New Orleans, as the old line goes, is a city of a thousand restaurants but only one menu. Its celebrated dishes—gumbo, jambalaya, catfish, crawfish étouffée, po’boy and muffuletta sandwiches, red beans and rice—are the products of a glorious culinary sfumato, blending the techniques and ingredients of Spanish and French colonizers, enslaved Africans and their free descendants, Italian immigrants, and Native Americans. The flavors are cayenne and black pepper, toasty roux, smoked meats, the slick deep-greenness of okra, the muscular brine wallop of a Gulf oyster. Perhaps more than anywhere else in the United States, New Orleans boasts its own rich regional culinary tradition, one that is integral to the city’s sense of itself—and famously resistant to change. “For three hundred years, it’s been kind of the same,” Emeril Lagasse, one of the most influential ambassadors of New Orleans gastronomy, lamented in an interview in 2000. “There are restaurants in New Orleans that the menu hasn’t changed in a hundred and twenty-five years, so how is one going to change or evolve the food?”
By the time the chef Nina Compton arrived in New Orleans, in 2015, the city’s cuisine was no longer so rigidly set in amber. What loosened it was one of the most catastrophic disasters in modern American history: the federal levee failures that followed Hurricane Katrina, in August of 2005, killing an estimated eighteen hundred and thirty-three people, displacing seven hundred and seventy thousand residents, and devastating entire neighborhoods. In the years after, as the city slowly recovered, an influx of outsiders arrived, drawn by cheap rents and by the romance of rebuilding. Among them was a new generation of chefs proudly cooking the foods of their places of origin. Before the storm, restaurants that cooked outside of the city’s Creole vernacular rarely landed on tourists’ must-visit lists. Now New Orleans was earning attention for new Middle Eastern and Latin American restaurants, farm-to-table cafés, a flurry of serious pizza joints. Compton’s first restaurant, Compère Lapin, opened in mid-2015, in a hotel in the city’s trendy Warehouse District, showcasing the food of the Caribbean, and of her native St. Lucia in particular: seafood pepper pot, cow-heel soup, jerk fish. Her dishes were threaded through with the islands’ smoke and spice and with the ambrosial sweetness of tropical fruit, but they also borrowed freely from France and Italy, the American South, and from the flavors of New Orleans itself.
New Orleans is often described as the northernmost city in the Caribbean. As with the city’s past, the layered history of the islands—of European colonizers, enslaved Africans, indentured laborers from South Asia and China—can be gleaned by studying the dishes on its tables. Compton played up the culinary harmonies between her home country and her adopted city, serving dishes such as accra—Caribbean salt-fish fritters—alongside green beans with rémoulade, a quintessential New Orleans sauce. The New Orleanian writer and food historian Lolis Eric Elie told me that he sees Compère Lapin as an exultant argument for a more complete understanding of the city’s culinary history. “There’s a knee-jerk assumption that the goodness of New Orleans food stems from its French influence, and that’s largely wrong,” Elie said. “To understand our cuisine, we need to look south, to the Caribbean and Latin America, and we need to look east, to Africa.” Even the restaurant’s name highlights the connection: the character of Compère Lapin, a trickster rabbit, originates in African folklore and is a centerpiece of both St. Lucian and Louisiana storytelling. (Others might know him by his Anglophone name: Br’er Rabbit.)
In St. Lucia, Compton is political royalty: her late father, John Compton, was the nation’s first Prime Minister, and is considered its founding father. But in the U.S. she made her name on reality television, as a standout competitor on the eleventh season of “Top Chef.” New Orleanians might have been wary of a TV chef sweeping in to open a restaurant. But Compton’s deeply personal cooking won the city over. Almost right away, Compère Lapin’s dining room was packed from breakfast to nightcap; its signature dish, curried goat over sweet-potato gnocchi, became so popular that Compton ran through her goat supplier’s entire stock. In 2016, Brett Anderson, then the restaurant critic at the Times-Picayune, named Compère Lapin the restaurant of the year, calling Compton’s cooking “a delicious case study in the art of belonging.” In 2018, Compton opened Bywater American Bistro, which hewed more closely to New Orleans tradition, with dishes like hog’s-head boudin and fried oysters alongside precision-engineered bistro fare. It, too, was a hit.
