10 Years After Hurricane Katrina, Pastry Chef Finds Refuge In New Mexico
August 26, 2015
Chef
Lourdes Cardenas
Chef Theirry Marceaux discusses the plat du jour with a waitress Rebecca Sivils at the Le Rendez-vous Cafe in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

When Hurricane Katrina stranded 800 people at the historic Fairmont Hotel in downtown New Orleans, head pastry chef Thierry Marceaux sent up hundreds of chocolate truffles to the guest rooms.

Those where his last days working at the century-old landmark. The storm shut down the hotel and destroyed everything inside his home, which was located in the city's heavily flooded Lakeview neighborhood. Marceaux left the bayou and moved to the desert.

French cuisine was hard to find in southern New Mexico before Marceaux opened Le Rendez-vous Cafe eight years ago in Las Cruces. On a busy weekday, he can serve close to 200 dishes in his 60-seat restaurant.

At lunch, it's Marceaux's custom to wander the dining area in a black chef's uniform and greet his customers. The restaurant walls are dijon yellow and covered with local artwork and pictures of Paris.

Simone Kaufman, a frequent diner, was halfway through a plate of beef bourguignon when her thoughts turned to dessert.  

"I just came back from France and the pastries (here) smell the same way, look the same way and taste the same way," she said.

Marceaux grew up in his father's bakery at a ski resort in the southern French Alps. As a teenager, Marceaux spent winters on the slopes and summers in front of an oven training to become a pastry chef. When he finished school a friend told him he could find work in the United States. That's how he ended up in New Orleans.

"I arrived to New Orleans and it was Mardi Gras week," Marceaux said. "I feel like I was in a Disneyland, you know, people on the streets drinking."

Theirry
Lourdes Cardenas
Theirry Marceaux was the head pastry chef at the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans when hurricane Katrina hit. He left after the storm and moved to New Mexico where he opened a French restaurant in Las Cruces.

Eventually Marceaux ended up as head pastry chef at the Fairmont, known today as the Roosevelt Hotel. It has hosted the likes of Elvis Presley and a handful of U.S. presidents.

When Hurricane Katrina came barreling through New Orleans in 2005, Marceaux was among the employees who decided to ride out the storm in the hotel.

"I decided to bake pretty much everything I had in my fridge," he said. "Mostly cookies, brownies, stuff that has a shelf life. I wasn't going to make cream puffs."

Cream puffs would spoil if the hotel lost power. That's also why Marceaux sent up the chocolate truffles in the hours before the storm hit. It made for a festive mood. Overnight, the staff drank champagne at the hotel bar. But the party ended when the levees broke and the hotel basement flooded.

"The whole heart of the hotel was in the basement," Marceaux said. "The hotel was dead after that, no more air conditioning, no more nothing."

Outside the hotel the floodwaters rose between one and two feet, enough to strand almost everyone inside. Marceaux says some of the wealthier guests used their cellphones to call a private helicopter service that could pick them up.

Pastries
Lourdes Cardenas
Pastries at Le Rendez-vous Cafe in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

"It was getting so stressful, some guests would pay anything to get out of there," he said.

At night an armed guard would stand by the hotel entrances to keep looters out. The hotel began to evacuate the remaining guests and staff two days after the storm. 

Marceaux came back two weeks later and visited his home for the first time. What he saw was shocking.  

"There was no life around," he said. "I opened the door and it was so quiet. There were no birds, no nothing, like a no man's land, like an atomic bomb and everything is dead."

That was the end of Marceaux’s life in New Orleans. A decade later, he’s found his refuge in an unlikely place.

His restaurant is in a strip mall across from a Walgreens and a Subway — not exactly where he imagined himself after working in a five-star hotel. But when he walks from table to table each day he’s rewarded with warm smiles and familiar faces.

Pastry
Lourdes Cardenas
Pastry chef Thierry Marceaux at his restaurant Le Rendez-vous Cafe in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

“This lady over there, she's coming every day at 12 o'clock for the last seven years," he said. "You cherish that. It’s something special, you know, I never felt that before.”

In New Orleans, Marceaux served his pastries to the Saints football players. In Las Cruces he makes carrot cake for a pastor’s 60th birthday party. He doesn’t worry too much when his teenage kids go out with friends. And on Sundays he plays soccer at a neighborhood park.

"For the first time in my life, I feel like I establish something," he said. "The life I used to have before and the life I have now is completely different. Maybe it changed my life for the better."