ACF Chef Amy Sins on Hurricane Katrina, disaster relief and cooking with love

By Amelia Levin

ACF Chef Amy Sins, owner of Langois Culinary Crossroads in Metairie, Louisiana, and founder/executive director of Fill The Needs, a disaster relief organization, didn’t know just how drastically her life would change days after Hurricane Katrina when the levees broke. A New Orleans native who grew up in “Cajun country,” Chef Sins had lived through many hurricanes and tropical storms, but nothing like this one.

Screenshot 2023-08-28 at 2.57.11 PM“My house was on the levee break of the 17th Street canal, so if you were watching the news, and you saw the helicopter dropping the sandbags, that was my backyard,” she says. “We had about eight feet of water in the house. Basically the house was filled with water, mud and goo.”

It was a New York fireman who reassured her that life would go on and she would get through this. “He put his hand on my shoulder and he goes, ‘I know what you’re thinking,’” she says, doubting that he did. “He said, ‘You don’t know where to start.’ And then he goes, ‘Pick a corner, start there, and everything will fall into place.’”

It was a New York fireman who reassured her that life would go on and she would get through this. “He put his hand on my shoulder and he goes, ‘I know what you’re thinking,’” she says, doubting that he did. “He said, ‘You don’t know where to start.’ And then he goes, ‘Pick a corner, start there, and everything will fall into place.’”

Little did she know that that’s the advice she would give years later to so many other victims of hurricanes, storms and floods as founder and exeutive director of Fill the Needs, a disaster relief organization she has built up from a bootstraps Facebook group (more on that in a bit). But that day she did as she was advised.

The metaphorical “corner” Chef Sins started with was her collection of handwritten family recipes all covered in mud. “Our entire family lived in a four-block area — my grandparents, my in-laws, my aunts, uncles, and we all lost

handwritten recipes,” she says. “So we started digging them out of the mud and drying them in the sun. I said to myself, next time I evacuate, I want everything in one book that I can rescue.”

That’s how her book “Ruby Slippers Cookbook: Life, Culture, Family and Food After Katrina” came to be, along with her subsequent culinary career. A graduate of Loyola University in New Orleans with a degree in communications and journalism, Chef Sins always had food in her blood with an Italian grandmother, a family of cooks and the fact that she grew up in such a rich culinary destination. Collecting family and community recipes and writing the book combined both passions.

“It was a therapeutic healing process for me because it was about resiliency and rebuilding through food,” she says. “It kind of became a documentary of the people that I met because if you’re in South Louisiana and you’re at a grocery store, you don’t ask the person in line ahead of you what they’re cooking because you’ll be there for an hour and a half.”

After publishing the book, there was no turning back — and certainly no going back to her corporate job. “There’s a point when you see what I saw where you go, what else have I got to lose?” says Chef Sins, who at the encouragement and support of her husband, enrolled in classes at the French Culinary Institute and latched on to various culinary mentors to become a self-taught chef and restaurant owner. She bought a building in the French Quarter, renovated it and opened Langois, hiring a strong team of chefs and cooks to literally learn from on the job at the full-service restaurant. That year was 2011, five years after Katrina.

Headshot-AmySins-BusinessThe “huge risk” she says she took turned into a success; Langois earned strong local praise and top listings on travel sites. But at one point, it all became too much. “About five years ago, my mom got brain cancer, and I realized I was working so hard that I never saw my family,” Chef Sins says. “I was at the point where I could not continue to work at that pace and not miss very important things.”

She took a break to travel the world with her mom in the short time she had left, during which time Chef Sins had an epiphany and returned to morph Langois into “an interactive dining and educational culinary experience” with a focus on corporate events — essentially a high-end private dining business offering classes and catering services. Chef Sins and her team — many

of the same chefs and cooks who worked with her at the restaurant but are now on a contract basis — have cooked for both smaller groups and major events associated with Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and, most recently, the 2023 Masters Tournament, held in Georgia. Outside of running Langois, Chef Sins educates about Cajun and Creole traditions and disaster relief at conferences and conventions, including the 2023 ACF National Convention, where she will talk about how chefs can safely and effectively help out during a disaster. She joined ACF’s New Orleans chapter in 2014 and has remained active, attending many conventions, events and meetups.

Chef Sins is often found smiling and laughing, chatting up everyone she bumps into and explaining that she does NOT use tomatoes nor “mix land, sea and air in the same pot” when making gumbo. She jokes that her tombstone will say “I died of bread and gravy.” Chef Sins has garnered many friends from all walks of life because of her bubbly personality and fierce, NOLA-style loyalty to all of her connections, near and far. Many of these connections have been made outside of the culinary industry through her extensive disaster relief work.

“In 2008, there was a big flood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and my husband and I had just gotten resettled back in the house after Katrina, and we’re watching the news and I looked at him and I said, ‘Maybe we should go and help,’” Chef Sins says. She connected with some local folks to set up a community kitchen out of Knights of Columbus Hall, where she also brought in therapists and musicians to raise spirits. Chef Sins went on to do the same for several other hurricanes and floods. In 2016, there was another disastrous flood in Louisiana and by then Chef Sins had a Facebook group set up and many more connections and resources. The Fill the Needs group was able to source trailers that they loaded up with bottled water, sanitation supplies and vacuum-sealed frozen prepared meals from restaurants in New Orleans that they rethermed for thousands of people in a large civic center using crawfish boil pots. “Everybody wanted to help and so we ended up giving out over 100,000 meals in 19 days.”

Her organization took on a more formal setup after that success with a website, NGO status and a regular fundraising stream. “That was also the first time, even in all the years I had been running my restaurant, that I felt like I had earned the title of Chef,” she says. “Because when you manage a team of 50 chefs

from all of these New Orleans restaurants in a kitchen the size of a warehouse with tilt skillets and you put out 30,000 meals in a day — well, let’s just say I never in my wildest dreams would have said this would be me 10 years ago.”

Chef Sins has won several awards for her disaster relief efforts; most recently, she was named Citizen Diplomat of the Year by Global New Orleans and she was nominated for the Woman of Purpose Award by Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a society for women in hospitality. At press time, that award had not yet been announced. Today, she continues her volunteer work while running Langois, and she loops in her communications background as host of WRBH’s “Dinner Party” FM radio show, where she interviews many local chefs and restaurateurs.

“A bland press kit bio cannot prepare you for the contagious joy, southern charm, and barefoot shenanigans of Chef Amy Sins,” her website’s About page reads, offering the perfect summation. “She’s a mischievous host and fanatical food explorer in constant motion.”

Originally published in the July/August issue of National Culinary Review. Click here to read the issue.