Being a famous chef in New Orleans is a responsibility, as much as anything; the city elevates its culinary titans into civic spokespeople and cultural custodians. In the five years since she arrived, Compton has become one of New Orleans’s most recognizable faces. As a newcomer who earned the support of a community resistant to outsiders, and a Black woman who found her spotlight in a system that struggles to celebrate people of color, she embodies some of the good that’s come out of the city’s postdiluvian renewal. But not all of New Orleans recovered after Katrina: fifteen years later, parts of the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, remain ravaged, and many of the people who left never made it back. The city is still rebuilding, still mapping the path from before to after.
Now the novel coronavirus has upended New Orleans all over again. Four hundred thousand people live in New Orleans; last year, it saw twenty million visitors, who spill out onto courtyards and sidewalks, crowd onto raucous party porches, and turn the narrow streets of the French Quarter into dense rivers of revelry. This year, Mardi Gras was a harbinger: according to official counts, attendance at the revel, which spanned a week in late February, was down by about twenty per cent compared with 2019. City officials attributed the dip to public anxiety about the virus, which had begun its spread through parts of the United States. It was around that time that Compton noticed that the reservation books at her restaurants were thinning: fewer new bookings, more cancellations and no-shows. A little more than a week later, on March 9th, the first case of COVID-19 in Louisiana was detected, in Jefferson Parish, just outside New Orleans.
“I was trying to be eternally optimistic,” Compton told me recently. March 15th was Bywater American Bistro’s second anniversary, and she and Larry Miller, her husband and business partner, had been planning a massive lunchtime crawfish boil for the occasion. The day before, the state recorded its first COVID-19-related death. She and Miller went through with the party, hoping that it would be a distraction. “Everybody was trying to act normal, but they all looked like they stole a pack of gum from the convenience store and somebody saw them do it—fear,” Compton said. That evening, after the crowd had dwindled, Compton and Miller sat down in the bistro’s dining room to have dinner with some friends. Compton, who is forty-one years old, is slender, with short, shaggy hair and a spray of cooking burns across her forearms. Halfway through the meal, the restaurant’s general manager pulled her aside: the mayor had just imposed a curfew on the city’s businesses—they would need to empty the dining room by nine o’clock that night—and, starting the next day, all restaurants would be required to shift to takeout only.
Little was known about COVID-19 at that point, besides its rapaciousness. Health and government officials were giving out conflicting messages about how the virus spread, how to prevent it, what its effects would be. That night, overwhelmed by the wave of rapidly changing information, Compton and Miller decided that the best thing to do was wait: they would close both restaurants and then figure out what their next steps ought to be. On Tuesday, March 17th—the same day that New Orleans claimed the second-highest per-capita case rate in the country—they called a staff meeting and announced that Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro would be going dark indefinitely, and that the entire staff—some hundred and twenty employees—was being laid off.
In the span of just a few days, virtually all of New Orleans shut down; statewide, unemployment claims leaped in a single week from seventeen hundred to more than thirty thousand. After the closures, Compton had a conversation with a longtime New Orleans restaurateur. “He said, ‘You know, Nina, during Katrina, it was up to our knees, but everybody wanted to reopen,’ ” Compton told me. The city’s attitude in the face of the coronavirus seemed similarly resolute, she said. “Everybody’s, like, ‘It may not be this month, but we’re going to reopen.’ ” In the pandemic, though, the strategies for survival are different. Anderson, who covered the city’s restaurants in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, and who is now a writer for the New York Times, told me, “Reopening a restaurant after Katrina was, ‘You know what? I’m going to grill hamburgers. Watch me go find some soft-shell fucking crabs right now.’ ” In the pandemic, pushing defiantly ahead is dangerous. “We’ve got the calluses, we’ve got the know-how, we’ve got a playbook,” Anderson said. “It turns out all those things aren’t really that useful.”
Compton was an infant when St. Lucia declared independence from Britain, on February 22, 1979, after centuries of colonial rule. That day, her father, already the island’s leader, was sworn in as its first Prime Minister. John Compton, born on a tiny island in the Grenadines and educated in St. Lucia for secondary school, had studied law at the London School of Economics. Upon his return to the islands, he became involved in St. Lucia’s anti-colonial movement. John was a charismatic speaker with a flair for dramatic gestures—early in his career, he’d made his name by drawing a gun on a white sugar-factory owner who had refused to recognize an employee union. By the time he came to govern the island, in 1964 (before independence, he held the titles of chief minister and premier), he was the face of the conservative establishment, which he headed until his death, in 2007. For almost all of Compton’s upbringing, she was a First Daughter of a young nation.
