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 Scott Boswell’s tale from Stella! and Stanley.
©2015 – All Rights Reserved – Troy Gilbert
“We just wanted to show the world how much heart and soul we really do have here, and right now this city is populated by a bunch of hard core New Orleanians, and they are survivors.” – Chef Scott Boswell
Chef Scott Boswell was primed for the grand opening of his new restaurant, Stanley, on Decatur St. in the French Quarter. A detail oriented, hands on chef and businessman, he made his way to his home on Royal St. pumped about the progress they had made over the last few days and was thinking to himself, “What can stop me now?” He flipped on the television and there was Katrina.
He was aware of its presence before, but like most New Orleanians he figured this one would be like all the rest, a glancing blow as it turned either east or west. In fact, he was kind of excited about it, having grown up in Lake Charles praying for hurricanes in order to get out of school. But by Sunday morning, Hurricane Katrina’s winds had popped from 115mph to 175mph and the track was still straight over New Orleans.
He recalls how, “That morning it was like I could feel the low pressure sucking the air out of the city.”
His family at first argued about whether or not to evacuate to the hotel which houses his two restaurants, Stanley and Stella, or to leave the city. Rather quickly though, his instinct began to tell him to go. Boswell and his then fiancée packed a few possessions into his truck emblazoned with Stella! on the sides. In all they left town with clothes, some documents grabbed by his fiancée and 14 of his most precious bottles of wine from his cellar and the two left for his sister’s home in Lake Charles.
After two weeks of watching the inundation of New Orleans from the levee breaches and the ensuing chaos in horror, he finally had to go back. With his employees scattered and worried that they were going to begin settling down into different places, he was really unsure of what to do. He drove into the city on a two hour military pass and came to his restaurants in a panic, grabbed his computers and then headed to Atlanta to set up a temporary office. He made payroll for all of his employees and discharged their full vacation pay, which almost wiped out his cash reserves, but it bought him some time.
It was then that he decided to head back into New Orleans; he arrived on September 18th. The next day, he was surprised to find that his Sous Chef, Justin Gerard who he had sent to France to study, had come home early saying that he knew Scott was going to be cooking.
Chef Boswell, made the decision on the spot. “I knew. That’s it, that’s what were going to do. Let’s open Stanley up.”
In the midst of the chaos of the city and armed with a rumor that a Winn-Dixie was actually open on Barataria Blvd. on the West Bank they made their way there to discover it was indeed true. In a frenzied atmosphere inside the grocery while the FDA was trying to chain up the doors, they rolled carts around looking for food. Grabbing all the hamburger meat, buns, potato chips, tomatoes, and pickles they could get their hands on, they were able to check out and head back to the Quarter.
At this point, the city was full of rescue workers, military and press who hadn’t eaten anything but MRE’s for three weeks. There was nothing open. No food. Only catastrophe and chaos. Word rapidly leaked out that they were opening, and a Japanese news crew showed up first and began documenting the entire opening. First order of business, they cleaned the restaurant and brought in two monster generators offered by the hotel. With the combined resources of the two restaurant’s bars they opened selling a cheeseburger, a bag of chips, and a pickle for five dollars.
Boswell recalls, “Overnight it became a sanctuary for everyone to come in and decompress, the press would upload their stories to wherever they were going. We had the only air conditioning. These guys were coming in and enjoying their single malt scotches and bottles of Insignia. When I watched the first person bite into a hot cheeseburger, and saw their faces light up, it was so wonderful. They were all thanking us, thanking us for being there and providing that.”
At this point, City Hall was still not running and he didn’t have the release from the Health Board to operate, so Chef Boswell explains, “I declared a state of emergency because we were providing a service to these rescue workers, it was all rescue workers. I mean we had a 9/11 fire department crew – 12 guys there every night, just drinking beer, and having a good time. They’re out there rescuing people and this was a great thing for them. They’re going to remember us for the rest of their life. And we’re certainly going to remember them.”
Then Hurricane Rita formed in the Gulf and New Orleans again went under a mandatory evacuation, but he and his staff refused to leave, worried that if they did, they would not be allowed to return. The Japanese news crew, which was still documenting the restaurant was finally pulled out by their producer to Baton Rouge. After Rita set her aim on western Louisiana, they returned to New Orleans with their news van filled with supplies and groceries for Stanley.
