Red Hook restaurateurs throw a party to banish the question of post-Sandy survival

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An impromptu barbecue to use up the food, and cheer the neighbors. (Jed Lipinski)
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Jed Lipinski

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On Wednesday afternoon, two days after Hurricane Sandy sent waves of brackish baywater roaring over the bulkheads and into the basements and cobblestone streets of Red Hook, the proprietors of half a dozen local food and drink establishments threw the neighborhood a barbecue.

At the corner of Pioneer and Van Brunt Streets, volunteers were grilling piles of chicken and marinated steak provided by Fort Defiance, which suffered extensive damage during the storm. Foldout tables were lined with tuna filets from Bait and Tackle bar; lamb chops from Heba Deli and Superior Market; and balls of mozzarella and ricotta from Mark’s Pizza across the street.

One effect of the widespread power outages in Red Hook is that the freezers and refrigerators its restaurants rely on to preserve food have been destroyed. The cookout, several café and bar owners said, was a way of using the food they had before it all went to waste. 

It was also a way to feed legions of their similarly compromised neighbors, who lined up along the block between whining generators, waterlogged mattress and Hefty bags full of of trash.     

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“This is what we do,” said Monica Byrne, a co-owner the Home/Made Café, who was wearing a pair of mouse ears for Halloween. “When all else fails, we throw a party in Red Hook.”

St. John Frizell, the owner of Fort Defiance, was playing with his son in the kitchen of Home/Made. The basement of his restaurant, he said, had been completely submerged, damaging the compressors, several refrigerators, the ice machine and the breaker boxes.

“We’re going to need to replace a lot of equipment just to get up and running again,” said Frizell, who was wearing a camping headlamp around his neck. “But the inventory loss is going to be really hard to come back from. I’m trying to focus on getting the doors back open, while at the same time not knowing if I can successfully run the business anymore.”

Fort Defiance had continued serving food and drinks until around 3 p.m. on Monday, at which point Frizell repaired to his apartment in the nearby building known as The Luggage Factory.

“It was one of the only buildings in the neighborhood that didn’t lose power,” he said. “So I feel like a sultan on the throne down here. It’s so luxurious!”

Inside the front door of Home/Made, Leisah Swenson, the café’s other co-owner, was stirring a steaming pot of tomato bisque. She had stayed in her apartment above the store during the storm, and just finished pumping six feet of water out of the basement.

“It’s a disaster,” she said frankly. “But we’ll be back up in a few days. Of course, having power speeds these things, having funds speeds these things.”

She looked out the window and suddenly burst out laughing. Across the street, Tony Kokale, the owner of the shuttered Mark’s Pizza, had opened the hood of his car and attached the store’s neon PIZZA sign to the battery, causing it to blink and glow.

Next door, customers continued to walk in and out of the Heba Deli and Superior Market, where two votive candles on the front counter provided the only light. Orange extension cords ran from the freezer and two refrigerators to a giant generator on the sidewalk.

“It’s like a movie, this whole thing,” said the owner Kimo El Sayed, as he shuttled between the outdoor grill and his store with a pair of metal tongs in hand.

El Sayed had closed the store around 7 pm on Monday night, after seeing a wave charge down Pioneer Street from the coastline. In the basement, cardboard pallets of Vitamin Water, Aquafina, and Heineken were still afloat in 4 feet of water.

“I got $6,000 worth of compressors down here, all finished,” he said, passing a flashlight over the scene. “But I’m not going to wait for the government to give us money. I don’t think they care about Red Hook. If we wait for the government, we die.”

Back in Home/Made, where the darkened interior had become a kind of center of operations for the barbecue, the owners were discussing the logistics of providing alcohol for the crowd without breaking any laws. 

“The cops ruin everything,” Byrne joked.

Conversation turned to the night before at Bait and Tackle, the former bait shop turned bar loaded with taxidermy and fisherman kitsch.

“There was a lot of dancing going on there last night,” Byrne said, laughing.

“I didn’t make it,” Frizell said. “I was asleep by 9:30.”

Just then, Frizell's son tugged his father's pant leg and asked for the headlamp. 

"What do you need a flashlight for, buddy?" Frizell asked.

His son paused in thought.

"To help you," he said.