Organized by the nonprofit Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) and the Heritage Conservation Network, the volunteers were a mix of locals and out-of-towners staffing a series of four work weekends in January and February. Some came from Uptown, some came from Oxford, Miss., -- home of the SFA -- and some came from as far away as Rhode Island to help.
"These people came down here and worked their hearts out," says the 89-year-old Seaton, who had lived in the same building as her landmark soul food joint since the 1950s. "I got to get back to cooking and living here. I got to because there's no place like home." She hopes to reopen later this year.
Onions, celery and green peppers may be the holy trinity of Creole cooking, but when it comes to getting a New Orleans restaurant restarted post-Katrina, recipe essentials are time, money and hands-on help. Whether a restaurant owner returned to find a flooded business -- as was the case at Willie Mae's -- or vanished employees, ruined kitchens and the financial wallop of months without income, the obstacles to reopening can be daunting.
They don't necessarily have to face this challenge alone, however. The work going on at Willie Mae's is a physical manifestation of the desire to help beloved New Orleans restaurants rebuild, but that charitable impulse is taking on many other forms, and the response seems to be getting better organized and gaining momentum.
"Everybody you meet is touched by this. It's very difficult for us to talk about this with people (from out of town) without tears welling up in their eyes," says Tim McNally, president of the marketing firm IDEAS of New Orleans. He is also a wine enthusiast and, together with Jack Jelenko (president of the local distributor Partners Wine Company) is spearheading an effort called the Crescent City Restaurant Re-Birth Project. The idea is to funnel financial contributions from around the world into the hands of New Orleans restaurateurs who are struggling to rebuild.
Though the fund is just getting started, McNally says early pledges of support have come from distilleries and wineries, tourism firms and restaurants -- people and companies who do business with New Orleans restaurants as suppliers or have a personal connection to the city's food culture.
"There really is a lot of empathy out there for our city and our region, and we needed to give people a path to feel that they were helping our situation," says McNally.
The money will be distributed based on requests submitted to a review committee made up of McNally, Jelenko and local restaurateurs including David Gooch of Galatoire's, Paul Prudhomme of K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, JoAnn Clevenger of Upperline, John Besh of Restaurant August and Susan Spicer of Bayona. (Application forms are available online at www.ccrebirth.com.)
Contributions from near and far have been showing up at the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA), which in September set up its Restaurant Employee Relief Fund to help cover expenses for restaurant workers returning to the area. Landmark Vineyards, a small California winery in Sonoma County, sent $1,500 that its employees had pledged in lieu of exchanging Christmas gifts this year. Another contribution came from the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta, a community festival held each fall in New Mexico that dedicated this year's proceeds to Louisiana restaurants. Closer to home, Community Coffee Company pledged the profits from the Jan. 6 opening day of its new CC's coffee shop in Covington to the LRA fund.
More than $82,000 in contributions had come into the fund by mid-January, and LRA spokesman Tom Weatherly says about $20,000 of it has been distributed so far to local restaurateurs.
On the supply end of the local food chain, several grassroots efforts are working to provide support to farmers and fishermen who suffered damaged crops and equipment or the loss of customers. The Crescent City Farmers Market is accepting donations for a charitable fund called the Crop Circle, which will be administered by members of the market community. In Baton Rouge, the Red Stick Farmers Market established the Louisiana Small Farm Survival Fund. Dickie Brennan and Darin Nesbit, chef at Brennan's Palace Cafe, promoted the fund to a national audience on a Dec. 30 broadcast of The Today Show when they prepared a New Year's Day feast using produce and seafood from small local suppliers.
The CulCard, another charitable project, is putting local appetites to work for restaurant recovery with the most direct form of support: eating out. Introduced in December by the local Culinary Concierge magazine and Community Coffee, sales of the $25 CulCard benefit the LRA fund. Among other perks, it encourages patronage at local restaurants by rewarding cardholders with a "CulCourse" -- or lagniappe ranging from an amuse bouche to a bottle of wine -- at a growing list of participating restaurants.
"We wanted to give restaurants an opportunity to help themselves," which they can do by participating in CulCard promotions, says Culinary Concierge publisher Kendall Genser. "The city is going to come back and we have to pull together to make it through."
CulCards are available at CC's coffee shops, by ordering online at www.culinaryconcierge.com or by calling 343-2092.