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Wednesday, August 30, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Absences kick cuisine icons down a notch in many eyes

The Philadelphia Inquirer

NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Katrina left a number of restaurant-industry heroes in her wake. There were the chefs who rushed back as soon as possible to dish out food, among them John Besh, Scott Boswell, Bob Iacovonne, Paul Prudhomme and Donald Link.

And there were big restaurant companies that didn't panic, such as the various Brennan families, who kept employees on their payrolls for weeks after the storm.

But mere mention of two of the city's highest-profile exports — Emeril Lagasse and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse — still draws venom from New Orleanians who feel scorned and abandoned.

The Ruth's Chris chain, which laid its roots in New Orleans in 1965, moved its headquarters to Florida within one week after the storm. Its original Broad Street location, behind which founder Ruth Fertel lived until she died in 2002, is closed for good.

For superchef Emeril Lagasse, meanwhile, Katrina's aftermath also was anything but happy, happy, happy. Lagasse, among the world's most famous TV chefs — and most certainly Louisiana's best-known citizen — was criticized for quickly firing employees at his New Orleans corporate office.

He also was taken to task in a commentary titled "Where's Emeril?" by Times-Picayune restaurant writer Brett Anderson for failing to even visit the city where he owns three restaurants until months after the storm. The Bam! chef told Anderson he was preoccupied with a national book tour for his 11th cookbook.

New Orleanians were nonplused.

"That Lagasse, one of popular culture's great media masters, took a pass on the chance to put his own mega-celebrity to good use at such an unprecedented moment," Anderson wrote, "is just one of the many post-Katrina mysteries."

After a New York Post columnist quoted Lagasse dissing the city ("It's lost. It'll never come back"), Lagasse complained that he was harassed at a supermarket near his West Bank home, and then was "cut off on the road by a family throwing me the bird."

Lagasse since has denied making the comments attributed to him in the Post. Eric Linquest, Lagasse's vice president of operations, said it was a "team decision" for Lagasse to stay in New York, where "he could best help the situation" by raising money.

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To date, Linquest said, Lagasse has raised $2.5 million. Two of his restaurants, including his famed flagship Emeril's, and NOLA in the French Quarter, have reopened. A third, Delmonico's, is scheduled to be revived in October.

But to locals such as Dinah Campbell, a radio account executive, "it's not just about the money. It's about walking with the people, and letting them know you care."

"He got his big break here, and I was shocked that he wasn't the first one here" after the storm, Campbell said. "I know I'm not going to support him anymore."

As for Ruth's Chris, Philadelphia-based franchisee — and native New Orleanian — Marsha Brown said she was personally "still devastated at the thought that Ruth's will not be in New Orleans. But from a business end, it was probably the only move the corporations could do."

Ruth's Chris corporate headquarters did not return calls in time for this report.

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