Chef later learned that when Hurricane Rita plowed through Lake Charles, it destroyed the homes of his sister and father, the homes he had originally evacuated to.
Chef Boswell and his staff continued on at the restaurant. He recounts, “We served 80 people the first day, 120 the second and by the time we hit 200, we had hit every national and international media publication in the world. CNN, ABC, NBC, NPR, Fox; we were the most famous restaurant in the world for three days.” He laughs, “We had camera people bumping into each other in the kitchen. It was the most insane rush in a weird way, but that is what gave us the fuel. Four of my managers who had yet to return from Katrina, saw all this on TV and came back to New Orleans because they wanted to be part of it.”
At this point Boswell became aware of the effect this media attention could have and explains, “I wanted to show the immediate restaurant community that it wasn’t destroyed. The French Quarter, Garden District, and Uptown weren’t destroyed. Because all we were seeing on TV was total destruction. If we could just get some people back in here, if we can just get some life in here, that’s how we can get New Orleans going again.”
He continues, “And it worked, my managers got through the checkpoints. Thank God they did, because then we went to 300 and then 400 people a day. We were pushing 500 people a day by the second week. And it was just getting so out of hand. I couldn’t get all the stuff we needed. I was going to Sams Club on Loyola Ave. in Jefferson Parish, to get all my ingredients. I couldn’t even get it all in my truck anymore. I was spending 1600 – 2000 dollars a day. The coolest day was when the Japanese news crew and CNN both came with me to Sams to follow with cameras, and we ended up loading both their trucks up with groceries. It was a good thing they came because that was a day that the security got so tight that they wouldn’t let me back in, but the guy from CNN got out in front of me and got us in.”
After two weeks of operating, the entire area still without electricity and still no garbage collections, Chef Boswell began to notice a change, “We were using all paper plates and we started generating so much garbage, that I kind of felt like our positive, was starting to turn to a negative. Other people saw us and were coming back to open their restaurants, so we decided to shut down, to take a break. We were putting all the garbage in front of my mother’s house on Chartres St. – she would have died if she had seen it. There were so many giant fat flies. It was becoming terrible.”
He recalls the inspiring statement of a CNN reporter who came up to him and told him that if he could do what he had just done, that he could do anything. That one statement helped empower him through his next challenge, pushing through the reopening of Stella!, his flagship restaurant and the place where his true cooking passions thrive and are explored.
Stella! was already undergoing a renovation before Katrina and he decided that at 44 he was too old to renovate as planned now only to go through it all again in five years. He decided to go for it and create the restaurant and kitchen of his dreams, pumping nearly a million dollars into the rebirth of Stella!.
With a planned grand re-opening scheduled for mid-March, the trials have been heavy and constant. His revered kitchen and front of house staff still at below 50% pre Katrina, he has had to make a huge commitment to his people, many of whom lost absolutely everything in the storm. With assistance from a valued customer in Florida who helped him raise money, he was able to secure housing for many of them, putting down deposits and first months rent in a highly scarce and rapidly appreciating rental market. He explains, “The people I have are all the key people, they are all the best ones. With these people I can rebuild anything.”
Still as understaffed as he is, he is constantly searching for new people to bring in, but is disheartened at the continued population loss, “I’ve had an ad in the paper for over a month now for waiters and not one person has applied for either position. That’s kind of scary.”
Even though he is the consummate optimist, he admits that Stella! would never have happened without Stanley, “If my survival would have depended on insurance, I would have already failed. Without Stanley open, Stanley’s been the saving grace. Stanley really has been Stella’s knight in shining armor.”
Chef Boswell takes his optimism to a new level when asked about his experience and about the rebirth of New Orleans, “It was a very life enriching experience that I wouldn’t want to go back and do over again, but I wouldn’t give it up for the world. I think it has made me so much more of a greater human being, a better chef, a better businessman. It forced me to step out of my little box, and look at the world around me. To see my neighbors and all of the beautiful people who live in the French Quarter. I’ve touched hearts and have connected to so many people, and have so many more friends now. That’s the success of our recovery, its not focusing on the negative, but to continue to focus on the positive, nurture it and water it, cultivate it and make it grow, because it is growing. This city’s got a great heart, it’s got more spirit than many cities in the world.”