Former New Orleans Chef Spills about BP Oil Disaster

Chef Chris Debarr

Chef Chris DeBarr 2013

New member Chris DeBarr has firsthand experience of the costs of our dependence on fossil fuels. An award-winning chef who lived and worked in New Orleans for 20 years, he brings to 350PDX not only his love of and expertise in Cajun and Creole cuisine, but his observations of this century’s worst environmental disasters – Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon (BP plc) oil spill.

Chris’s environmental awareness began when he read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a young college activist in the ‘80s. “I wouldn’t say that the BP spill made me more of an environmentalist, but it did heighten my belief that the reckless pursuit of Gulf oil from new deep drilling is as dangerous as Alberta tar sands, or allowing unlimited fracking. We need to step up our efforts to promote fossil fuel divestment and the campaign to ‘leave it in the ground’ because our civilization cannot endure if reckless oil companies burn all the oil and coal deposits now known,” he said. 

Chris’s job as a chef at a popular Creole restaurant ended and his house was badly damaged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Nonetheless, he managed to bounce back, became chef at a wine bar called Delachaise and was named Best New Chef by New Orleans magazine in 2006. He went on to open the award-winning restaurant Green Goddess in 2009.

Then on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up, killing eleven people and poisoning thousands of square miles of the Gulf of Mexico. It was among the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. “New Orleans had fought back from the precipice of the busted levees from Hurricane Katrina. It should have been a great time for our resurgent city, and then we were all plunged into shock again,” he said.

The Gulf fishing industry was shut down for months. The seafood stock has since recovered and, as Chris emphasizes, is rigorously tested. Still, he is most concerned about the long-term effects of the spill and the chemical dispersants used to clean it up, particularly on oyster beds. Indeed, as oil industry expert Antonia Juhasz explains in her book Black Tide, the long-term effects of the spill on food safety and Gulf wildlife are still unknown.

Chris is also disturbed by the fact the seafood crews who were hired to clean up the spill were given inadequate safety suits and protection. As a result, Ms. Juhasz reported, hundreds of workers fell ill with symptoms such as headache, vomiting, and respiratory distress; many were hospitalized.

“It sticks in my mind that the BP/Deepwater Horizon was a new, untested drilling platform exploring oil at unimaginable depths,” Chris said. He added that the damage done by the spill was made possible by corruption and the enormous political influence of the petroleum industry in Louisiana. In order to maintain offshore drilling facilities, oil companies have also dug canals all over the state, canals that are causing rapid saltwater erosion of its wetlands. For these reasons, he feels, Louisiana is dismissed as an environmental basket-case simply because the legitimacy of the state’s petroleum-based economy can’t be challenged.

Still, he remains very attached to Cajun country. “I will always consider New Orleans my home; it suits my pirate mentality to march to the beat of my own funky drummer,” said Chris. And since local seafood is the lifeblood of local cuisine, his fellow chefs there are committed to defending it.

For Chris, being a chef is a delicious and entertaining way to promote environmentalism. Locally sourced, artisanal ingredients and farm-to-table systems not only protect the ecosystem, but also serve to delight and enlighten guests. He admires the way groups like Grist and use food and farming as a way to demonstrate how climate change impacts society.

Now a resident of Portland, where his family lives, Chris is interested in learning as much as he can about environmental issues that affect the Pacific Northwest, such as the viability of Pacific oysters. Oyster farmers in Oregon and Washington, he said, are having trouble getting their oyster beds to grow because of increasing ocean acidification. He emphasizes that oyster populations around the world are increasingly threatened by pollution and rising ocean temperatures.

As a member of 350PDX, Chris is committed to raising awareness about climate change. Chris said, “At this point, I am just curious about connecting with the community, doing my research into local foods, and making a difference one day at a time. There are so many great stories and people involved on the front lines of the climate battle. It’s our time to contribute to this people’s movement. We can do this!”

 Written by Tina Gallier

Tina Devon Gallier is a former university writing tutor, editor, and publisher who is active with several groups working on climate change: Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Oregon Climate, and Rogue Climate. She is a dedicated fan of Shakespeare and lives in Ashland, so she can regularly attend the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.