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New Orleans con Sabor Latino: Adolfo Garcia

Editor's Note: This interview with Adolfo Garcia was conducted by Tulane student, Naomi Cowens as a part of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum's New Orleans con Sabor Latino exhibit. This exhibit was the result of a joint effort by Tulane University, SoFaB, and community partners.

In Dr. Sarah Fouts' interdisplinary seminar, Food, Migration, & Culture, Tulane students worked with Latino members of the New Orleans food industry to create a series of oral histories exploring the role of Latin culture in our city's restaurant scene. With stories ranging from famous restauranteurs to line cooks, New Orleans con Sabor Latino demonstrates the diversity of experience within this community, as well as their vital contributions to the Big Easy.

[Adolfo Garcia, oral history full text below]

 

In the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, restaurant owners were denied access to their properties while floodwaters lingered in dining rooms and food languished in the freezers. In this oral history, Adolfo Garcia recounts his experience re-opening his debut restaurant, RioMar, after the storm.

Garcia is a local chef and restauranteur of Panamanian descent. He is a partner in High Hat Cafe and Ancora Pizza on Freret Street, Primitivo in Central City, and La Boca Steakhouse in the Warehouse District. The James Beard Foundation named him a semifinalist for the "Best Chef in the South" award in 2011.

“Well, Katrina came. I had opened Rio Mar, which was my restaurant at that point in 2000. In 2005, Katrina hit. I told all my employees, ‘If you guys don’t show up for lunch on Monday, you’re all fired. Ok, so whatever you do, just make sure you show up, but let’s get the hell out of here.’ And we did, and of course that didn’t pan out.

We put that restaurant back to work in five weeks. We were one of the first ones up and running. We would go to Sam’s Club, buy pork butts, buy whatever they had and that was the menu. And I would write the menus by the hand every day and there was three or four things on it and then, because we didn’t have computers and we didn’t have internet.

And then it started getting bigger and it started getting bigger and I tell you, by three months later, we were back 100%, up and running. The hotels were packed. I remember the first couple of weeks, we were doing ten dollar dishes. It was rice and beans, plantains, Cuban sandwich, steak, pork, chicken. And then we just, ten bucks in the styrofoam thing, take it. And then we had, you know, psychologists, a personal assistant, a teacher, that were our waiters. That’s because all the waiters left, there were no real waiters in town. These were people that just said I need to start, I need something, I need to make some money and it’s like great, come on you know take the food from point A to point B and you’re going to make some tips. And they all made good money because everyone was over-tipping because everybody was kinda feeling bad for New Orleans.

People would come into the restaurant, you know and all of a sudden, they would just sit there and start crying, you know just because it’s like ‘Wow, we’re back.’ You know, even though everything’s not 100 percent, we’re back at our restaurant, you know that was kinda a great thing, where you kinda saw that, where you know you start getting the restaurant back up and running, and you’re still kinda like struggling because this is difficult, there’s a, there’s a curfew going on, you have to be home by eight o’clock and then people would come in and “Chef! You’re back!” New Orleanians in general were just like ‘Wow. I can’t believe we’re back’. And then, it was the start of, you know, the road back to normal, you know, normalcy.”

 

Special thanks to the Tulane University Stone Center for Latin American Studies, the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, and the Tulane University Center for Public Service for their assistance and support of this project.

 

Kelley Crawford is a professor, writer, mentor, dancer, and constant questioner. If you would like to contact Kelley Crawford, you can email her at kelley@nolavie.com.