“I had the best childhood, I really did,” Compton told me. Alongside his political career, John was a prosperous banana and coconut farmer, and the family’s large house, called Moulin-a-Vent, after an old windmill on the property, was set on a hillside, with a sunset view over Rodney Bay. One of Compton’s most indelible memories, she said, was of her father squeezing fresh juice each morning, for the family’s breakfast. Another was afternoons spent at the beach, where her parents would slice mangoes picked from the family’s trees, and Compton and her siblings would race into the ocean to dunk the sticky fruit in saltwater before eating it.
I was surprised by the pastoral, apolitical glow of Compton’s childhood stories, given her father’s reputation among St. Lucia’s hundred and eighty thousand citizens. Months after becoming Prime Minister, he had been voted out of office by a furious opposition; three years later, he staged a return, with the backing of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. “Don’t get me wrong,” Compton said at one point. “It wasn’t an island where every single person loved my father. We would be driving to school and hear people be, like, ‘Down with Compton!’ ” She felt self-conscious of her privilege, and learned to downplay her family name. The New Orleans chef Donald Link, a friend of Compton’s, recalled a recent trip to St. Lucia where, at Compton’s insistence, he spent an afternoon being shown around the island by her mother, Janice. “Everywhere we went, people were like, ‘Hello, Lady Compton!’ ” he recalled. “I was, like, O.K., she seems to be someone of stature on this island.” Outside the central market in Castries, the island’s capital, Link saw a statue of John, and texted a picture of it to Compton. “You didn’t tell me everything about your life here,” he wrote her.
The family had a maid who did much of the cooking, and it wasn’t until Janice’s mother—a white Englishwoman who had relocated to St. Lucia after falling in love with Compton’s grandfather—moved in with the family, when Compton was eight or nine, that Compton started to develop an interest in food. “She especially loved cooking flying fish with parsley sauce, and I became her sous-chef,” Compton told me. “I’d say, ‘Yeah, Granny, what do you need? I’ll peel the onions, I’ll chop the carrots.’ ” At sixteen, while home from boarding school in the U.K., Compton volunteered to take over the family’s Christmas dinner. After the meal, Compton recalls feeling a great sense of rightness. “I was, like, ‘You know what? If I can make them happy, I’m sure I can make other people happy.’ And that was kind of my driving force,” she said.
When Compton was eighteen, Janice arranged for her daughter’s first professional kitchen job, a summer gig at a Sandals resort on the island. Compton loved the work so much that she stayed for a year, then spent another two at a Sandals in Jamaica. There, she worked under a chef who had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, in New York’s Hudson Valley, and who told her that it was one of the only culinary schools worth the money. In 2000, Compton enrolled, and after graduating she secured a coveted job at Daniel, one of Manhattan’s most rarefied French restaurants.
At Daniel, she was exposed to a new kind of kitchen: hierarchical, male-dominated, cutthroat. “Yelling, screaming, demeaning—just high anxiety all the time,” Compton said. As a Black, immigrant woman (“That’s the trifecta,” she said), she felt there was little space for her to advance. “There was a woman who worked appetizers, Leslie,” she recalled. “I’ll never forget her. She said, ‘Nothing’s going to change. Even though you’re the best cook, you’ll never make it to the hot line’ ”—the center of a kitchen’s action, where line cooks work to prove themselves crafting a restaurant’s main courses, jockeying for promotions and mentorship. “And that’s just how it was.”
