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Musical Kitchens 

Katrina sets off a domino effect of staffing changes throughout the kitchens of New Orleans.

By late summer, Chef David English felt he was just hitting his stride at Cobalt. Since taking the helm at the restaurant in the downtown Hotel Monaco in January 2004, his revamped menu of contemporary New Orleans cuisine was receiving praise from critics and applause from patrons.

At the same time, seasoned restaurateur Vicky Bayley was on her way to reopening Mike's on the Avenue, the popular Warehouse District restaurant she had run with Chef Mike Fennelly in the 1990s. She and Fennelly had a new location secured on Fulton Street in developer Roger Ogden's planned Riverfront Hotel.

English and Bayley had nothing to do with each other in August 2005, their plans pegged to tracks unlikely to cross anytime soon. Then Hurricane Katrina came along and put everyone's personal storyline through the blender of terrible history. What emerged was a new restaurant for Bayley, with English as the chef. Called Seven on Fulton, the restaurant is scheduled to open Feb. 13 with what Bayley calls a stylish, contemporary design to match English's innovative interpretations of contemporary New Orleans cuisine.

"The restaurant has just gone in a whole different direction," says Bayley, who has even changed some interior design aspects of the dining rooms since bringing English on board. "Working with David will be a real plus. He's so focused, so driven, and that's what you need with a new restaurant."

English says he was reluctant to leave Cobalt, but as dates for a possible reopening of the restaurant stretched from winter to spring to summer, the offer to open Seven on Fulton became impossible to resist.

"Vicky knows so many people," English points out. "She knows how to get people here and, as a chef, that's all you can ask for. If she can get people in the door, I know I can make them very happy."

Chefs have been on the move all over town since Katrina, as restaurateurs and investors look for angles to make the most of the grand reshuffle that Katrina dealt New Orleans. For instance, Table One, among the very first restaurants to open after Katrina (and a new start-up at that), now has no less a veteran of the local culinary scene than Chef Gerard Maras in the kitchen. Maras was most recently chef at Ralph's on the Park, but left there prior to Katrina. He spent much of September helping other chefs in the storm's aftermath before moving to Table One in October.

Chef Peter Chan returned to New Orleans to help get the Flaming Torch open early. The year-old restaurant resumed service on Oct. 14. But Chan's background is in much larger restaurants than the intimate Uptown bistro -- including a stint overseeing seven restaurants and a staff of 120 as executive chef at a Caribbean golf resort and spa -- and by November one of the largest restaurants in New Orleans lured him away. He is now chef at the Court of Two Sisters, which reopened its palatial Vieux CarrŽ dining rooms and courtyard just after Thanksgiving. William Guidry, formerly sous chef at the now-shuttered Chateaubriand Steakhouse in Mid-City, replaced Chan in the kitchen of the Flaming Torch.

The small plates at Vega Tapas CafŽ are now under the direction of Jared Ralls, formerly general manager of the Sun Ray Grill location in Metairie. He replaces Chef Michael Hampton, who came on board in 2003 when Glen Hogh bought the offbeat tapas restaurant from founder and original chef Alison Vega.

And Kevin Vizard, the well-traveled chef who opened CafŽ Adelaide in the Loew's Hotel with the Commander's Palace branch of the Brennan family late in 2003, plans to open his own restaurant. Called Vizard's on the Avenue, the chef expects it open by end of the month in the Garden District Hotel. Vizard was replaced at Cafe Adelaide by Danny Trace, formerly a sous chef at Commander's Palace.

Vizard says he had no intention of leaving CafŽ Adelaide before Katrina. Much like the case of David English at Cobalt, however, the road to reopening seemed impossibly long and a new opportunity arose in the storm's wake. Together, the combination proved too strong a pull on the chef's ambition for him to sit idle. The early prognosis of a slow CafŽ Adelaide resurrection proved overly dire -- it reopened just before Thanksgiving -- but by then Vizard was already enmeshed in his new plan to open his own place with a Creole/Mediterranean menu.

Vizard's on the Avenue will take over the space in the Garden District Hotel that was previously home to Lulu's in the Garden, which became available due to yet another chef in motion. Corbin Evans returned to the city in September to dim prospects of finding staff. He shuttered Lulu's for good (his first restaurant, the tiny Lulu's in the Quarter, had closed a few years earlier) and went to work with The Savvy Gourmet, the erstwhile cooking school, kitchenware store and caterer on Magazine Street that has turned into an omnibus culinary commando squad since reopening after Katrina. Evans is now Savvy's director of culinary operations.

"It's actually better working here, because I get to do a lot of fun things," says Evans. Those things now range from teaching classes to hosting in-store wine parties and theme dinners to helping develop a line of retail food products, such as "Savvy sandwiches," which may soon begin appearing in coffee shops.

Savvy Gourmet co-founder Aaron Wolfson says the idea is to respond to opportunities emerging in the post-Katrina market, and that's a spirit of innovation Evans says he missed while running his restaurants.

"Any idea people come to us with, we try to work with them, and that's where the fun comes in," Evans says.

click to enlarge Chef David English, formerly of the currently dormant - Cobalt, signed on with restaurateur Vicky Bayley and her - latest project, Seven on Fulton. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Chef David English, formerly of the currently dormant Cobalt, signed on with restaurateur Vicky Bayley and her latest project, Seven on Fulton.
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