bustle of rebuilding.
"We went to the busiest Lowe's I think I've ever seen," Gibson says.
"In spite of all the bad decisions being made by people on the big level," Guess adds, "I feel like the people who are the soul of New Orleans are fighting to bring it back. You don't hear enough stories about all the little steps that people are taking."
Guess says she feels the rebirth of Willie Mae's could have a "ripple" effect in the community. The Scotch House is one of many humble neighborhood eateries in New Orleans, each known for one or two signature dishes. The New York Times article that first got Gibson and Guess involved said the white-tablecloth places are coming back but the little joints are struggling. Some say the storm only hastened the inevitable.
In Charleston, of course, one can still get lima beans at Miss Kitty's, bean pie at Wali's, crabs at Freddie's, or shrimp at Dave's or Manigault Seafood. But New Orleans' vernacular joints are populated by a clientele whose reverence for food crosses barriers of race and class.
"Most of the neighborhoods there are not segregated," Guess says. "It's more like block-to-block."
While it's hard to find a poor man's shrimp and grits or she-crab soup in Charleston anymore (Gibson says the old bus station on Wentworth Street used to serve the latter), some of New Orleans' fine dining restaurants are directly inspired by the traditions of the little places. For instance, Restaurant August makes more refined versions of trout amandine and bread pudding.
Riding to the airport, Gibson and Guess got into a heated discussion with their cab driver over boiled versus picked crab.
"His recipe for sautéed crab on fish is the exact same one they use at Galatoire's," Gibson says, referring to a 100-year-old, white tablecloth restaurant. "The trip really showed us just how important food is to that city."
The cab driver told them his father-in-law used to get loaded on the milky scotches at Willie Mae's.
"He'd call him up and ask him for a ride home, even though he was only a block and half away," Gibson says. "Because he was too drunk to get home. And because that was the only time he'd tell him what he thought of him."
It should be noted that the generous Charleston effort is just part of a larger drive. People from all over the country have contributed, and work has been going on for months. The total build-out cost to get the small restaurant up to code is close to $200,000, and funds are still $65,000 short.
An anonymous donor has personally taken out bridge loans to hopefully get Willie Mae's open by Dec. 18, the day after a gala fundraiser. For those who can't make the gala, a $250 tax-deductible donation buys two of Seaton's chicken dinners, redeemable anytime. For more information see www.southernfoodways.com.