Chefs in Exile – Chef Greg Picolo

Originally to be published as a book on the trials of New Orleans top 30 chefs post-Katrina – this is one of three rough drafts that were submitted to several publishers over the years and rejected, mostly because “Katrina is over.” This is Chef Greg Picolo’s tale from the Bistro at Maison deVille.

©2015 – All Rights Reserved – Troy Gilbert

“New Orleans doesn’t expect much. We are so used to being the bad stepchildren of the nation that we’re not hoping for nirvana, just patch the levees so we can live.” – Chef Greg Picolo

Growing up in Gentilly, Greg Picolo remembers sounds of furniture banging against the ceiling below him as he and his family huddled together on the second floor of their home during Hurricane Betsy in 1965. His current neighborhood, Faubourg St. John, received less than an inch of water during Betsy, so Picolo did not evacuate for Katrina. He opted to ride it out thinking as many New Orleanians did, that this one would be like all the others – maybe power out for a few days and possibly some minor street flooding.

After closing his restaurant, the Bistro at Maison deVille on the Saturday night before the storm, he began making some minor preparations for the approaching hurricane at his home. He even laughed at his own misfortune, as he and his neighbors had just finished cleaning up from Hurricane Cindy only a month earlier. “I was a little concerned,” Picolo states matter of factly, “but maybe I was a little jaded from the ones before. I stayed.”

By early Tuesday morning, the hurricane had completely passed through, a few downed trees and some scattered roof shingles in her wake, and everything seemed about right until the water started pouring down his street. “I thought the pumps were off.” Picolo recounts, “But then the street was flowing like a river. I’m a big water gardener, so at first I thought it was very pretty with the butterflies and dragonflies, but it kept coming… and then I was trapped.”

Chef Picolo is a great lover of coffee, as any patron of his restaurant can attest, so late that afternoon as he still had gas to his home, he brewed up a pot and sat on his front porch. With the water having risen 4.5 feet to the top step of his home built in 1889 and with his neighborhood completely empty, he sat there thinking to himself, feeling totally alone and isolated, “I’m in bad shape. Wow, am I the biggest fool in the world.”

Later that day, he was astonished and overjoyed as he watched his neighbor Wendy swim up his street. A CRNA at Lindy Boggs Hospital, she had finally been given the order to retreat from the flooded hospital and was making her way home to save her dogs. A neighbor and a friend for a couple of years, the two opted to combine their limited resources together at Picolo’s home, and for seven days the two experienced “a great sharing experience.”

“Luckily I have a nice wine cellar and Wendy had a love for Russian River Pinot Noir, so we began exhausting my stocks of that wine. In fact, we wrote a movie script titled Blown Sideways.” The two of them spent most of the first days on the front porch with his two cats and her two dogs in the interminable heat building a bond of a lifetime.

Completely out of communication, the Chef never had a cell phone and Wendy lost hers to a leaking Ziploc bag as she swam through the streets, their only source of information was the heroic efforts of the combined local radio stations broadcasting 24 hours on one station with the radio hosts from all the city’s stations teamed up. At any time there could be neo-cons from talk radio sitting next to DJ’s from hip-hop stations trying valiantly to get information out and providing calm to all of New Orleans and the region. Even with this, Picolo admits that they “still didn’t know what was really going on.”

Then the looters started appearing. “The marauders and crackheads would come by swimming down the street, calling us out, threatening us.” Picolo details, “They were pushing large garbage bags of small items and they weren’t trying to get out. They were brazenly going through the neighborhood in daylight. We could hear windows breaking; one guy came down the street in a boat loaded up with televisions, all kinds of stuff. We were never really frantic to leave, only nervous about being taken out by a lunatic. There were gunshots, but what was frightening was that there was no one to respond. We weren’t armed and wouldn’t even light candles at night out of fear of drawing attention to us. I did have an axe and a maul though, and I would have bludgeoned.”

Picolo adds, “We kept each other going. Without Wendy, I probably would not have made it. On a solo basis, I’m not sure what I would have done.”

The scarcity of their provisions did not really matter as neither had an appetite for seven days. Other than some crackers and a few cheerios, they ate nothing and Picolo rapidly lost twenty pounds. After a frozen turkey that he was using to chill the half and half for his coffee finally thawed out, he cooked his first elaborate meal during this time, a dish he now calls Turkey Katrina. But neither of the two ate much of it, “We really weren’t that hungry. We fed most to the dogs. They were happy.”

With his family unable to contact him by any means and knowing that he had stayed, his name eventually showed up on the Missing and Presumed Dead list. It wasn’t until days later that his brother in California actually saw him on CNN in a shot from an over flying helicopter which caught him half dressed on his front porch wearing a House of Blues hat and drinking coffee, that his family had any idea that he was alive.

