Following Hurricane Katrina, restaurateur and motorhomer Bob Guilbeau took his culinary expertise on the road, helping to feed and entertain search-and-rescue troops working in the New Orleans area.
By Dan and Gini McKain
Almost before Hurricane Katrina had cleared the Southern Louisiana Gulf Coast in August 2005, leaving unimaginable devastation in its wake, the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans, located in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, was in emergency operations mode. Leaders of the 4,800-acre base, located less than 10 miles south of downtown New Orleans on the west bank of the Mississippi River, had planned and prepared for hurricanes, but no one ever conceived of that much destruction.
All seemed as well as could be expected after the storm moved inland, until the protective levees were breached and the “Big Easy” and surrounding area were flooded. Fortunately, the naval air station survived. And even though its primary source of electricity was cut off, generators made it the only airport operating within a 200-mile radius of New Orleans. So it was designated as the center of military air search, rescue, and recovery.
It was small wonder that, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the military approached Robert Guilbeau, F194822, owner of Prejean’s restaurant in Lafayette, Louisiana, and asked whether he could find the means to feed 350 troops serving on the flight line. Bob, an FMCA member since 1995, was well-qualified for the task. The troops were among the contingent of the Louisiana Air National Guard who were temporarily housed there upon their return from deployment in Iraq.
However, Hurricane Katrina changed all that. When Bob showed up at the facility, he was unable to find the original contacting officer. Instead, he was referred to the base commander, Capt. A.J. Rizzo, who amended the initial request, asking Bob whether he could feed 2,500 troops three meals a day for up to a 10-week period. Bob said yes, but with this caveat: “I’m not sure that I can, but I am sure that I’m probably the best qualified of anyone who is here right now!”
Calling upon friends he’d made during his years in the restaurant business, Bob contacted an associate in Las Vegas, Nevada, who just happened to have three mobile catering kitchens built into 18-wheel tractor-trailers. Within hours the rolling galleys were on their way to Louisiana. In the meantime, Bob returned to his own base of operations in Lafayette where he gathered the necessary staff, packed his 40-foot Newell motor coach, and headed back to the naval air station.
Bob’s son and daughter, Eric and Amie, both lived and worked in New Orleans. But they were flooded out of their residences and lost their jobs following Hurricane Katrina, so they went to work for their father, as they had done while growing up, assisting him for the entire 10-week operation.
When the mobile kitchens arrived, they were deployed to a large, on-site parking lot and were ready to go, except for one slight problem. In the aftermath of the storm, the area’s entire infrastructure “” including the supply lines “” had been destroyed or disrupted. There was no food available for them to cook.
Long-haul truckers were afraid to drive into the area because of broadcast reports of random sniper fire. Banks were closed; ATMs and credit cards didn’t work. There was no place to buy gasoline or diesel fuel. There was no electricity to run the water pumps, and even if there was power, the pumps were submerged. And even if comestibles had been available, there were no workers to help load and unload the trucks; everyone, except for emergency management personnel, had been evacuated from the base and nearby towns.
Fortunately, through his many contacts in the culinary industry, Bob was able to make a few cell telephone calls and find suppliers willing to send provisions. In some instances, the company owners actually loaded the trucks and drove the filled vehicles to the air station themselves. Supplies were on the way.
“An interesting aspect of the way supplies were trucked in was that there was no way that we could plan or write a formal menu,” Bob said. “Until we opened the incoming trucks once they arrived, we never knew what was inside them. For most of the time, it was a challenge to cook creatively.”
When the base’s permanent dining facilities became overwhelmed, Bob’s staff responded. They quickly established an open-air tent city to feed, shelter, and shower the military men and women as well as civilian visitors. These included President George W. Bush, former President George H.W. Bush, and a full contingent of law enforcement personnel. All those in need of a hot meal after working many long hours were welcomed at Bob Guilbeau’s “Prejean’s Al Fresco Cafe.”
