Katrina-displaced cooks help spread love of Cajun, Creole fare

Published 12:01 am Sunday, December 23, 2007

It’s midmorning at Bon Appetit, and the beignets are long gone.

Behind a Plexiglas wall, a cook is chopping vegetables for lunch. Music heavy with brass is blaring, and Chef LeRoy Crump Jr. is rushing about with cell phone in hand, periodically stepping outdoors to greet a passer-by and tout the special, a Cajun shrimp cream pasta.

The sign above his 2-week-old restaurant promises “Authentic New Orleans Cuisine and Spirits,” and that’s what he dishes up — in small-town West Virginia, 1,000 miles from the French Quarter.

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After Hurricane Katrina destroyed his New Orleans home and restaurant, Crump traveled to Atlanta, then Daytona Beach, Fla. A chance encounter with a hotel guest who could smell Crump’s cooking lured him to a town of 17,000 in a state he’d barely heard of.

He recalls driving through Virginia, lost in the dark. Shortly after a trooper told him he needed the next state over, he started seeing mountains.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?’” he remembers with a laugh.

And now?

“I have customers now who say, ‘If you ever try to leave, we will have the State Police stop you on the interstate. You will not get out of town.’”

Like other displaced Mississippi and Louisiana residents, Crump has taken root in an unlikely place, bringing along a hankering for the tastes of home and the ability to share them. From Nevada to West Virginia, professional and amateur chefs alike are sharing Cajun and Creole fare with folks who still consider it exotic.

“At first, they couldn’t pronounce things,” jokes Darren Indovina, who fled Bay St. Louis, Miss., and opened the Bayou Lunch Box in Monett, Mo., population 7,400. “They’d say, ‘I want that big sandwich with the big name,’ and that was the muffaletta. But I can honestly tell you that now they can all say it.

“The food here is Midwest — ribs, steaks, a lot of Mexican, and that’s about it,” says the former electronics technician-turned-restaurateur.

Indovina lacks the industry connections to offer delicacies like crawfish, so he sticks with shrimp, oysters and catfish, and he offers a popular roast beef po’boy.

Business “was and still is fantastic,” Indovina says. “I personally get more smiles and thumbs up and pats on the back than ever before in my life.”

Wendy Waren, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Restaurant Association, is happy to hear the Gulf Coast’s loss is small-town America’s lagniappe, or unexpected gift. And she says the flow goes both directions.

“We are seeing people from other parts of the country opening restaurants in New Orleans now,” she says. “The reciprocation brings Louisiana’s culinary traditions to other communities and here in New Orleans, the diversity in restaurant choices is growing seemingly by the day.”

New Orleans is still recovering, Waren says, but will get a big boost from more than 20 large conventions, the Sugar Bowl and other college championship games coming to town.

Many displaced by Katrina have no plans to return.

“I would rather remember it as a happy place,” says Irving Harrell, who used to park cars in New Orleans but now runs T.C.’s Rib Crib with eight relatives in Las Vegas.

The house specialty is obvious, but there’s plenty of Gulf Coast influence on the menu: smothered pork chops on Wednesdays, gumbo on Thursdays, catfish on Fridays.

“Mississippi catfish is the finest catfish on earth, and I’m not afraid to say it,” says Harrell, who has his shipped in. “On gumbo night, it’s a destination. People will call in ahead of time and request that we hold some for them.”

Before T.C.’s opened last year, Harrell says, the only Cajun in town was on a casino buffet.

Harrell laughs when asked about its authenticity: “Well, some people think Chef Boyardee is real Italian, too.”

No one in the family had restaurant experience, but the Harrells realized they had talent after their weekly barbecue with the neighbors started drawing people from 40 miles away. Harrell took a loan against the home of his mother, who had moved to Las Vegas years before.

“We’re playing for all the marbles. There’s no Plan B,” says Harrell, 44. “Plan B is to make sure that Plan A doesn’t fail.”

In its first year, T.C.’s won the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Best of Las Vegas award for barbecue restaurant, and it’s inspired copycats.

“We serve Kool-Aid here, red and purple. I’ve gone to a couple of new places, and don’t you know, they serve red and purple Kool-Aid,” he says. “It has been phenomenal. We are living the dream.”

Crump isn’t looking back, either.

“I just decided that I’d rather go ahead and move somewhere else, where people really care about somebody,” he says. “I got here and I found the people to be very, very nice. Friendly.”

Along with his New Orleans suppliers, are willing to help rebuild his life.

Don Jackson, the tourist Crump met while watching a shuttle launch in Florida, opened the kitchen of his Spelter home the day Crump arrived. Together, they cooked 40 gallons of jambalaya and seafood gumbo, loaded up an El Camino and drove around selling $2 bowls.

Two weeks later, Crump met a video poker bar operator with a full kitchen.

“I started letting people know I was going to open up on the corner at Ray-Ray’s, and they said, ‘I’ll be there,’” Crump recalls. “And I’ll be darned, the place was packed.”

He quickly outgrew it, moving into a 50-seat place with a landlord who offered two months rent-free.

That’s where Stephen McIntire ate his first bite of Cajun food, a dish of creamy red beans and rice. He became a regular, then a business partner.

Together, they opened Bon Appetit, which employs 18 and can seat 500 in a former McCrory’s department store. They order the mix to make beignets — a square piece of deep fried dough dusted with powdered sugar — and coffee from New Orleans’ famous Cafe du Monde, and seafood from the Gulf Coast.

Crump’s crawfish arrive alive, and he likes to boil them in a pot on the sidewalk for all to see.

“Honestly, I have lost almost 15 pounds with worry and fear, thinking, ‘Oh my God, is this the right thing? Are people going to come in?’” Crump admits. “It was worry for naught. … When most people leave, their bellies are full, they’ve got a to-go box and they’re thinking, ‘When’s the next time we can come eat?’”