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An oasis in a food desert

The Lower 9th Ward was arguably the epicenter of the massive flooding that followed the failure of the levees after Hurricane Katrina on Aug 29, 2005. While the neighborhood will forever be marked by that epic event, it's not all that identifies this  historic and intrinsic part of New Orleans. This week, in the first of a new "Voices" feature, NolaVie speaks with some of the residents of the Lower Nine, about their lives there, the people there, the community there. Today we talk to biology major-turned-restauranteur Tia Henry, who opened Lower Nine eatery Cafe Dauphine in a Katrina-ravaged building following the storm. 

Tia Henry, co-owner of the Ninth Ward restaurant Café Dauphine. (Photo by: Hanna Rasanen)

Tia Henry, co-owner of the Ninth Ward restaurant Café Dauphine. (Photo by: Hanna Rasanen)

The corner of Dauphine and Egania Streets in the Lower Ninth Ward houses a charming white-tablecloth restaurant in what was once the site of a typical New Orleans-style corner store. In 2005, when the nearby levee failed, that building took on 11 feet of water and, like so many others in the surrounding devastated neighborhood, it sat there until Fred and Tia Henry and his younger sister, Keisha, bought it in 2009.

While Fred’s extended Henry family owned and lived for generations in several houses in the immediate neighborhood, and still do, not a one of them knew anything about owning a restaurant.

“None of us had ever even worked in a restaurant,” Tia says with a laugh. She’s a Lake Charles native who came south, so to speak, to go to Xavier University and major in biology. It was her plan to continue on to get a nursing degree.

Then two things happened: one good, one seriously bad. The good was she married into the Henry family and she and Fred started a family. The bad: well, her name was Katrina and she forced Tia back to Lake Charles to have the baby and stay there while the city tried to clean itself up.

Now one could say it’s a long way from an intended career in the sciences to an unplanned one in the kitchen and, says Tia, one would be right. So what happened?

“Well I’m a foodie,” Tia says. “Always have been”. So when she and the baby moved back to New Orleans, she started catering from their house. “I sold Friday suppers and did some special events,” she recalls. And that’s when the idea for taking over the old corner store took hold -- not as a restaurant, mind you. Café Dauphine was intended to be a coffee shop with a few food items, a friendly place for the neighbors and for those in the surrounding areas, too.

Fred, a general contractor by trade, took charge of all the building needs, and Tia and Keisha figured out what sort of a menu to create. Whenever the money ran out, as it did on several occasions, work stopped on the building. “It took four years to complete it,” Tia says. And during that time, the idea of the building’s use went from coffee shop to full service restaurant, something they all thought would be a better idea for the entire neighborhood.

It’s a year now since they opened and things are going very well in their Creole and Cajun spot. “We wanted a menu where no matter who came in, they could find something to order,” Tia says. “So the menu has a little bit of everything.”

The three owners work hard. Café Dauphine is open seven days a week, serving both lunch and dinner. There are line cooks that help Tia and Keisha in the open kitchen, a part of the restaurant Fred does not enter. “He opens and closes the place every day and does anything that is unrelated to the kitchen,” Tia explains with a smile.

Café Dauphine has been discovered by all kind of folk looking for an authentic local culinary experience. “The majority of our customers are really not from the neighborhood,” Tia says. “They come from all across the city. This is more a destination location. We don’t get a lot of foot traffic over here.”

Among the diners from all walks of life are a number of national celebrities who have found their way to Café Dauphine or have been brought there by well-known locals. “Charmaine Neville brought Saturday Night Live’s Garrett Morris in not too long ago,” Tia says.

So does the almost nursing-school candidate have any regrets about the changes in her life?

Only one.

“If I had realized this wasn’t going to end up a coffee shop, I would never have put in that open kitchen,” she says. “It gets so hot in there and no way to really cool it down.”

Tomorrow on Voices of the Lower Ninth Ward: Brenda Robinson, the creator of “Black History, Our History: Lower Ninth Ward Notables,” a multi-volume book series documenting Lower Ninth Ward achievers through photos and brief biographies. Future Voices series will look at other New Orleans neighborhoods. Email comments and suggestions about this and other areas and people to cover to editor@ nolavie.com.

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]