Stay at home orders have forced chefs from across the country to close their restaurants, or rely on take out and delivery to feed customers and keep some staff working.
But in New Orleans, award-winning chefs are sending some dishes to a local grocery store chain.
Branches of Rouses Markets are featuring food prepared by James Beard Award winning chefs Tory McPhail of Commander’s Palace and Alon Shaya, of Saba in New Orleans and Safta in Denver.
There’s also crawfish macaroni and cheese from Ye Old College Inn, and bread from Bywater Bakery.
Rouses plans to add even more dishes as soon as chefs and food purveyors can crank up grocery production.
Of course, grocery aisles have long been home to prepared foods from famous chefs. But it’s much rarer for them to make fresh items to be sold in deli sections.
The program began last Monday (March 16) at the Rouses on Baronne Street in New Orleans’ Central Business District and now is in place at four markets, McPhail says.
The idea came together quickly. McPhail says he took part in a conference call that morning with other chefs.
That afternoon, he began selling quarts of Commander’s famed turtle soup in the deli section, as well as plates of grillades and grits, a local favorite that includes medallions of pork in a rich gravy.
“We had an overwhelming response,” McPhail says. “I had to refill it that afternoon.”
Now, he makes multiple deliveries per day to the grocery stores, wearing his chef’s whites to wheel in a cart bearing his wares. He often gets stopped by customers who ask him to pose for selfies.
McPhail says he also expects to sell the turtle soup soon nationwide via Goldbelly, which offers gourmet food from around the country.
“We have a responsibility to the community and our employees,” McPhail says.
He says one customer told him he planned to take the soup to his grandmother, who was unable to leave the house because she falls in a vulnerable group for the coronavirus.
The decision to take part was easy, McPhail says, because he has a long-standing relationship with the grocery chain.
After Hurricane Katrina, McPhail says Rouses offered him the opportunity to sell his dishes through its stores until Commander’s Palace could reopen. He didn’t take them up on it.
But seven years later, McPhail began selling a line of sauces which Rouses carries.
For Commander’s, it was relatively simple to set up a soup kitchen. “It’s our version of a Henry Ford assembly line,” he says.
The soup is cooked in big steel kettles, then immediately chilled. It’s then ladled into plastic containers, which get lids, labels and are put back into the cooler until they are ready to be delivered.
McPhail estimates that he’s selling 1,000 quarts of turtle soup per day, at $8.99 each (it normally sells for $9 a bowl at the restaurant). McPhail says the proceeds are going to pay the skeleton staff that he has on hand at Commander’s.
Normally, the restaurant employs 200 people, but the dining room is closed because of measures taken by Louisiana and New Orleans to fight the coronavirus. Instead, McPhail says he’s operating with his sous chefs and some front of the house managers.
Commander’s has set up an employee relief fund, and the restaurant is donating proceeds from gift card sales to employees.
Although it had been offering dishes to go, it has put that operation on hold, leaving Rouses as the only place to get Commander’s cuisine.
McPhail says he hasn’t had trouble getting ingredients for his grocery dishes. Local fishermen and farmers are eager to sell to him, because they have lost so many customers with restaurants shut down.
McPhail, who shut down Commander’s the night before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, says the coronavirus situation reminds him of a combination of the Sept. 11 attacks and the hurricane.
“This is something that’s happening worldwide,” McPhail says. “We’re in the hospitality business, but we’re not worried about hospitality. We’re worried about our employees.”
He can’t predict when Commander’s might serve diners again. McPhail suspects he will first re-open Picnic Provisions & Whiskey, a casual spot that he operates in partnership with Commander’s owner Ti Martin and Darryl Reginelli, the owner of the Reginelli’s pizza parlor chain.
Although it has a seating area, Picnic Provisions is better equipped to crank up take out and delivery business, and McPhail says he’s already thinking about new dishes to offer for his neighborhood clientele.
In the meantime, he can be found in the grocery aisles. Says McPhail: “I’m going to keep going as long as I can.”