(Fred R. Conrad for the Boston Globe)
Chris McMillian masters the elements in his bailiwick at The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans.

A reborn Ritz-Carlton has fun in Crescent City

Email|Print| Text size + By Keith O'Brien
Globe Staff / May 18, 2007

NEW ORLEANS — Chris Garcia stands in the courtyard, a chef’s hat on his head, peering out at the hotel guests over rimless oval glasses.

The guests look back at him with hope. They are here at the reopened Ritz-Carlton New Orleans for the comfort of sleeping on 400-thread-count Egyptian cotton linens, the luxury of gargling over marble sinks, and the thrill of paying, say, $3.59 for a Coke in a hotel bar where hurricane evacuees once prayed for deliverance.

But what the guests want right now is what Garcia has. They want a taste of his cocktail sauce. A dollop of fresh horseradish. Perhaps a squeeze of lemon and a touch of Worcestershire or Tabasco. They want oysters.

‘‘You open?’’ a guest finally asks Garcia.

No, he replies. Not yet.

Garcia is in control out here. This is his courtyard, his domain. Out here, he’s not just a line cook in the kitchen. He has a regal title befitting his surroundings. He is the oyster butler or the crawfish concierge or the sno-ball sommelier, depending on the season.

His job: Feed the people what the people want, give them that good New Orleans food, and don’t be so darn fancy about it. That may sound at odds with the Ritz’s raison d’être. But it’s not, at least not at the post-Katrina Ritz.

Flooded in August 2005 and shuttered until last December, the hotel has decided to reinvent itself, becoming a little less Ritz and a little more New Orleans. That meant a lot of things. Mostly, though, it meant food. It meant Garcia standing at his mobile kitchen every Saturday in the hotel’s courtyard, serving up the best that New Orleans has to offer: oysters in winter, crawfish in spring, and sno-balls in summer.

‘‘It’s my sole purpose to spend every minute I can with the guests,’’ Garcia says in January, standing at the mobile kitchen he built.

For a long, long time, there were no guests here at all. In the wake of Katrina, they all left, and they were, no doubt, scarred by how it had ended in this shiny 15-story luxury tower in the French Quarter.

It was, says Myra deGersdorff, the general manager, a harrowing time for everyone. DeGersdorff says the hotel did what it could to plan for the hurricane. They drained the indoor swimming pool and filled it with drinking water. They had food on hand for the 800 guests and 400 employees staying there. And they even had a handful of armed police officers in the hotel, just in case.

But no one — not even deGersdorff, a New Orleans native — had counted on the madness Katrina left behind. The hotel basement flooded, knocking out the air conditioning and electricity. There was a foot of water on the first floor and looters walking up and down Canal Street right outside.

‘‘You could hear gunfire,’’ deGersdorff recalls. ‘‘You could certainly see them carrying their loot. There were several that tried to get into the hotel.’’

None of them succeeded, thanks to the police officers, and soon enough the waters receded and the threats passed. But rebuilding presented new challenges. Parts of the roof needed to be replaced. The entire basement had to be gutted. A new heating and cooling system had to be custom built and installed, all of which cost a great deal of money. DeGersdorff says the hotel’s insurance claim exceeded $100 million. But from the destruction also came opportunity and the freedom to tweak and experiment.

‘‘I didn’t want to reopen your grandmother’s Ritz-Carlton,’’ deGersdorff says. ‘‘I wanted people, when they think of the Ritz-Carlton, to think of going to a place just to have fun — certainly in a somewhat refined atmosphere. But we want people to feel comfortable coming in in a pair of nice blue jeans.’’

That meant bringing in new entertainment and overhauling the hotel’s signature restaurant. Hoping to get people to dine in rather than out, the Ritz reopened with a menu featuring the finest dishes from 18 local eateries. And wanting to loosen things up, deGersdorff scrapped the stuffy uniforms of the past (think top hats and coats with tails) and introduced something Southern (think seersucker).

The idea: Make people remember they’re in New Orleans. That’s where Garcia fit in. Half Cuban, half Cajun, he had worked in the kitchen before the storm and had often offered tapas-like dishes in the lobby lounge.

But now he is serving strictly local dishes: the oysters, the crawfish, the sno-balls. He’s here every Saturday, in the courtyard. And after a year in exile doing everything from building decks to laying concrete to working at a restaurant in Houston, Garcia couldn’t be happier to be back standing at his mobile kitchen.

‘‘I built this thing,’’ he says. ‘‘I love this thing.’’

From here, he can fry, braise, pan-sear. He has a refrigerator, even a propane stove, and a sign taped up on the counter where the guests can’t see it. ‘‘Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen,’’ the signs reads.

‘‘That’s what it’s all about,’’ says Garcia.

It’s a reminder that the Ritz is still the Ritz. Even with all the changes. Even sucking down oysters. Even eating crawfish, one of the messiest hors d’oeuvres around. Feeling squeamish? If you ask, Garcia will peel your crawfish for you.

Keith O’Brien can be reached at

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