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Ike! | Sep 14, 2005 10:50 PM

Owners fled to Memphis........doing well but plan to return..................


Restaurateurs count blessings and the days until they can return to New Orleans
By Leslie Kelly
September 14, 2005

Mary Sonnier's restaurant -- Gabrielle -- is under water in the historic Fauborg/St. John district of New Orleans.

At least she thinks it is.


"I saw satellite pictures from that area," said Sonnier. "It didn't look too deep."

Not knowing is one of the hardest parts of being ripped from the deep roots Sonnier and her husband, Greg, have in New Orleans.

"I worry about my employees. I worry about my customers. I don't know if some of the older ones were able to get out. I worry about the 40 purveyors we talked to and bought from every day," said Sonnier.

Their struggle to figure out what's next, where to enroll their two daughters in school, how to hold it together while dealing with the hundreds of details that go along with picking up the pieces from the worst natural disaster in the history of this country is a story that's being repeated across the country.

"My head is just filled with all these decisions that have to be made in a hurry. It's overwhelming," said Sonnier, 47, who drove to Memphis that Sunday morning when Katrina was upgraded to a Category 5 hurricane.

"My husband doesn't ever leave," she said. "We have a generator and 200 gallons of gas in the garage."

Greg Sonnier, 44, who was nominated for a James Beard Award for best chef in the South last spring, is an amateur meteorologist who pores over weather reports on the Internet, and he knew Katrina was serious.

"We each packed a bag, turned on the dishwasher and left a 10-pound bag of food for our cat, Lily," Sonnier said. "I didn't even bring my jewelry, but I did grab my 10-inch chef's knife."

They drove to Memphis, along with her sisters, both in the food business. Her mother and brother stayed in the city.

Mary Sonnier was born in New Orleans; her great-grandparents originally settled there. When she was 13, her father was transferred to Memphis.

"I went to Immaculate Conception," she said. "And then spent a couple of years at Memphis State. But I wanted to cook. And back then, there was no serious food in Memphis."

So, she went back to New Orleans and started working for celebrated chef Paul Prudhomme. She met her husband in that famous kitchen.

They opened their restaurant 13 years ago, when their daughter, Gabie, was a toddler.

"It's in a funky building that was built in the '60s," she said.

But with a lot of TLC and several coats of paint, the couple turned Gabrielle into a romantic, white tablecloth venue with a sophisticated menu.

Their customers were a stew of gastro-tourists and longtime regulars who savored dishes such as Creole cream cheese crusted lamb chops, redfish with crawfish etouffee, barbecue shrimp pie and mojo-marinated pork rib chop.

"Gabrielle is in the manner of many great New Orleans restaurants, an unassuming place that makes good on that city's promise that, lurking on every other avenue, there's an undiscovered jewel box of a restaurant," said John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at The University of Mississippi, who last visited Gabrielle in July during an SFA field trip to the city.

Even with the restaurant in ruin, Sonnier said she considers herself lucky. "We had the means to get out," she said.

But it made her furious when media commentators quipped that only the rich people escaped the desperate turn of events when the levee broke after the storm.

"We are not rich," she said. "We are are a hard-working mom-and-pop place. We've lost everything. We're going to have to start over."

After the dinner that turned out to be the last meal served at the restaurant -- on the Friday before the hurricane hit -- the Sonniers asked their staff if they needed cash. They gave them their cell phone numbers and told them to call.

In the aftermath of the storm, with evacuees trickling out to states as far away as Montana, Sonnier still hasn't heard from a few longtime employees.

"I worry about our dishwasher and his family," she said. "And a server who had been with us for years. I had a lot of people who depended on me."

But, in the meantime, she also had to scramble to find schools for her daughters. Her oldest daughter, 16-year-old Gabie, just wanted to go home.

"When you're that age, you just want to be with your friends," she said.

They found a place for her at a Catholic school in LaFayette, La., and a host family. They will eventually move back to that area until they can return to New Orleans.

Greg Sonnier drove Gabie down last week, and then ventured into the city to check on their home and pick up the cat.

"Our house is near the river, up on a bluff," Sonnier said. "It's dry."

But their Meyer lemon tree is stripped of fruit.

"Isn't it funny the little things you think about?" she said.

After she enrolled her youngest, Gigi, in kindergarten at Immaculate Conception, Sonnier spent the week after the storm on the phone to credit card companies and banks and on the computer trying to connect with others in the tight New Orleans restaurant community.

"I realized that I didn't have e-mail addresses for most of them," she said. "We just see each other all the time."

She spent a recent morning washing clothes at a laundromat. "Our lives are so busy. Every minute is filled up. I never have time to just sit like this. It's kind of nice," she said.

She might have been sitting, but her mind is in constant motion. Sonnier talked to her husband, who was looking at a rental house in rural Sunset, La., and she was making plans for Gigi's sixth birthday.

"When we first arrived, we stayed at The Peabody for a few days," Sonnier said. "Gigi loved it. She never wanted to leave. They could have rewritten the Eloise books with Gigi at The Peabody."

So, last Friday, with her aunts and cousins looking on, Gigi was honorary duckmaster as the birds took their afternoon walk from the lobby's fountain.

"People in Memphis have been incredibly kind," Sonnier said. "The people at the hotel we're staying put together little gift packs of toiletries for us. The staff at the school has been great."

Sonnier's list of concerns changes daily: "I do the bookkeeping at the restaurant, so at first I worried about the money. About the stack of bills I had written checks for that were left on my desk.

"Then, I worried about my children, and getting them settled into school. I haven't even started thinking about when we'll be back. When we'll have a restaurant again."

Being a realist helps, she said.

"I know we're going to get through this," she said. "But I need time to meditate about it. To grieve over everything we knew that's gone."

For now, she has turned off the TV, filled with its terrible images. She has been spending the afternoons with Gigi at the hotel pool.

"It's been hard on her," she said. "She misses her friends and her teachers."

Sonnier filed for unemployment for the first time in her life.

"I've never asked the government for anything, but to protect me," she said. "And they failed us."

Even in the face of the grim news, Sonnier is hopeful.

"New Orleans will be back," she said.

"There's a rich mix of culture there you just don't find anywhere else."

-- Leslie Kelly: 529-2594

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