At the same time, Bob’s Newell motorhome became a temporary respite for military leaders on base, including Rear Adm. Stephen Turcotte, commander, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic; Rear Adm. Joseph Kilkenny, commander, Joint Force Maritime Component for Joint Task Force Katrina and Rita in the Gulf of Mexico; and Brig. Gen. Hunt Downer, assistant adjutant general for the Louisiana Army National Guard. For these men the motorhome served as an officer’s club, meeting and planning space, and unofficial command conference center. The Newell, with its running water, air-conditioning, sewer hookup, comfortable accommodations, and privacy, proved more than up to the task.
The military has a tradition of “coining,” which is the exchange of special unit and command coins. Bob Guilbeau received many coins as a sign of appreciation for his tireless effort to make life just a little easier for troops working under extraordinarily stressful circumstances. It also gave birth to an idea. Long known as “Biker Bob” because of his affinity for motorcycles, Bob decided to have a “coin” of his own made. One side of the specially minted coin recognizes his restaurant, while the reverse side depicts Bob on “TroubleMaker,” his 1992 80-cubic-inch Harley Davidson. Bob’s coin became an immediate hit, quickly sought by those who have an appreciation for the hobby.
The meals prepared by his staff had a predictable effect on the troops who hailed from almost every state and two U.S. territories; many of them received their first taste of Cajun cuisine. As a bit of lagniappe (the Cajun tradition of always providing “a little something extra” for your guests), Bob brought in a Cajun band, assembled from some of his musician friends who lived in the New Orleans area and were now out of work. They played every night for 10 weeks, providing lively musical entertainment.
The menu varied on a two-week rotation. Included were dishes such as quail, pheasant, and andouille sausage gumbo; traditional New Orleans red beans and rice; and crawfish etouffe. (See the sidebar for an authentic Cajun recipe adapted for motorhome use from the recently published Prejean’s Cookbook.) Rear Adm. Turcotte was so impressed with the cuisine that he invited Bob and his father, 81-year-old Albert Guilbeau, himself a former World War II naval aviator, to the Norfolk, Virginia, Naval Air Station for the annual Taste of the Mid-Atlantic, following their 10 weeks of culinary service.
Having owned and driven his 40-foot Newell motorhome for 10 years to motorcycle event destinations throughout the United States, Bob felt the time was right to make a change. After he returned from the Norfolk event, a friend made him an offer on his coach that he couldn’t refuse, and he sold it.
But after Bob looked at the huge empty garage where his motorhome used to be, the pull was just too much. So he contacted Sam Robinson, vice president and general sales manager at Newell Coach Corporation, and arranged to purchase a 45-foot preowned factory demo unit with two slideouts and a customized interior. Bob’s specially built motorhome garage is once again full, and he said he’s quite happy with his new coach. But he’s even more proud that he was able to lend a hand in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, the most disastrous and costly hurricane ever to strike the United States.
Prejean’s Crawfish Dip
1/2-cup finely diced onion
1/2-cup finely diced celery
1/2-cup finely diced bell pepper
1 tablespoon paprika
1/2-teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
3 tablespoons white wine
1 tablespoon sherry
1½ tablespoons concentrated clam juice or stock
1 pound cream cheese, cut into small pieces
2 pounds crawfish tail meat
1/2-cup chopped green onion tops
1/2-cup finely chopped parsley
Melt the butter over high heat in a 2-quart saucepan. Add the onion, celery, and bell pepper. Saute until the mixture begins to soften but not burn. Add the paprika, cayenne, and garlic powder; stir well. Stir in the wine, sherry, and clam stock to deglaze the pan. Reduce the heat to a medium simmer. Add the cream cheese pieces while constantly stirring until they are melted and all ingredients are combined. Add the crawfish tails and stir well. Let the dip simmer for approximately five minutes or until the crawfish are hot, stirring frequently. Remove from heat. Add the salt, green onion tops, and parsley and stir well. Serve. This recipe makes approximately 2 quarts.