Disillusioned, Compton left Daniel after a year, for work in Miami, where she remained for more than a decade. She met Miller, who was then a restaurant consultant, when they were both working at Casa Casuarina, a luxury hotel in the Miami Beach mansion formerly owned by Gianni Versace, and they began dreaming about opening a place of their own. In 2013, when Compton was working as the chef de cuisine at the Miami outpost of the pasta restaurant Scarpetta, she received a call on the kitchen phone. It was a “Top Chef” producer, inviting her to be a contestant on the show’s next season, which would film primarily in New Orleans. (Scott Conant, the former chef-owner of Scarpetta, had previously been a judge on the show, but he told me that the producers found Compton independently.) If Compton won, she would get a prize of a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. Even if she didn’t win, the show would also allow her, on a national stage, to cook the St. Lucian food she loved. “I called my mom, and she said, ‘Don’t do it, it’s too stressful for me,’ ” Compton said. “I told her, ‘Mom, this could be good. Maybe I’ll win the money. I can put Caribbean food on the map.’ ”
Bywater American Bistro—often called BABs by its regulars—is named for the Bywater neighborhood, which, with the adjacent Faubourg Marigny, sits to the “downtown” side of the French Quarter, atop a natural levee along the curve of the Mississippi. Before Katrina, the Bywater was a bohemian enclave of artists and working-class families; as in New Orleans at large, six in ten neighborhood residents were Black. After the storm, as the city worked to rebuild both its infrastructure and its population, the demographics of the Bywater inverted. Real-estate prices soared, and—at least until the COVID-19 era—the streets buzzed with tourists, who cycled through the neighborhood’s hundreds of short-term Airbnbs. Many of the area’s old factories were converted into loft apartments; Bywater American Bistro occupies the ground floor of a converted rice mill, where residents’ amenities include bike racks fabricated by an Estonian design collective and a lap pool set in an “Italian citrus grove.”
In January, Compton and Miller moved from that building, where they’d lived since opening Bywater American Bistro, to a house nearby, a white-painted shotgun with tidy gray trim. After closing her restaurants for the coronavirus lockdown, Compton spent two weeks at home, tending her new garden. After a time, she started taking daily walks to the restaurant. She and Miller had donated most of the perishables in the walk-in refrigerators to food banks, but, working with what remained in the pantry and freezers, she cooked meals for health-care workers: semolina gnocchi, grits with sausage gravy. Even in normal times, restaurants operate on knife-blade margins; after the sudden shutdowns, many could not afford their overhead costs. Compton is in a relatively lucky position: for both Compère Lapin and Bywater Bistro, her rent is tied to revenue. Still, “once you hit the one-month mark, then six weeks, now eight weeks—the longer you stay closed, the harder it is to open,” Compton said.
It was May 15th, the day that New Orleans entered Phase 1 of its reopening, allowing restaurants to resume dine-in service at twenty-five-per-cent capacity. But Compton and Miller were worried about moving too quickly. Orleans and Jefferson Parishes had just surpassed a combined thirteen thousand infections, nearly a third of the statewide total. “We don’t want to do it prematurely. We don’t want it to blow up in our face,” Compton said. In April, Bywater American Bistro had been approved for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, and Compton and Miller had rehired four of their former staff and spun up a takeout business, with weekly themes—a Saint Lucian fish fry, a pig roast, a pasta feast. Now they settled on a tentative next step: at the beginning of June, Bywater American Bistro would reopen its dining room for just one table a night. It was part dress rehearsal, part low-key stunt. Mostly, Compton told me, it was about the pleasure of getting back to serving dinner. “The room, the music, somebody pouring wine for you, the lighting—that doesn’t fit in a to-go box,” she said. When online bookings for the first few tables went live, an onrush of aspiring diners caused the reservation page to crash.
Two weeks later, Compton sat on a green banquette in the center of the restaurant, a double-height space with raw brick walls, conducting a staff meeting before the first night of service. She was wearing her usual uniform, a striped canvas apron over a fitted T-shirt, plus a white disposable mask. Her handful of employees, also masked, sat spaced out at separate tables. A week before, the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, had prompted mass protests across the country. In New Orleans, the marches had been notable for their peacefulness, but the night before police had fired tear gas at protesters attempting to cross a bridge. The city was on pins and needles—plus, a tropical storm was on the way. But Compton’s voice—slightly raspy, with the lilt of a Caribbean accent—was focussed and calm.
“We can’t catch a break,” she said, with a half laugh. “I think the best part of our day is going to be two people coming in, and we’re just making them feel good.”
The guests that night were locals, two friends who’d pounced on OpenTable the moment the reservation link went live. Compton served them duck breast on a purée of carrots and foie gras; tortellini filled with squash blossoms harvested from a friend’s garden, draped in saffron cream; and paper-thin slices of a tuna loin that she’d been curing in salt and sugar for days, so that the ruby-red fish was dense and rich like bresaola, served with stewed okra and a sip of pot liquor. Rosie Jean Adams, the general manager, had seated the pair in a little section that juts out from the main dining room like a windowed panhandle, where the narrower space and lower ceiling could make being alone in the restaurant feel more like intimacy than isolation.
