While Americans are watching hurricane-stricken New Orleans’ chaos unfold, restaurateurs are wondering what will become of the Louisiana city’s culinary treasures.

Whether yesterday’s life epitomized by New Orleans’ nickname, the Big Easy, will ever return cannot be gauged now. The oyster bars and places that dished up warmed beignets are shuttered. Old-style and new-style creole cooking are irrelevant. What besieged residents hunger for are the MRE’s – the army’s “meals-ready-to-eat” – being delivered.

The restaurant world is wondering what has become of Commander’s Palace, a jewel in the Garden District, which specializes in Creole cooking. And Galatoire’s and Brennan’s, also Creole spots, in the French Quarter.

The Chicago Tribune reports that Susan Spicer, whose Bayona restaurant is one of the most outstanding in the French Quarter, believes that it is totally gone.

It quoted an email she sent from Jackson, Mississippi: ‘Most of our equipment will be ruined. And although we have our 8,000-bottle wine collection in the attic, with 100-degree temperatures and no climate control, that is also lost.’

Spicer went on: ‘I have no idea what the future holds for restaurants down there. But I believe that somehow we will band together to keep the food culture alive and well, even if it means feeding emergency, rescue and construction workers on po’ boys and red beans for a year or so.’

(Po’ boys are popular lunch-counter sandwiches made of French bread and fillings like roast beef and shrimp.)

Pasa Robles, on California’s Central Coast, was one the first wine regions to announce a fund-raising effort for relief efforts. It said it would strive to raise US$100,000 over the Labor Day holiday weekend, which began today. Wineries are contributing tasting fees and percentages of their sales.

In the food world, almost certainly Emeril Lagasse, the superstar of television’s Food Network, will take center stage in coming days because of his coast-to-coast fame, built partly on Emeril’s Delmonico and Emeril’s Restaurant, both in New Orleans.

Lagasse, who owns a home and three restaurants in the city, made himself famous with his cry ‘Bam!’ when he popped a new spice into yet another recipe on TV.

His spokeswoman Marti Dalton said, ‘As of right now, the restaurants are fine, as fine as they can be. There is a myriad of other things to worry about: the water, the wind, the looting and now the fires.’

Lagasse’s chief worry, according to Dalton, is the welfare of his 200 New Orleans employees.

‘That’s our first priority,’ Dalton said. ‘So far, from the people we’ve talked to, they’re safe.’

Meanwhile the Brennan family, which owns 10 restaurants in New Orleans, including the group’s crown jewel, Commander’s Palace, evacuated all premises.

‘We sent different members to different cities – Shreveport, Jackson, Memphis, Houston – so if the hurricane wasn’t so bad, some could double back and protect the restaurant,’ Brad Brennan said.

The Los Angeles Times reported that half of Commander’s Palace’s facade had been blown away, but Brennan said it remained unknown whether there is interior damage, and that would be a bigger problem.

One certainty, Brennan told the Chicago Tribune, is that the family can’t wait to return to New Orleans.

‘I can tell you by what the generation above me is saying, and it’s “Rebuild, rebuild, rebuild,” We think New Orleans is a viable place, and we want to get back.’

Written by Howard G Goldberg, Adam Lechmere and agencies