As any restaurateurs would, Allison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing expected challenges when they opened their new establishment near New Orleans, but they could not have anticipated the natural disaster that devastated the city. Nevertheless, their restaurant, Longbranch, in Abita Springs, La., was up and running less than a month after Hurricane Katrina struck.
Before they embarked on their Longbranch adventure, the Southerners—Allison, 31, is from Louisiana, and Slade, 32, is from Mississippi—traveled to Manhattan together in 2000 to work in kitchens there. Allison earned a James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef award in 2004 for her New Orleans–influenced cooking at Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar, and Slade became chef de cuisine at Fleur de Sel before joining Allison at Jack’s early in 2004. But the chefs, who married in 2003, always expected to return south. “Restaurants come and go in New York,” says Slade. “Down here they live for a hundred years.”
In spring 2005, they purchased Artesia, a restaurant located about 30 miles north of New Orleans. It was built in 1880 as the dining facility for the defunct Longbranch hotel. From May to August, Allison, Slade, and several family members toiled to reshape the property as a Louisiana version of the picturesque restaurants of rural southern France. The pair renamed the restaurant Longbranch and planned a September 1 opening, but nature intervened.
Instead of greeting guests that evening, the couple was taking shelter 55 miles away with Slade’s family in Tylertown, Miss., having fled Abita Springs just before Hurricane Katrina arrived. “The building had stood for 120 years,” Slade says. “We just had to have faith.” Abita Springs suffered little if any flood damage because it stands on higher ground than many New Orleans neighborhoods, but the high winds took their toll. Thirteen trees fell on the Longbranch property, with one large cedar missing the restaurant by inches. Another crushed part of the nearby cottage where the couple had been living. Family members (neither chef lost any relatives in the tragedy) helped again, using chain saws and a tractor to clear debris, and the carpenter who built the restaurant’s bar reassembled the cottage.
The chefs scrambled to obtain supplies from vendors in New York and Atlanta and from a surviving fish wholesaler in Houma, La. When Longbranch opened three weeks after Katrina struck, the celebration was muted, but the food was not; the dishes, served for 10 friends and neighbors, included hazelnut-dusted sweetbreads and duck breast with toasted barley and peanut sprouts. Longbranch has remained open since. Allison and Slade had some of the wood from the fallen cedars fashioned into shelves for the dining room and used the rest as fuel for the smoker in which they cure their redfish.
The two say their Manhattan years prepared them well for the obstacles they encountered with Longbranch. “Experiencing 9/11 in New York helped us push through Katrina,” Allison says. “Wonderful things happened because we stayed in New York [then]. We believe the same will happen here.”