Compton called me later that night, alive with adrenaline. “It was amazing, just amazing,” she said. Her plan was to increase the number of customers in the following weeks. “The restaurant is really open now,” she said. “Now it’s a fast track to July, when we open up for real, and things will hopefully start to go back to normal.”
In recent years, Compton told me, she has noticed parallels between her professional trajectory and those of the handful of other Black chefs who’ve achieved national fame. “Everybody had the same narrative: ‘When I started cooking, I wanted to work for the best chefs. When I worked in these kitchens, I was the only Black person,’ ” she said. Several, she added—Carla Hall, Kwame Onwuachi, Nyesha Arrington—used appearances on “Top Chef,” as she did, to build their names, and to set in motion extraordinary careers. Jessica B. Harris, a scholar of Black foodways, told me she doesn’t think that pattern is a coincidence. Unlike restaurant investors, reality-show producers tend to prize diversity. Competing on television, Harris said, “has become, if you will, an opening—a way to raise consciousness about what you do for African-American chefs who might otherwise have had even more difficulty being seen or being heard.”
Before Compton flew to New Orleans to film “Top Chef,” she told her staff at Scarpetta that she would be taking a leave of absence to visit her family in St. Lucia—the show’s nondisclosure agreement meant that almost nobody could know where she really was and what she was doing. (All communication with the outside world was prohibited during the six-week shoot; to maintain secrecy, Miller kept hold of Compton’s phone, and responded to incoming messages as if he were her.) The show aired in the fall of 2013; from the first episode, in which Compton wowed the judges with curried-turtle meatballs, she distinguished herself with an amiable perfectionism. Week after week, other contestants were told to pack their knives and go, until only Compton and Nicholas Elmi, an anger-prone Philadelphia chef, remained. In the finale, filmed in Maui, Compton prepared a meal that foregrounded tropical flavors: golden slices of breadfruit with a foie-gras “butter,” a jewel-like tartare of tuna and escolar under a snowdrift of tomato granita. Elmi underseasoned his tuna, undercooked his duck, and threw a tantrum loud enough for the judges, seated outside the kitchen, to hear. “I said I had to be perfect to beat you,” he said to Compton bitterly, while the two waited to hear their fates—Compton, it seemed, was the obvious winner. After an unusually long period of deliberation, the chefs were brought before the judges. The dramatic music swelled. “Nick,” Padma Lakshmi, the show’s host, said. “You are Top Chef.”
Being robbed of victory may have done more for Compton’s career than winning ever could. The Internet lit up with the injustice; Tom Colicchio, the judge who’d seemed most impressed by Elmi’s showing, was pummelled on Twitter with accusations that he’d railroaded the other judges. Six years later, Compton told me, she still gets messages from outraged fans. After the season wrapped, she and Miller received pitches from investors and developers around the country: Los Angeles, Chicago, New York. In late 2014, they heard from the new owners of the Ambassador Hotel, in New Orleans, who were giving the place a face-lift and rechristening it the Old No. 77 Hotel. They wanted her to create a restaurant that could help put them on the map. Compton had never been to the city before filming “Top Chef,” but she loved the thought of moving there. In many ways, she said, New Orleans reminded her of St. Lucia: “The buildings, the climate, the vegetation, the colorfulness of the people. The love of life, you know?”
Growing up in the Caribbean didn’t fully prepare Compton for the pernicious racial dynamics of the United States, she told me. St. Lucia’s population is less than two-per-cent white; its citizens are overwhelmingly the descendants of enslaved Africans. “My sister and I were talking about this,” Compton said. “She said, ‘Nina, think about it. Growing up, you had so many people as Prime Ministers, as governors, as business owners who were Black, right?’ Here, in America, we don’t have that representation.” After some time of living and working in the U.S., her understanding of her racial identity changed, and the nature of her ambition changed with it: she wanted to succeed as a chef not only for the sake of personal fulfillment but as an act of defiance against a society rigged against Black achievement. “I can’t make a huge splash, but I can make a ripple,” Compton said. “And then, hopefully, that becomes a wave.”
