Monday, December 13, 2010

Two Storms

As I write this, I’m sitting in my office at my home in Chicago, waiting to catch a 2:00 p.m. flight. I flew in on Thursday night, after driving from my new house in Gonzales, Louisiana (about an hour outside of New Orleans), to the airport. It was about 68 degrees when I left. I didn’t even wear a jacket. Imagine my surprise when I got in to Chicago at 8:30 and was greeted by a frigid snowstorm. Welcome back to Chicago! I’m freezing my ass off. Thank goodness Eileen brought me a jacket.

After almost a month away from my family, all we wanted to do was cook together, watch the Bears game and enjoy being together as the blizzard went on (and on) outside. Having lived in Louisiana for nearly a month, I kind of miss this, but I know I’m going back, although a little late since my flight is delayed.

Sitting here, looking outside at the wind whipping the snow around, I can’t help but think of another storm in another city. The storm that cemented my resolve to work with Chef John Folse. I’m talking about Katrina. I remember sitting with Eileen at our dining room table in Vernon Hills, and watching that monster storm unfold. All I kept thinking was, “I have to call John. I have to find John.” So I tracked him down and he told me, “Yeah, it’s up for grabs, man.” And he said he just needed me there, needed me to come and help. I got on the next plane.

At this point, I had known John for nearly 10 years, had seen him periodically when he came to Chicago, so there was this ongoing relationship. He would always pop into Trio or Tru, and he was always a great supporter of me as a young chef. When we first got close was when he started his Bittersweet Dairy operation, and he started doing cheese competitions. We did a cheese dinner at Tru with five cheesemakers, five wine makers and five chefs. I was  paired up with John, and that was really the first time we got to spend three days together, hanging out one-on-one, cooking together, and we just hit it off. He’s so easy to hang out with. At the end of that dinner he invited me to come to Louisiana to see his world. So a few months later, I went, and I was blown away.

John’s “Encyclopedia of Cajun and Creole Cuisine”(THE definitive book on the subject, which is now in its ninth printing) was just coming out, and he invited me do a book signing with him at a local Barnes & Noble. My Tru cookbook was just coming out, so I said why not? I had no idea what was coming. We pulled up to this store, and it was like utter mayhem. 300 or 400 people in line. It was like Julia Child was there. He had his staff at White Oak Plantation catering it, passing food. I was like, “Oh my god, this guy is like a folk legend. He’s like the Emeril or Julia Child who nobody knows about where I come from. What is going on here?” So we walk in, and we sat there for three hours and signed books. Let me tell you, it was daunting. I was coming from a city where I had established myself pretty well over the years. Here, nobody knew who I was. And meanwhile, John sold 30 books for every one I sold. It was the first time I ever realized how major this guy was. Everybody knew him. He was like an ambassador for not only the state of Louisiana, but the whole region. People drove in from as far away as Mississippi and Texas to meet him.

Three years passed after that visit, and we stayed in touch. And then Katrina hit, and I went back to Louisiana. John offered to take care of the security clearances with the government. He was contracted to feed people by the levees and in St. Bernard’s parish. I couldn’t picture what I was walking into. I had never been to a war zone, so I couldn’t get my arms around it. But through my eyes, seeing it first-hand was like being in an evacuated military situation. There were people seeking refuge, people on IV needles lying in the halls of the airport. It was just incomprehensible. And sure enough, I find John out front with a police escort, and we drive down in to the city in this convoy. 

John had these mobile kitchens set up, and for about a week we just cooked for all these refugees and rescue workers. They’d come in after pulling bodies out of houses and they’d eat and do some counseling, and we’d pray with them, and they’d go right back out. Then we moved our operations out into the suburbs – Baton Rouge and those places where the Mississippi River borders, where churches and convents were overflowing with people seeking refuge from the cities. We were making boxes of simple things like crayons and juice boxes for kids, bottled water and backpacks. It was incredible to see all of the companies that were donating stuff  -- Kmart, Wal-mart, Target, Sysco, Starbucks.

Fast forward another week, and I’m about to head back to Chicago. John and I were driving back to the airport, and we stopped on the Sunshine Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River. We’re watching Hurricane Rita come in. And our conversation took a deeper turn. We talked about our faith and this feeling like the apocalypse was coming, with all of these traumatic things happening in the world. It was like being on the top of a mountain, complete alone. Imagine being the only two people standing in the middle of an expressway, with not a car in sight. And it’s just quiet. All you can see in the distance is black skies. That’s the day we decided we needed to work together. That day and that moment started something. John will tell you more. He’s from there. He can paint the picture of the sugar cane fields and the oil refineries all around us as we talked, so you’ll see it all as clear as day, like I do.

So now, more than five years later, I’ve moved to Gonzales, Louisiana. John and I are working on our first restaurant together, Restaurant R’evolution. As soon as I land in New Orleans, I’ll go back home, then head into meetings all day tomorrow with John and our team at Bittersweet Plantation. We’re reviewing the final kitchen drawings (more on that later), and tomorrow is all about getting them finalized and approved, so bids can go out and demolition can start. Last week we tasted pastas for the new menu. The rest of this week is all about formulating and tasting the fish dishes. We’re on our way.

- Rick

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