Chefs in Exile – Restaurateur Alex Kelly

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 Restaurateur Alex Kelly’s tale from The Bank in the Marigny.

©2015 – All Rights Reserved – Troy Gilbert

“We all watched out for each other. We all took care of each other. We made sure that the people that were the weakest were taken care of. In this neighborhood, everybody took care of everybody else. Everybody did. It was amazing. It was very encouraging.” – Alex Kelly, Restaurateur – The Bank

Six months after Katrina and Alex Kelly was still living in his restaurant housed in the old 1920’s Canal Commercial Trust & Savings Bank building in the Marigny. In those dark days following landfall, Kelly along with a few members of his staff and a local artist joined forces to maintain a sense of civilization and order in the face of total mayhem. Their outpost, better supplied than most, had access to the food stores from his restaurant, giant blocks of ice from the supplies of an ice sculptor located in the studio a few blocks down and a pool in the courtyard of the building, which became the central point of their life for nearly two weeks.

Opening their doors during the day to the few neighbors still remaining in the area, the courtyard and pool became their kitchen, dining room, living room and bathing area for nearly two weeks. Kelly explains, “We fed a lot of people. We were continuously handing out food. Any neighbor could swim in the pool, but they’d have to take a watering can and bathe with soap in a nook and cranny of the courtyard before they could get in. We were meticulous about keeping the pool clean. By that time, the water had been shut off, so really it was our only water. We shocked it with chlorine every night.” Kelly continues, laughing, “There was a lot of nudity at the pool. Some were naked a little too much.”

The lighthearted and communal atmosphere changed rapidly as things began to break down and anarchy took over in New Orleans. Within only a day or two, the nights became menacing with law and order nearly nonexistent and they took to arming themselves with several firearms owned by Kelly as marauding bands were looting the stores and restaurants all along St. Claude Avenue. The scene at the nearby Robert’s Grocery was as Kelly describes, “it became a really violent place.”

With only a little over a foot of water in the streets around them this close to the high ground near the river, they eventually began collecting downed trees and debris to stack on the sidewalks in order to force people to walk in the deeper waters of the street, which acted as an alarm system of sorts. This way they would always know when people were walking past their building, and many were not attempting to escape the flooded city, but had ulterior ideas.

On three occasions Kelly had to shoot at looters – once to scare off someone breaking into flooded cars, and twice to thwart off a group breaking into his restaurant. He explains, “I would burn candles downstairs on the bar at night, to make it look like someone was there. That worked for one night, but after the third night, they didn’t care anymore if the place was inhabited or not. I only hope that my neighbors don’t read this, cause if they do, they’ll know where those bullet holes in their cars came from.”

The second and third nights were some of the worst, with the military having yet to arrive in the city and with the NOPD completely overwhelmed and in some cases violently trying to re-establish some semblance of control, local artists Robert Horan who holed up with Kelly explains, “It began to get dicey. There was a lot of old paybacks happening in certain areas of the city. There was a lot of heavy automatic gunfire for two nights. Right here at Frenchman & Touro, a cop jumped out of his car and was firing a riot shotgun at several looters. We’d sleep with our guns at night, but every twenty minutes you’d wake up to heavy gunfire.”

Kelly adds, “People who say this city was assaulted – it was assaulted. After the first night of heavy machine gun fire, the next morning there was a mass exodus of people walking down the street. Hundreds of them.”

They weren’t the only armed neighborhood militia in this area either, Kelly further details, “We had a Sous Chef from Rio Mar who lived over in the nearby Bywater and who had evacuated contact us asking that we go to her apartment and break out her windows so her cats could get out. But her neighbors had barricaded the streets and were heavily armed. It was real confrontational. And there were others, there were people with guns on top of Loretta’s Pralines over on Rampart and Frenchman, and there was another group across the street from the R Bar.”

The Feds did eventually start to arrive and their area was patrolled by the 82nd Airborne, Treasury Officers as well as varied other federal agencies – it was really a mish mash of forces. On the first Thursday Kelly felt comfortable enough to try and walk the few miles to his home near City Park, several miles away. He was definitely still concerned for his safety, as they had heard that the intersection of Broad and Esplanade was constantly under fire.

He went anyway. Wading through chest deep water, he made it through the intersection of Broad St. to find that the area, at least then, was peaceful. A stranger saw him wading from the direction of the French Quarter and came out of his home to ask if it was true that there were a few phones working in the Quarter. It was – there were two working payphones in all of the French Quarter. He then asked Kelly if, when he returned, he would call his mother to let her know that he was alright and Kelly agreed.