Still, in the early days of the George Floyd marches and rallies, perhaps the largest civil-rights protests in American history, Compton found herself feeling skeptical. I asked if this had to do with her upbringing in a political family—her father, during his career, had often faced angry crowds. “I think protests do have a place, but sometimes the point doesn’t really get across,” she said. “It’s very emotional, and I feel sometimes that processing the moment is better.” She was especially uncomfortable with the outpouring of white allyship—including, she told me, an uptick in takeout orders at Bywater American Bistro, which she suspected were from people making an effort to support Black-owned businesses. She worried that support for the cause of racial equality would prove to be little more than a passing trend. “I’ve been on calls with so many people who run restaurants, or tech companies, or whatever else—they want to put out a statement. Stop right there. Look in the mirror. And also look at your payroll, look at your schedule. You need to do some housekeeping before you start saying ‘Black Lives Matter.’ ”
In New Orleans, Black cooks who’ve come up within the city’s restaurants have struggled to be seen—in “Creole Feast,” a cookbook and oral history from 1978, the civil-rights activist and author Rudy Lombard described them as working “in almost complete anonymity and frequently in a hostile environment.” Black chefs have run the kitchens of some of the city’s most revered establishments—Milton Prudence at Galatoire’s, Lazone Randolph at Brennan’s—but they’ve received none of the fanfare that was given to their restaurants’ white owners, or to white chefs such as Paul Prudhomme, Lagasse, or (before his #MeToo downfall) John Besh. Since the inception of the James Beard Awards, the nation’s most prestigious restaurant honors, in 1991, New Orleans establishments and chefs have won competitive awards twenty-six times. Only one of those has gone to a Black-owned restaurant or a Black chef: Compton, who in 2018 was declared the best chef of the South, for her cooking at Compère Lapin. (The James Beard Foundation recently announced that, because of the coronavirus, it is suspending the 2020 and 2021 awards; according to the Times, concern over racial inequities in the awards process also played a role.) Lolis Eric Elie, the writer and historian, posited that Compton’s status as an already accomplished cook, with an established public profile, helped insulate her from the forces that too often block the city’s talented Black cooks from reaching the spotlight. “Had she been a line cook at fill-in-the-blank restaurant in New Orleans, would they have noticed her talent?” he said.
For more than a half century, the city’s most famous Black chef was Leah Chase, the owner of the legendary restaurant Dooky Chase, in the Treme neighborhood. Chase, who died last year, at the age of ninety-six, was New Orleans’s undisputed queen of Creole cooking, serving politicians, celebrities, and civil-rights leaders fried chicken, shrimp Clemenceau, and, each Holy Thursday, her famous gumbo z’herbes. (She, too, has been recognized by the Beard Foundation, but only with honorary awards: Lifetime Achievement, Who’s Who In Food and Beverage in America.) Chase’s death left a hole in the New Orleans culinary pantheon; Elie, Harris, and Anderson all told me that they see Compton as an heir to Chase’s legacy. Compton recalled that, shortly after Compère Lapin opened, Chase paid her a visit: “She said, ‘Welcome to the city. We’re so happy to have you.’ And then she said to me, ‘Listen, you have to make it.’ I said, ‘Miss Leah, I’m going to try,’ and she said, ‘No, you have to make it. We are counting on you.’ She told me that you have to be the toughest person in the room. You can’t show signs of weakness, or give up. You have to keep pushing. Because, she said, ‘Nina, if you make it, you’re leading the way for other Black female chefs to make it in New Orleans.’ ”
Four days before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, it blew through Miami, where Compton, who was single at the time, was living in a one-bedroom apartment in South Beach. In the middle of the night, fearful that the winds would blow her windows out, she grabbed her passport, a bottle of wine, and a bag of Doritos and locked herself in her apartment’s interior bathroom. When she emerged, after eight nervous hours, the sun was shining, and the city, rattled but mostly whole, was already moving on. Compton has since experienced several hurricanes in New Orleans; on Thursday, the city was on tornado watch as Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm, pummelled parts of the Gulf Coast. Still, when she decided to put down roots in the city, Compton resolved to listen to locals’ Katrina stories whenever she found the chance. “There’s a phrase we say back home, in St. Lucia: empty vessels make the most noise,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a person talking about New Orleans without really saying anything. It’s an old city, and I’m new here. You have to come in on tippy-toe, be respectful, appreciate the nuances.”