On Day 7, Greg and Wendy were sitting on his porch eating a few Sunchips and had just cracked open a hot vintage 1977 bottle of Tattinger Champagne when jetskiis and boats full of armed men came down their street. It was the Los Angeles Fire & Rescue, who had launched their boats off of an Interstate onramp near Elysian Fields Ave., combing the neighborhood for survivors.

As they pulled up to the house to rescue the two, Picolo smiles as he relates what he then told them, “I am not wasting this champagne. Just give us some water and come back in a little while.”

Only six months later does the Chef understand the true extent of the tension induced exhaustion, starvation, and dehydration they were experiencing. “We were very depleted, and much more in shock than we realized. I could not form complete sentences when I spoke to the firemen.”

As they slowly motored through their neighborhood, the firemen insisted on taking them to a shelter. Lucky for Picolo, an NOPD officer onboard as a guide agreed with them that a shelter was not such a good idea. The rescuers finally gave in and brought them to high ground, the interstate.

The true scope of the disaster finally began to unfold before their eyes as they made their way through the city by boat and then eventually as they walked along the raised interstate running through the city’s heart. “We thought we were in bad shape. I started crying when I saw the Crescent City Steakhouse underwater. My neighborhood was gone. Living on the porch all this time, to finally see it was scary. The city looked like something out of Apocalypse Now.”

They eventually hitchhiked with a group of relief workers who got them as far as Baton Rouge, dropping them off on a random exit, but not before they borrowed a cellphone and made the first contacts with their loved ones in seven days.

Wendy had some family over in Lafayette, about an hour and a half from New Orleans, who graciously agreed to take in Chef Picolo as well as, of course, herself.

Bunking with 8-10 strangers in a beautiful 1860’s country house on a bayou in Lafayette, Picolo considers himself blessed and ever thankful to his hosts. By coincidence, a psychologist was also staying at the home filled with evacuees, and she stopped everyone from getting lost in the television coverage.

He then tried to wile away his time reading books from their great library, but found himself completely unable to concentrate and shortly thereafter started cooking. “Cooking was restorative for me, and they had a great kitchen. It was comfort foods mostly, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, red beans. I joked with them that I could cook regular food too. I’m not just foie gras man.” He started to innovate while in Lafayette, and one dish that he cooked for a birthday dinner is now on the menu at the Bistro.

He recalls one of his hosts’s joking about a conversation she had with a friend who had also taken in some evacuees. They laughed together as she related how she had chided the friend who had taken in a New Orleans writer who was morose and drinking too much and then explained how she had a top 5 New Orleans’ Chef under her roof, and that her friend should have chosen her evacuees more carefully.

Picolo now looks back on his time in Lafayette as one of the happiest in his life. He never considered leaving Louisiana, but did have thoughts of remaining in Lafayette. Eventually, he decided he must return to New Orleans and re-open his bistro.

Early in his stay in Lafayette, he successfully contacted all of his employees from the Bistro. A few had ended up at the Superdome and all were now displaced throughout the country. Management of the Maison de Ville Hotel (in which the bistro is located) agreed to keep every employee of the restaurant and hotel on salary including benefits for what turned out to be six months before they were able to re-open.

After setting his mind on re-opening, he started making trips back into the city to assess the damage. It was bad, but not devastating. The hotel suffered severe losses after an attic floor crashed through several stories. The restaurant itself suffered some moderate roof damage which led to water pouring into the Bistro from the heavy rains. All refrigeration was lost, but the restaurant did not experience any looting.

Originally scheduled to open around Christmas, construction delays and issues held them up until March 1st when he held a week long secret opening filled with only locals and regulars. His 38 seat restaurant hosted almost 300 people the first week and was punctuated by many tearful reunions and the swapping of Katrina stories.

Chef Picolo again considers himself lucky regarding the major staffing issues plaguing the New Orleans culinary world; the Bistro had a few major staff losses, but the majority came back despite serious housing issues. Explaining why he was able to hold onto most key employees, Picolo states, “We are a family. I know it sounds so hokey, but we ARE a family.”

Asked how he was changed by the entire experience, the Chef answers quickly, “That Greg doesn’t live here anymore. Before I led a very monastic lifestyle. I kind of broke out of the tunnel vision I had before. Today, I have more of a need to connect with people. I needed to lose some of my control. I’m easier going. I have zero patience for bullshit, and now I just don’t get bogged down with stuff.”

Regarding the future of New Orleans, the Chef smiles and states, “I have great faith in the citizens of New Orleans to come back from this. New Orleans, come hell or high water – that’s what we’re all about.”

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