New Orleans chef fights for her community

Dayana Sarkisova

THE WASHINGTON POST – It was less than a week since the Mosquito Supper Club had lost power due to Hurricane Zeta, and rain was in the forecast.

Chef Melissa M Martin and her staff were working quickly to rearrange seating yet again.

Tables were moved under awnings, staff huddled around the reservations list, and Martin jumped behind the bar to dry glassware.

On this late October evening, early dinner service was in full swing, and laughter erupted from the main dining room, home to one of two grand communal tables.

Socially distanced parties occupied every corner of the Uptown cottage, their faces aglow by candlelight. But for Martin, the scene was still a ghost of its former self.

“I feel like I’m mourning the death of my restaurant,” she said from behind her mask, wiping each glass and holding it up to the light before moving onto the next one.

In August 2016, Martin moved the restaurant to its present location, a house nestled into a residential neighbourhood two blocks from St Charles Avenue. Strangers sat shoulder to shoulder, passing around cauldrons of gumbo and plates of jambalaya. Martin would emerge from the kitchen to regale her audience with tales of a Cajun upbringing, detailing the history of the very dishes they ate.

Oyster Soup. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Martin and chef David Harrower discuss the evening’s menu
Martin makes gumbo
Guests Ahmad Majed and Mallory Martin dine at the front porch table

But of course, the coronavirus pandemic changed everything. And Martin’s sentiments reflect those felt by chefs and restaurants across the country who have been confronted by the same crossroad: evolve or die.

“Each step of evolving the restaurant, it’s happened with intention. It’s happened organically,” said Martin, 40. “But every time it’s evolved it’s been hard. Every step of change has been difficult.”

The crisis has been uniquely challenging for Martin, whose communal supper club was created for the sole purpose of bringing people together over Cajun cuisine and encouraging conversations and revelations that might not happen otherwise. And along with the pandemic, the climate crisis has ravaged the land she was raised on, threatening Louisiana’s coastline and the history, culture and recipes that come with it.

“It’s all been swallowed up,” Martin said. “Everything gets commodified, and then you lose it. You lose industries, then you lose traditions and you lose cultures.”

On March 16, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards closed restaurants indefinitely.

By March 23, the city was considered an early United States (US) hot spot, with Orleans Parish reporting the sixth-highest rate of known cases of any county in the nation, according to an analysis by The Times-Picayune and The Advocate. Mosquito Supper Club first cooked behind closed doors for Feed the Frontline, then for takeout-only. Finally on May 16, the city allowed 25 per cent occupancy.

By then, Martin’s team was down to two long-time line cooks. The pandemic had forced her to let go of staff members, while some – like her sous chef and front of house – moved on themselves. But in June she re-opened the restaurant’s doors with a new model and eight new hires. Noah Pais Bonaparte joined the staff as General Manager and Rick Powanda came on board to run the newly built cafe programme. There are now only two seatings – 5.30 and 8pm – with parties distanced throughout the cottage and its outdoor space.

In the courtyard, Martin debuted a new a la carte menu, shucking fresh oysters and stacking towers of seafood while her brother plays live music from the patio.

The supper club, meanwhile, has evolved into a more classic restaurant set-up, featuring a tasting menu that places Martin’s traditional Cajun dishes side by side with new offerings.

“We’ve evolved our cuisine a little bit because that’s important to me, to keep evolving,” she said. “I think change is vital. I think it’s nice to have a little tradition, like my grandma’s oyster soup, and put that next to the crudo and said they both stand up next to each other.”

Metamorphosis is something Martin has embraced consistently, pandemic or not.

In 2014, two years before the restaurant and its tables moved into their current location, the supper club began in the truest sense of the term – as a pop-up meal with a flat entrance fee.

Brett Anderson, a contributing food writer at the New York Times who was a food critic at the Times-Picayune for nearly 20 years, found himself at one of the earliest iterations when he moved back to the city after a year away in Boston.

“My first experience was when she was throwing these parties in a house down in the Marigny. There was Cajun music, and she served gumbo, and it was an amazing scene. I was so energised by this feeling of her having landed on something new under the sun,” Anderson said.

“Harnessing this Cajun spirit through music and food, and transposing it into this neighbourhood party in New Orleans, it all just felt very novel. It’s a very lasting memory I have,” he recalled. “Part of it was like, ‘I’m home’.”

When Martin set out to compose Mosquito Supper Club, the cookbook, she had to relinquish control. For the first time in the restaurant’s history she brought on a sous-chef, and after showing her how to run the kitchen, Martin stepped away completely to spend time writing. “It was a really huge deal for me,” she said.

Mosquito Supper Club: Cajun Recipes From a Disappearing Bayou published in April. In its pages Martin details the recipes she learned from the Cajun women in her family, from brothy chicken gumbo to lump crab cakes held together with shrimp binder.

She tells stories normally reserved for the tables of the supper club, and most importantly, she documents a true Cajun experience. “Why is gumbo synonymous with Cajun food and maybe not so much Creole food? Why is spicy synonymous with Cajun food? Why do people think that blackened redfish is Cajun food?” challenges Martin.

“Because someone came to New Orleans and cooked it at Commander’s Palace and labelled it Cajun?”

Anderson echoes the sentiment and adds that Cajun food, despite its popularity, remains misunderstood to some degree in American cuisine.

“I think Cajun food really hasn’t been mined all that deeply, when you consider how inescapable the term is,” said Anderson.

“There’s restaurants all over the place, but they have very little to do with the kind of food you have in Cajun country. There is this opportunity for exploration and preservation that I think (Martin) is seizing.”