For survivors of Katrina, the current crisis is in many ways cruelly familiar: another foreseeable calamity ignored, another disaster-management hack job by the federal government, another era of lives and livelihoods on pause. As with Katrina, the city’s Black residents have been hit hardest by both the virus and the economic devastation caused by the efforts to halt its spread. But everyone I spoke to said that the pandemic is likely to prove even worse than Katrina in the long run. By mid-August, the coronavirus had caused more than forty-five hundred deaths in the state, more than double the highest estimates of fatalities from the hurricane and its aftermath. Each day, on average, the virus claims twenty more Louisianan lives. “The thing with Katrina was it had an end point,” L. Kasimu Harris, a New Orleans writer and photographer who chronicled the hurricane’s aftermath, told me. “The storm happened on the twenty-ninth of August, the levees started breaking the same day, and weeks after that, pretty much, you could start rebuilding.” With the coronavirus, by contrast, the disaster phase is dragging on indefinitely. The pandemic has been six straight months of the levees breaking, and the water has not yet begun to recede.
Since June, New Orleans has been stuck in Phase 2 of reopening; a planned transition to Phase 3—which would allow more customers in restaurants and other businesses—has been postponed several times. A third of all New Orleans hospitality workers remain unemployed. Compton and Miller, so far, have been able to rehire only ten of their former staffers. Compère Lapin remains closed, and Bywater American Bistro, in accordance with Phase 2 rules, is filling only half of its eighty-five seats each night, plus an additional dozen at outdoor tables set up on the sidewalk.
“Last week, there was talk about going back to Phase 1,” Compton said. “So you spend a whole day waiting for this press conference—like, what are they going to say today? It’s a constant state of fear.” In April, Compton had become involved with the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a national industry lobbying group formed in order to insure that non-chain restaurants—and their collective millions of employees—were not overlooked in the government’s coronavirus-relief legislation. She pointed me to the results of a survey that the group had conducted, in July, of more than two thousand restaurants and bars, which showed that, on average, their owners were not confident that they would be able to remain operational through October. Compton told me, “We’re not trying to turn a profit. We’re just trying to stay afloat.”
At five o’clock on a recent evening, a half hour before Bywater American Bistro was scheduled to open, Compton was surprised to notice customers already forming a socially distanced queue outside. She unlocked the doors early, and Miller, doing double duty as a host and a runner, directed parties to their tables. He handed each person a printer-paper menu, explaining, from behind a mask bearing the logo of the New Orleans Saints, that the sheets would be discarded after customers had handled them. The kitchen fired up—three cooks, down from the usual crew of seven, plus Compton and a dishwasher—and the room filled with the sounds of conversation and clinking tableware, and Mel Waiters crooning on the sound system: the rising hum of a restaurant coming halfway back to life.
The next day, around noon, after receiving a delivery of Gulf shrimp at the restaurant, Compton called me, over FaceTime, as she strolled home along Crescent Park, a new, narrow strip of greenery that follows the line of the Mississippi. There were few other people out, but not because of COVID-19, she explained: this time of year, at the hottest time of day, there’s almost nobody around. New Orleans is brutal in the summertime—the suffocating heat broken only by brief, torrential squalls of rain—but it’s beautiful, too. Heavy yellow sunlight wraps cars and buildings in its glimmer; the city’s greenery, always lush, becomes a jungle. Compton pointed to a hand-painted wooden board—“Turn Here 4 Tacos”—tacked up on the corner of Congress Street, directing passersby to an ersatz takeout restaurant run out of someone’s home. “A lot of people are doing things like this, selling tacos or snowballs,” she said. “Just trying to be creative and get some income.” In an open-walled shed behind the Joint, a barbecue spot down the street, a hulking smoker purred, and Compton drew in a deep, happy breath.
As she rounded the corner, toward her home, she passed Vaughan’s Lounge, a venerable jazz and blues dive. The bar, open since 1959, is a Bywater landmark, famous for its annual block party and, until a few years ago, for the Thursday-night residency of the trumpet great Kermit Ruffins. Compton paused by the door, where the owners had posted a sign urging patrons to wear masks: “PROTECT YOURSELF AND OTHERS.” “There have been times during all of this when I’m, like, What is the point? What is the incentive?” she had said to me, in one of our earlier conversations. There was so much to despair of: the people who refused to wear masks, the lack of care shown by the government, the relentlessness of racism, the feeling that, over all, things were lots of tunnel and very little light. “But I remind myself, ‘Nina, it’s not all about you,’ ” she had said. “It’s about giving other people hope. The goal is to weather the storm.”
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