Monday, March 1, 2010

My Dinner at Antoine's

I've had occasion recently to sup in some very fine eateries, and I have a few thoughts about the art of dining fine upon which I shall expound in the future.  But today I have one establishment particularly in mind for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with great food, but instead for speaking to the essence of living a meaningful life.  But first you need a little history.

Antoine's in New Orleans is a much venerated institution.  It began as a pension' when 27 year old French immigrant Antoine Alciatore left a frustrating business effort in New York to come to New Orleans.  After a short stint as the chef in a nearby hotel he started his own place in 1840.  He brought his fiance' from New York and soon they were married and the wonderful aromas emanating from his kitchen enraptured the Queen City of the Mississippi and a legend began to bloom.  A charming story, and true as far as it goes.  Then steam displaced wind as the motive force for boats on the river, and predictable schedules for shipping reduced the demand for lodging in his little pension', but not the enthusiasm of patrons for his restaurant. 

Wishing to spare his wife the agony of seeing his slow death, and desiring to be buried in his homeland, Antoine took his leave in 1874 and sailed home alone to Marseilles where he died within the year.  Undaunted, his wife carried on, sending son Jules six years later to learn his craft in the great culinary centers of Paris, Strassburg and Marseilles.  He returned and assumed command of the now famous Antoine's at the end of the nineteenth century, where his genius in the kitchen demonstrated itself with creations such as Oysters Rockefeller, a moniker he laughingly applied to the rich sauce he created but which had no association with the person for whom it was named.  Jules fancied it a joke, but the name stuck.  Today it would be Oysters Gates, maybe.  By the way, that spinach and cheese concoction you may have been served elsewhere is a pale imitation invented by a jealous rival when Jules refused to disclose the recipe, still kept a family secret to this day.

Skip ahead three generations.  Antoine's, always guided by a direct descendant of Mssr. Alciatore himself has weathered war, prohibition, depression, war, changing style, war, and of course, the weather.  Until Katrina struck and everything changed for the Crescent City.

Huge swaths underwater, looting, death, inept relief efforts; all pictures we remember vividly.  Pictures for most of us, reality for New Orleaneans.  Mercifully, or more accurately because the founders of the tiny community on Isle d'Orleans, Mssrs. Iberville and Bienville built on higher ground, Veaux Carre' ( voe kuh RAY-the French Quarter to tourists) avoided the flooding, but not the wind.

Over the last one hundred sixty years of Antoine's growth it absorbed neighboring buildings.  It encased and enclosed cooking areas that were once open courtyards with coal fueled firepits and second story slave quarters.  It built a vast and enviable wine cellar in what had been an alleyway and inhabited each acquisition like a hermit crab making a home in a found space.  The storm toppled away a century old plus second story leaving areas exposed to the elements for three weeks.  A 1953 Chateau LaFitte Bordeaux wine does not like exposure to wind, rain and tropical temperatures.  An entire wine cellar becomes so much vinegar.  And from an insurers point of view, just some perishable reimbursed at the current market value.  A '53 Chateau worth maybe $2500 is replaceable with a 2003 Chateau worth about $35.

But more importantly, it left the employees and patrons scattered to the four corners; unemployed, separated from family--or worse, and homeless, mostly with just the clothes on their backs.

The easy thing, the business thing, the expedient thing, maybe even the smart thing to do would have been to take the insurance money, say it had been a great run and retire.  New Orleans, you could justify, is too wounded to recover, our people now like the diaspora.  We can't go back again.  But Antoine's isn't a legendary place just because the food is great.  Lots of nouveau cafes have smart young chefs churning out fabulous food.  Antoine's is a legend because of its people.  Like the family that owns Antoine's, employees stretch back through it's history too.  One generation assumes guardianship of the fine service and precious recipes from their fathers, mothers, grandparents, sisters and brothers.  Like New Orleans itself, the people of Antoine's are more than employees--they are members of the family.

Which helps to explain why the newest generation of leadership didn't quit.  The great, great, grandson of Antoine Alciatore came back, rolled up his sleeves and went to work.  He wrangled with recalcitrant insurance agencies:  No, you can't continue your employees health benefits because you aren't open for business so they aren't currently employees.  Catch 22.  What could he do?  He could pay the entire cost of COBRA coverage out of his own pocket for every employee.  So he did.  He found where people were; in Arkansas, Texas, Florida and elsewhere and brought them back.  He found places for them to live, co-signed countless rental agreements, and put them to work cleaning and reconstructing.  He had them polishing silverware and reclaiming tables and chairs.  As soon as he could he opened the Hermes Bar, the oldest part of the location they have so long occupied.  He gave them something to which they could look forward:  He gave them hope and purpose.

When I asked the obvious question, why he would do such a thing--take such a huge risk--he looked at me without a moments hesitation and said, "How could I not.  They're family.  You do what you have to do."

"You do what you have to do."  It is a lesson all Americans should take to heart.

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