Leadership in a crisis

By Sylvia Lafair

After Katrina struck, Michelle Davis welcomed 19 homeless relatives to her Pennsylvania hometown. What would she do with them? Start a Cajun eatery, of course!

After Hurricane Katrina destroyed their homes, 19 of Michelle and Kyle Davis's relatives fled New Orleans and joined them in Chester, Pa. None of them thought to bring a jug of water from the Mississippi River; the last thing they wanted to see was more water. But now that the extended family has opened a restaurant called De' Essence of New Orleans in Chester, that Mississippi water would come in handy.

According to Michelle Davis, president of the 19-seat Cajun eatery, water is a secret ingredient of authentic New Orleans gumbo. “It used to be when you traveled you took Mississippi water with you to start the gumbo,” the 44-year-old former secretary explains. “We need the water, but what the heck, we can make do.”

“Make do” is exactly what Davis's relatives have learned to do since arriving in Chester in September. Michelle and her husband, Kyle, temporarily housed nine of the displaced 19 in their two-bedroom house. The others found shelter close by in several rundown houses that Kyle owned and had been planning to rehab. Local businesses and social services donated food, clothing and furnishings. Most of the family eventually found work—some at Kyle's electrical contracting business and some at a metalworking business owned by Kyle's brother Kevin. The rest are committed to making the restaurant, which opened December 5, 2005, a success.

For the time being, Michelle is chief cook, although many of her family members expect to lend a hand; though they lack restaurant experience, they all are talented in the kitchen, she notes. Her brother Keith helps with the prep work and buses tables. Her sister-in-law Joy Davis (who, rumor has it, makes a mean gumbo) is the waitress, hostess and public relations specialist; Michelle's mother, 70-year-old Ruth Lewis, keeps the books. There is no shortage of nieces and nephews to help with washing dishes and making deliveries.

Even the restaurant's name was a family affair. “I had a brainstorm in the middle of the night and made a list of possible names,“ says Michelle. “Then every family member got to vote. De' Essence of New Orleans got the most.”

The menu features authentic bayou cuisine; entrees include jambalaya, smothered pork chops, shrimp po' boys, shrimp Creole, and red beans and rice. Décor is straight from the French Quarter, the result of Michelle's many years of collecting memorabilia.

Michelle had long dreamed of opening a Mardi Gras-themed restaurant but couldn't persuade any of her New Orleans relatives to join her. “They didn't like the cold,” she explains. But Katrina forced a change in plans, and now the family is working together to help her dream come true.

Kathryn Levy Feldman is a freelance writer based in Bryn Mawr, Pa.

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Spring 2006


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