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This is a column in a series from Upserve called “Restaurant Voices,” which features firsthand experiences and lessons from people working within the restaurant industry. Each column in the series describes a specific turning point or moment for restaurateurs that changed or defined their careers. This column is by Greg Sonnier who lost his restaurant in Hurricane Katrina and is now finally reopening.

I’ll never forget that Saturday 12 years ago when we knew Hurricane Katrina was heading for New Orleans.

My wife, Mary, and I were just reopening our restaurant Gabrielle, a small place with about 50 seats, after a week-long vacation.

The restaurant, which shares a name with my grandmother and daughter, had been like a family since we opened in 1992. Customers—who once included Mick Jagger—ate with us regularly each week while I served up my interpretations of Creole and Cajun cooking. My dish of roasted duck with an orange-sherry sauce was even featured in The New York Times in 2004.

Just one year later, we were bracing for the storm. I knew from being born and raised in New Orleans that hurricanes are bad news. The hardest part is that you’re without electricity for a long period of time. We were all worried, so I told the staff that we were going to close that night. We basically cleared the register and gave everyone a couple hundred bucks to get out of town.

We were in for more damage than we imagined. Our family evacuated all the way to Memphis, and when I saw that the levees broke, I knew that it would be impossible to get back anytime soon. We packed for a couple of days, but we ended up staying in there for two-and-a-half months.

 We basically cleared the register and gave everyone a couple hundred bucks to get out of town.

We were able to come back to our house, but our business was a mess with the flood water and wind damage. We basically had to push the refrigerators out the back door and assess the damage. Repairs wouldn’t be quick because everyone was in the same boat.

We had to make a decision. We moved on. We found a place uptown that was previously a reception hall. Unfortunately, even though at the time there was no difference between a reception hall and a restaurant, the regulations were changed so there could never be a restaurant at that location.

That hurt. We tried to go the legal route to get the right permit, but we couldn’t. So we operated a catering reception hall for a pretty long time, but there were a lot of difficulties that came with operations. At that point, I left the business to open Kingfish and Mary became a stay-at-home mom.

Mary Sonnier, Mick Jagger, and Greg Sonnier

I enjoyed opening Kingfish and loved working for them, but we always wanted to get our Gabrielle restaurant back. We continued to look for a place, even almost closing on one spot, but that whole deal fell through at the last minute.

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We kept looking. In the meantime, I left Kingfish and started working as a private chef. Then, one day, while Mary and I were driving around the city, we came upon this place on Orleans Avenue, just three-quarters of a mile from our old Gabrielle. We made an offer.

We secured the location for the new Gabrielle. But there have been more setbacks. Believe it or not, in early August, the neighborhood flooded because somebody forgot to turn the pumps on. It reminded me of Katrina. I was there that day fixing a stove, and when I went to leave, my car was flooded. In the street, the water was waist-high. I had to walk home.

A few inches of rain got into the restaurant, enough to cause damage to the sheetrock and equipment, and enough to delay our opening until this September.

 I enjoyed opening Kingfish and loved working for them, but we always wanted to get our Gabrielle restaurant back.

But we’re almost ready to go. People are excited. The anticipation is so high that we would open tomorrow if we could. It’s been 12 years and people still remember our dishes, so I’d be foolish to not keep some of those on the menu.

A lot has changed over the years, though, especially social media. The last time we were open, there were only newspaper forums online. Now, every person is literally a food critic. You have to be on top of your game. But I think this generation eats out more—a lot of them go out to dinner daily—so that’s a big plus.

If I can do what I did to attract people way back in the ’90s, I think we’ll definitely be able to make it. You have friends for life here. That’s part of our culture.

Now it’s just time to dust myself off and get going again.

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Greg Sonnier is a James Beard Award-nominated chef who has cooked at restaurants including Gabrielle, which he owns with his wife, Mary; as well as K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, and Kingfish. He lives in New Orleans.
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