Chef Melissa Martin Works to Repair the Louisiana Bayou After Hurricane Ida

The Mosquito Supper Club owner has helped raise more than half-a-million dollars.

Photos by Denny Culbert, design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist

Jonathan Foret can’t count how many times he has said “we’re one storm away from our communities looking very different.” But when he finally had time to catch his breath about a week after Hurricane Ida blew through Louisiana, he didn’t realize how much the reality of that would actually hurt.

The storm—which bit into the delicate, swampy edge of the state on August 29—left behind a riot of destruction and heartbreak. As soon as the skies cleared, Foret says, his focus was all about the mess directly in front of him: downed trees, shattered buildings, holes in roofs so big the rain could come straight through. But about a week later, Foret put down his chainsaw, stepped back from tarping roofs, and took a drive down into Chauvin, Louisiana, the spit of land even further toward the Gulf of Mexico where Foret grew up.

“This is a community where you can drive down the road and the trees are in a certain shape so you know where you are,” Foret says. “And I looked around, and I slowed the truck down, and it didn’t even look like the same bayou.”

Foret saw homes and businesses flattened. He saw shrimp boats turned upside down, even tossed over onto the wrong side of the levee. Walls were pulled off buildings, leaving behind full-size dioramas of the lives inside. And then, Foret got back to work.

As president of the Helio Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Houma, Louisiana, about an hour southwest of New Orleans, Foret and his team knew there’d be a need for their work serving underserved populations. Typically, the Helio Foundation stocks snacks and basic food items for young people throughout the region by partnering with school counselors and the local university, but the things Foret was seeing and the things their community were facing were going to need a lot more than that.

With an early $50,000 donation from a Baton Rouge jewelry designer, the Helio Foundation began handing out $400 mini-grants to neighbors directly impacted by Hurricane Ida. Now, with the help of New Orleans chef and cookbook author Melissa Martin, the foundation has raised more than $500,000. To Foret, their partnership is no accident.

“Some people are born helpers, and that’s just what they do,” he says, citing the famous quote from Mr. Rogers. “After every storm or tragedy, those people still show up, and it’s ingrained in who they are as people.”

Aerial view of Terrebone Parish. | Excerpted from Mosquito Supper Club by Melissa Martin (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020. Photo by Denny Culbert.

As Hurricane Ida gained strength in the Gulf of Mexico and Foret prepared to ride out the storm with his family in Houma, Martin evacuated her parents from Chauvin to Santa Rosa, Florida. Martin’s parents have lived in the same home for 54 years, and it’s where she and her siblings were raised, but this time they’d watch from afar as Ida made it onshore and slowly ripped apart their hometown.

“It was very, very difficult,” Martin says. The family still had loved ones back in Chauvin, but once the eye landed there, they lost touch. “From what we were hearing from them, they were scared for their lives and roofs were flying off. It was raining in their homes and there was metal flying all over. It was pretty horribly scary.”

Still, the family made it back home as quickly as possible to assess what remained, discovering the roof damage the Martin family home sustained and the entire roof missing from a cousin's place. With no power, no running water, and only buckets of water from the bayou to help flush toilets, one thing became clear to Martin real fast: “I was consuming resources in trying to help them, so the best thing was for me to remove myself and create resources the best way I possibly could.”

So, Martin left her parents, went home to New Orleans, and picked up her phone. Martin has made a name for herself as a chef in New Orleans. At her restaurant Mosquito Supper Club—in an old Uptown home with slanting floors and big windows—Martin has used her menus to write love letters to the food and Cajun flavors she grew up with in Chauvin. And she’s done it her own way, offering only timed seatings and set menus, cooking seasonably and sustainably while working to ensure her staff is treated equitably.

Martin chronicled that love in her 2020 cookbook, which shares a name with the restaurant, earning her national recognition for her role in this chapter of Cajun cooking. Her writing has since been published in Garden & Gun and the Oxford American, and she’s been featured in The Washington Post. Her Instagram account has more than 36,000 followers.

“Since I started the restaurant, I have been trying to bring attention to this place, bring attention to the fragile marshland and swampland,” Martin says.

As climate change has made for rising tides and harsher storms, and the oil and gas industry has cross-cut a network of canals through south Louisiana that have weakened the state's natural defenses against them, Martin fears for the day when these things make life impossible for Louisianians along the watery byways along the Gulf Coast.

When she first saw Ida’s impact, she says, she messaged Denny Culbert, the photographer who worked with her on the Mosquito Supper Club cookbook. “I told him, I think we memorialized this place because there’s literally nothing left,” she recalls.

And now, with the storm underscoring her fears for the coastal communities where she learned to work with the shrimp, sausages, oysters, and fish that would one day draw people to her restaurant, she decided to keep fighting back. Logging onto Instagram and working the phones, Martin began to raise money, creating a GoFundMe linking direction to the Helio Foundation. “They are literally putting cash in people’s hands,” she says.

“Since I started the restaurant, I have been trying to bring attention to this place, bring attention to the fragile marshland and swampland.”

Within a few days after Ida, the foundation was passing out its $400 mini-grants. Government aid takes time, and when roads are blocked by downed trees, there’s no power, no running water, and local businesses are closed, the best thing on hand is cash, and the foundation has been handing it out through a grassroots effort with community leaders across the region.

“It’s very emotional for the recipients of these funds,” Foret says. “When you’ve just lost everything and there’s an immediate need to purchase gasoline or food or a toothbrush or essential items, it was easier for them to source those things before the supplies started coming in. Our folks typically are not the recipients of help because they work hard, and they put things back together and they do it on their own, so they have gotten very emotional.”

Through the fundraising, Martin has become something of a community conduit, her phone ringing so constantly she has to turn the ringer off to get some sleep, but she knows it’s worth it as others have gotten news that she may know someone who knows someone who has a need. Ask her for other folks who have been helping, and she starts naming recent strangers, local restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and mutual aid groups.

“I’m just trying to be as resourceful as possible in the best means I can,” Martin says. “There’s no other choice but to do it when you see how people are suffering around you.”

Martin was supposed to reopen Mosquito Supper Club after a bit of a summer but that, too, has been delayed, an indication of how life down here is so interconnected. “These bayou parishes are suffering,” Martin says. “My purveyors are suffering. I can’t open my restaurant until I can get the product I normally cook with.”

That interconnectedness extends outward, too. “So many people have marketed Louisiana using the term ‘Cajun’ and so many people benefit,” Martin says. “Louisiana pushes out more seafood than any state in the U.S. except Alaska, and that goes up the East Coast and around the country. If we can put our shit back together and there’s no one living down here, Maryland won’t have crabs anymore. You won’t have our oysters and all the things people love about the state of Louisiana.”

For the people here, even a month after the storm passed, the work is still just beginning. Foret sees that many still don’t have power, and he sees how many residents are living in tents in their front yards.

“If we don’t work, it will stay like that,” Foret says. “It’s heart-wrenching, so you do what you can to pull it back together again.”

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Chelsea Brasted is a freelance writer in her hometown of New Orleans, where she formerly worked for The Times-Picayune as an arts and entertainment reporter and city columnist.