How One Louisiana Chef is Feeding Evacuees—Even After He Had to Clear Out

As his disaster-relief site flooded after Hurricane Laura, restaurateur Cayman Sinclair kept on cooking

Photo: Courtesy of the Lakehouse

A view from a security camera inside the flooded Lakehouse restaurant.

When thousands of Louisiana residents fled to New Orleans to escape the wrath of Hurricanes Marco and Laura, Cayman Sinclair got to work planning their meals. Since 2005, the Mandeville, Louisiana, restaurateur and caterer has responded to natural disasters the best way he knows how: feeding people. This time, he converted the Lakehouse, his upscale restaurant outside New Orleans on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, into a makeshift relief site, cooking up hundreds of trays of pulled pork, baked macaroni, and cornbread for first responders, government officials, and evacuees.

“The winds were so high that my staff had to practically crawl 35 miles per hour on the causeway to get here and help out,” he says.

But on Thursday, Sinclair and his team became evacuees themselves. Just after 1 p.m., as 40-mile-per-hour winds pummeled the lake, angry waves breached the restaurant’s walls, covering the cement floors in a foot of muddy water. Sinclair rushed to salvage his food and move all the equipment he could to his other restaurant five and a half miles away, the Inn at La Provence in Northshore, which he hopes to open this fall. He would have to deal with the Lakehouse later; he had dinner to serve. “When people are sheltering and they don’t know what has happened to their homes, it beats them up mentally,” Sinclair says. “Making sure they have food is so important.”

photo: Courtesy of the Lakehouse
Restaurant staff set up cooking operations a few miles from the flooded space.

Friday morning, after the storm brought seven-foot surges to the area, Sinclair returned to the Lakehouse, where water had flooded the outdoor bar, reached the kickplates on the doors, soaked the wallpaper, and caused thousands of dollars’ worth of damage to the 200-foot flower and herb garden. Still, he says he’s not too concerned. Built in 1840, the stately mansion-turned-restaurant has seen darker days. “If it can make it through a fire in 2002 and Katrina in 2005, it’ll be just fine,” he says, adding that he’s dispatched a team to begin the hard work of cleaning sediment off the floors.

His focus is now on the Inn at La Provence, where the grounds are jammed with pop-up tents, refrigerated trucks, and commercial smokers. Working in 90-degree temperatures, Sinclair and his team are filling thousands of individual boxes with meals that are delivered to hotels housing evacuees. (Though the storm has passed, many cannot return home until power and water are restored.) It’s far more tedious work than setting up a couple buffets, but self-service isn’t an option in this Covid world. Sinclair says he’s in no place to complain. Instead, he’ll follow the example of the people he feeds: Accept life’s challenges, move when necessary, and try to stay positive. “So many years of being around incredible people seeking shelter from storms,” he says, “has changed my outlook and my life.”

photo: Courtesy of the Lakehouse
The Lakehouse, on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.