Watching the news about the oil spill inching its way closer to the delicate New Orleans coast leaves me worried about the various food and tourism related industries that are life support to Louisiana. The impact this spill could have on the marine and terrestrial life so woven into the culture of the state is unprecedented. That Louisiana faces another potential environmental blow after hurricane Katrina is a tragedy.
I was in New Orleans last September for a wedding held at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. Paul Prudhomme doesn’t often close his restaurant for a wedding but he was excited to do so for a mutual friend who has a deep love for the city. Ironically, Jean Michel Cousteau was one of the guests and I spent some time speaking with him and Chef Paul about the recovery of the city of New Orleans and the Louisiana coast after hurricane Katrina. Both Prudhomme and Cousteau were hopeful about the future of the coastline and Paul stated that things were slowly returning to a level of reasonable stability I the city. However, Prudhomme was pensive about the toll Katrina took on members of the working culinary community in New Orleans.
Chef Paul made clear that in addition to the physical and environmental damage, an unexpected consequence of the Katrina disaster was the loss of a large number of foodservice employees who had been with him for years if not decades. When the hurricane hit, many of Paul’s employees were evacuated to other parts of the country (Houston, Atlanta, Denver etc) and they never returned. The loss of institutional history and overall culinary capacity at K-Paul’s (as well as other restaurants) was nearly crippling. These weren’t the celebrity chefs or owners that we often read about. These were the working class cooks, utility personnel and servers that make up the backbone of the culinary community both here and throughout the U.S. Paul had retained a reasonable percentage of his crew, enough to start over with, but it took him months to get food and service back to where it was prior to Katrina due to the lost personnel and shortage of supply. Paul’s business was directly connected to the whims of both human and Mother Nature in a way that I had never thought about. And now this oil spill!
Various news agencies are projecting that the impact the oil will have on the seafood industry will be devastating. It is estimated that twenty percent of U.S. seafood originates from the Gulf of Mexico. Further, there are reports of potential risks associated with the consumption of seafood contaminated by the oil that will surely have an impact on consumer purchasing patterns. Restaurant sales throughout the gulf coast could be as threatened as the shoreline ecosystems themselves. What a disaster. I wonder what Jean Michel Cousteau must be thinking, or Paul for that matter.
Cousteau’s mission in life, as shared with me during our conversation (and on his website) is to educate people throughout the world to act responsibly for the protection of our global ocean while also documenting the connection between humanity and nature. Prudhomme echoed Cousteau’s view while exhibiting a deep sense of personal history and connectivity with all of Louisiana. It’s a shame that Cousteau has to have this sort of life mission but the current crisis proves his point. My thoughts and prayers are once again with the Gulf Coast communities that are threatened. Hopefully this time they will be spared.