After several hours, he finally returned to the Quarter and called his own mother in Florida to check in. He explains, “I asked her if she would call this guy’s mother for him and tell her that I ran into her son, that he’s fine. He has food and is in good spirits. My mom did call her, and the two cried together for 2-3 hours on the phone. She was so amazingly upset from everything she was seeing on TV, that it was the only person she could really talk to about what was happening. I think they talked two or three times before the whole thing was over.”

Back on their street, the group continued to survive and actually were doing reasonably well. Kelly describes, “We had beautiful food. We had these amazing meals, veal and beautiful mushroom risotto. We ate eight gorgeous ducks one night. There was this Vietnamese chef down the street and Gregory brought him over a duck. It made him, as I understand, quite happy. We had shrimp, duck confit, greens, we ate things as they would come up or defrost in the restaurant’s walk-ins. Eventually when we finally left, we went around handing out all of our food to the people who were still staying. That was the best part.”

After about five days, the military and federal forces, though polite during the day, were becoming more and more aggressive in trying to clear out the city. At night the helicopters became unbelievably aggressive.

One evening while preparing a large meal in their courtyard, an Army Cobra attack helicopter was cruising above the neighborhood with a large spotlight trained down. They spotted the group and dropped down to near rooftop level and Kelly relates, “They came down and put the rotor wash on us, breaking everything, patio table umbrellas flying, knocking over our food, the grill, everything. A girl with an injured leg was blown around by this huge force of wind as she struggled to hold onto a table. We dispersed back inside, and they took off and started hovering over my restaurant. I snapped. I ran out into the street with my gun. I was absolutely going to bring that helicopter down, I was going to shoot at them. I was declaring war on the US military. I ran out into the street, it was the most insane thing you could do, to shoot at the US military. I ran out of the gate and suddenly, I was surrounded by 15 mules. 15 mules. They were all just standing still in the street, all completely spooked by the helo. There’s a mule barn for the carriages in the Quarter two blocks down, and they had all somehow gotten out. It was so surreal. It made me feel so good, I smiled right away, surrounded by these crazy mules that were squirrelly as heck, but I put my gun down and just stood right in the middle of them.”

Horan adds laughing, “That would have been a fitting death for Alex, to be trampled by mules.”

“You tend to do strange things under pressure and stress.” Kelly continues, “One day we saw this Goldfish swim by in the street and decided that we had to save that goldfish. Three of us chased that goldfish down the street, and finally caught it. We put it in a flower vase and were so concerned about the goldfish dying, that we would aerate the water with straws. Eventually we put it into the large cast iron sugar pot in the courtyard that held a bunch of goldfish, and it became the most important thing on earth to us that this goldfish would be socialized into its new home. So someone went and looted some goldfish food for us from the grocery. We thought it would help its social adjustment to have it arrive bearing gifts.”

Their time during the day was spent cleaning up the neighborhood and cooking. They explained how once they had cleaned up their block, the NOPD and the military stopped cruising by with machine guns pointed in their faces telling them to “get the fuck out.” But overall, they all agreed that at least during the day, they were treated with more respect.

In the afternoons they would walk over to Molly’s Bar on Decatur, which never shut down, and have a beer with police and reporters. Kelly laughs when he explains, “Monaghan, the owner would rave constantly about not having power. He’d give you ice for your drink if he knew you or liked you. I didn’t know Monaghan very well, so I didn’t get any ice. I’d say, yeah well that guys got ice, did he get the last of it? And Monaghan would reply, that the bar didn’t have any ice. I eventually stopped going to Molly’s because I couldn’t get any ice.”

As things in the city started to calm down and get back under control, and they felt more secure about leaving behind their homes and Kelly’s restaurant, their thoughts started running towards leaving the city. Kelly states, “As order became established, I felt more comfortable to leave. I was concerned about so many things in the restaurant that were irreplaceable – that’s why I stayed.”

Two days before they left, Kelly went over and had a discussion with a Marine Captain who was passing down the street in a Humvee. He explains, “I mentioned to this Captain about an 80 year old woman who was still on the block, and how she really couldn’t take care of herself. We were bringing her and her poodle a lot of water and food, but she had a little bit of dementia. I asked for them to get her out, but for the love of god to not take her out without her dog. She’ll die if you separate her from her dog. Two days later they took her out with her dog.”

After nearly two weeks, the group finally loaded up a car and headed out of the city, but before they left, they went back into the Bywater to make sure that the Sous Chef’s cats were ok. They were, and as they left they drove past a grass lot next to a warehouse where the fifteen mules were standing around grazing.


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