With the Super Bowl in New Orleans tonight, the city is buzzing. What has happened here in seven short years can only be described as an amazing transformation.
There are plenty of problems that continue to haunt the town, including a crime rate that is much higher than anyone would like. Still, residents here take great pride in what they describe as a return from the depths of suffering in the wake of Katrina.
Part of the journey was a dramatic Saints Super Bowl victory in 2010 and now the revamped Mercedes-Benz Superdome is hosting the 2013 fight for the NFL title. While significant, those milestones pale in comparison to the comeback this city has seen in what many appreciate most about New Orleans: its food.
The road to New Orleans was a long one for René Bajeux. One of only 55 French Master Chefs in the United States, Bajeux cut his teeth in many restaurants around the world with some of the best chefs. His culinary travels took him from his native Alsace-Lorraine in France to Maui, Chicago, Los Angeles to New Orleans in the late 90s where he was executive chef of the Grill Room at the Windsor Court Hotel and finally René Bistrot in the Renaissance Pere Marquette in the city’s French Quarter.
Bajeux says he grew fond of New Orleans and felt he was finally home. Everything changed in 2005 when Katrina devastated the city. Bajeux says that his heart was in New Orleans, but he knew he had a big decision to make.
Less than a week after the hurricane, Bajeux was forced to leave. He and his wife packed up their belongings and along with their two children, moved from the city like so many others were forced to do. After a short stay in Madison, Wisconsin, Bajeux’s family decided to return to New Orleans. While there was a perception that he left the city for good, Bajeux says his family stayed while he rolled up his sleeves and went back to work as a chef and consultant in many restaurants around the world.
“My wife and kids always were here, we rebuilt our house and I always kept my foot in the door,” says Bajeux. He left to do what he could to provide for his family. But his goal was always to go back to New Orleans.
“The city, there is something magnetic about it that drives you back. I couldn’t let go, I went everywhere after Katrina. I went to London, the Caribbean, all wonderful cities, I could have stayed in any one of them, but it didn’t have the soul of New Orleans.”
After years removed from cooking in the city he loves, Bajeux returned in 2012. Shortly after he arrived, he had the chance to pick up where he left off before the storm. He was approached with the opportunity to reopen René Bistrot and says he was so thrilled with the ownership and investors that he couldn’t say no. His restaurant is now open for business at a new location at the Renaissance Arts Hotel.
Bajeux says he found the restaurant scene has returned and grown bigger and better than it was before the storm.
“So much has changed for the better. There are so many better cooks working here...the food scene has changed," Bajeux said while preparing a smoked garlic vegetable soup. "The old restaurants are getting better because they had to reinvent themselves after Katrina.”
Bajeux says he is finally home, cooking in a city he hopes he never has to leave again.
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