Ultimately, the cookbook is as much about food as it is a history lesson and a grave call to action.

Every several recipes, Martin breaks to detail life on the water – and highlight the peril Louisiana’s coastline faces.

The state has lost nearly 2,000 square miles of land in the past century, according to Executive Director Kimberly Davis Reyher of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. Recent catastrophes, such as active hurricane seasons and the infiltration of the oil industry, have only exacerbated the crisis.

The coalition has started a number of restoration initiatives, including partnering with local restaurants to recycle oyster shells into shoreline reefs.

Chefs such as Martin can help spread the word, said Reyher. “She’s reaching people that might not otherwise think about wetlands and wildlife habitat,” said Reyher.

“We can’t save it all, but we can hold onto a great deal. We can hold onto our tradition of seafood. But we need more people to understand and support the work.”

Communities on the coastline have lived off the land, capitalising on the gulf’s riches to feed both their own families and supply the Louisiana seafood industry, since the 1700s, as Martin details in her book.

And now those riches are at risk, said Zella Palmer, a local food historian and chair of the Dillard University Ray Charles Programme in African American Material Culture.

“Mosquito Supper Club, I really applaud what they’re doing,” Palmer said. “Because it is about our coastlines, and how much we’re losing. It’s heartbreaking.”

The deterioration of the coastline forces locals to live in a state of evolution, not unlike the restaurant itself. While resources are still available in the coast, Reyher said that where fish, shrimp, oysters and crawfish live and how they’re caught continues to change, placing a burden on those whose livelihood is staked on the setups they already have. 2020 has only worsened these circumstances.

“There is a paradigm shift happening during this pandemic,” said Palmer.

“And I’m hoping that after this is over, people will return to the land and return to the water and take care of Mother Earth. This is a wake-up call. The Earth, whoever you believe in, is telling you: Listen. Return to the land. Grow more food. Share food. Become a community.”

On a Sunday evening in November, Martin is seated at a two-top on the restaurant’s front porch.

It’s not long until the early service, but suddenly, the normally soft white string lights adorning the cottage begin flashing multiple, vivid colours. “Oh no, it’s happening. It’s happening again,” Martin said, spinning around to gaze at the luminescence. “But at least it’s like, fun, you know?”

By now Ricky is on the porch as well, and they confer on what to do. “It does this every once in a while. It’s like my worst nightmare – because obviously, I’m a minimalist,” she said, gesturing toward the restaurant’s natural palette. “Then this happens and I’m just like, ‘Oh. This is life’.”

The evening’s tasting menu features sweet potato biscuits with cane butter; a grande bature oyster with bowfin caviar, shrimp boulettes and pickled banana peppers; delicate crudo with heirloom tomatoes; oyster soup; a crab cake with pickled beets; and satsuma sorbet with a fluffy cookie in the shape of an alligator.

The oyster soup is from Velma Marie, Martin’s grandmother, and she said it’s the “most important recipe in the book”.

At one time passed around in a cauldron between strangers during the supper club, tonight it will be served individually, oysters and pasta shells dancing against each other in isolated bowls.

Guests begin to approach the cottage for their reservation time, and Martin instructs groups to send one representative inside.

She pauses to say hello to a fellow chef on his night off, then turns back around.

“It’s sad not to see strangers sit together,” she said.

“That was part of the beauty of it; it gave it a different feeling. It was kind of fun to see people come in and get scared because they were going to have to sit next to a stranger. But it is where we are right now. And we’re trying to adjust every single day to a new reality.”

OYSTER SOUP

This recipe makes a pot of soup big enough to feed a crowd and can be scaled down as needed. In her cookbook, Mosquito Supper Club, Melissa M Martin, the owner of the New Orleans restaurant of the same name, describes the soup as one handed down from her grandmother, Velma Marie.

“My grandmother’s oyster soup tastes of salt meat and briny oysters, of sweet tomatoes and alliums,” Martin wrote. “It resembles a tomato-forward bouillabaisse and smells like the oyster beds of Louisiana.”

Storage: Leftover soup can be refrigerated for up to two days.

INGREDIENTS

One tablespoon canola oil

Eight ounces salt meat

Four pounds large yellow onions (about seven), finely diced

Four large ripe tomatoes, cored

One cup finely chopped garlic

Half teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper, plus more as needed

Quarter teaspoon cayenne pepper, plus more as needed

12-and-a-half cups oyster stock, fish stock or chicken stock

Two pints shucked salty oysters

Kosher salt, as needed

Eight ounces small or medium pasta shells, cooked according to the package instructions

Quarter cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

Quarter cup finely diced scallions, for garnish

DIRECTIONS

Warm a large heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium-high heat for two minutes, then add the oil and heat for 30 seconds. Add the salt meat and cook, turning as needed to brown on all sides, about 12 minutes total.

Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, about 30 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, garlic, black pepper and cayenne and stir well. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and let everything smother together, stirring every 15 minutes, until the tomatoes are completely broken down and fall apart easily when you press on them with a spoon, about 45 minutes. (The timing may be a little shorter or longer depending on the size of your tomatoes.)

Add the oyster stock and raise the heat to medium. Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes, letting all the flavours marry; the soup will be salty from the oyster water and salt meat and sweet from the tomatoes and onions.

Just before serving, add the oysters to the soup and raise the heat to medium. Bring the soup to a brisk simmer and cook for five minutes, then turn off the heat. Taste the soup, adding salt or more cayenne as needed. Add the cooked pasta shells and stir to combine. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the parsley and green onions.