At lunchtime, Vazquez cruises in a pickup truck equipped with an eight-burner stove, looking for hungry work crews. From the tailgate, he might serve tacos, tamales and posole one week and Indian samosas, naan and plates of spicy vindaloo the next. He says he has another plan in the works to "just buy a big block of ice, get some fish and do sushi."
Vazquez is unafraid of crossing paths with any officials who might object to his unorthodox catering service. "I call these food strikes," he says. "I find people, hit them with good food, then I'm gone."
On most weekends, Vazquez can also be found cooking the inventive international cuisine from his Marisol menu at Tout de Suite, a coffee shop in Algiers Point. He started flipping eggs there to help the owner and friend Jill Marshall when she reopened in September but the arrangement quickly evolved. He now cooks exotic fare near the coffee makers on little more than a pair of hot plates and a Crock pot.
"We're a cafe, so we usually serve soups, paninis and sometimes specials like lasagna, but never veal tongue," Marshall says of one Vazquez specialty now on her menu.
Some New Orleans chefs and restaurant owners who have been displaced from their businesses since Katrina are going to extraordinary lengths to keep cooking. Reopening a restaurant that escaped any storm damage has been a major challenge, with severe staffing shortages and countless uncertainties. But for restaurateurs whose businesses were trashed by the storm or inundated by flooding, the do-or-die path to restoration is testing their resourcefulness and creativity.
To answer the challenge, Brooklyn Pizzeria owner Todd Duvio is making his convincing version of thin-crust, New York-style pizza from a trailer on Airline Drive. After evacuating to Dallas, Duvio learned from news reports that the area around his pizzeria had flooded. In fact, the waters reached more than 4 feet deep and destroyed just about everything in the pizzeria, which he had opened as his first business in January.
"I just thought, we have to do something quick or we'll be in serious trouble," he says.
So he switched from the TV news to the Internet and on eBay found a trailer equipped as a mobile pizza kitchen, which he bought and had delivered from Phoenix, Ariz. He had pizza stones custom-cut for the tiny electric ovens in the trailer and set it up in the parking lot of the blacked-out shopping center where his pizzeria is located.
Quarters are cramped as Duvio and his wife Raquel take orders by phone and shuffle pies in progress. Adding to the difficulties, Duvio says his out-of-town supplier has discontinued deliveries to the area because so few of its former clients are back open. But he says all the effort is being rewarded by customers, and he hopes to reopen his pizzeria in the original location in late December.
"Our regulars are happy as can be to see us back, and we're picking up so many new customers," Duvio says. "They see the pizza sign on the road and think its just concession style, but when they stop they see we're doing the real thing in here."
Steve Gundlach is also going mobile to breathe some life into his Central Business District breakfast and lunch spot, Steve's Diner. The cafeteria-style diner was flooded, but he bought a panel van in New York City outfitted with fryers, grills, ovens and fridges. He christened it Steve's Mobile Diner and at press time was awaiting a health inspection to begin serving hot breakfasts and lunches from a berth behind The Ritz-Carlton Hotel at Iberville and Burgundy streets. Once his restaurant reopens, Gundlach says he plans to use the truck for off-site catering.
Bella Luna Chef-owner Horst Pfeifer is back to work as well, though under much different circumstances than were the norm at his luxurious restaurant. The French Quarter restaurant overlooking the Mississippi River suffered severe wind damage and looting after the storm, and his reopening plans hinge on answers to insurance issues that remain elusive. But now he is cooking at The Foundry, a private events hall in the Warehouse District he and his wife, Karen, opened in 2003. They had just completed a kitchen for the venue in July, and now Pfeifer and several of his employees are filling catering orders there. The work can be as basic as bagging sandwiches and cookies for lunches delivered to work crews, but Pfeifer is happy to be in business and able to keep some of his people on the payroll.
"Without this space and this kitchen I'd be looking out the window wondering what to do," he says.
He has lent some of his waiters to John Besh for his Restaurant August, and a Bella Luna dishwasher is pulling shifts at Scott Boswell's new cafe, Stanley! Three employees are living with the Pfeifers at their French Quarter home, and the chef has helped eight others find accommodations to stay in the city.
"This is all about protecting our investment in New Orleans," says Pfeifer. "If we all walk away, what do we have left? Anybody with any investment in this city -- a business, a condo, anything -- now you have to fight for it."