PROFILE: Surviving the storm
Published 2:18 pm Tuesday, March 7, 2023
By LIZZIE BOWEN | Staff Writer
Sitting at his watch party, Dwayne Thompson’s smiling face illuminates the television screen for all who watched him on the Hulu original series ‘Best in Dough,’ where he showed off his cooking skills to the world.
Dwayne’s personality is vivacious and exciting as he bustles around the kitchen on screen, entertaining all the audiences across the nation who watch him, but this type of ease is not one that Thompson has always known.
It was 18 years ago that Dwayne left his house in Louisiana for the very last time. His house was pillaged by Hurricane Katrina, the remains of it completely unlivable, but despite this, Dwayne Thompson has prevailed.
Dwayne tells the story of what it was like watching Katrina unfold in real time and the panic that ensued in the city. He speaks of his escape to safety and spending the night away. Thompson said many people did not realize the gravity of the situation and how devastating Katrina was going to be.
“Most people ask why people didn’t leave,” he said. “Prior to Katrina, there was a storm and everybody left. Katrina comes along, it is the end of the month and people had just left so many were like, “We’re going to ride this out, we’re just to storms,’ and Katrina begins to form. The night of the storm, I watch the storm and the storm passes through bending palm trees, high water rising and flood waters rising.”
Dwayne’s mother worked for the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, Louisiana and Dwayne said she urged him to bring her grandchildren to the convention center to get everyone to safety. Dwayne ends up spending days in the convention center waiting for the storm to pass.
After day one in the convention center, Dwayne said he walked out of the center to look at the destruction the first of storm had caused, still unaware of what was to come.
“The next morning, I get up and get out to go assess the damage nearby,” he said. “There’s a few hotels with some windows blown out, but as I travel down Convention Center Boulevard, the closer I get, I feel water on my feet. I’m like, ‘Okay, the water is kind of deep here,’ then I walk a few more blocks, the water was up my ankles and almost to my calves.”
Surviving the Storm
“If anybody had the idea what was going to happen, the city would have been a ghost town,” Dwayne said. “Nobody had an idea, storms turn, touchdown and die down all the time.”
The Convention Center had a backup generation and Dwayne was able to watch the hurricane progress through the television.
“We still have TV, but a lot of people didn’t know where the water was coming from because their TVs were out,” he said. “We got to see it in real time. The announcements start that the levees have broken and that the water was coming into the city.”
Dwayne speaks on the chilling moment when the people of Louisiana realizes the destruction that was about to occur. This hurricane was going to be an event that marked history, and Louisiana residents had begun to realize the gravity of the situation.
“All the stuff that unfolded on TV, you’re seeing it in real time,” Dwayne said. “Now, this is when the panic starts.”
Dwayne then decided it was time to leave the Convention Center and try to get groceries and survival items for himself and his family. He makes the walk from the convention center to the grocery store to get food for his family.
“Your worst fear is the thought of natural disaster and end of life as you know it,” he said. “So, I’m there, we’re not assessing what’s going on and how long we’re going to be there. The two of three days we’re there, there’s lunch and breakfast, but now that everyone is going into survival mode there is a (store nearby.) We get to the store and the police and military are there.”
Dwayne’s main priority during this time is making the walk from the store back to the convention center in order to provide food and nourishment for his family.
“I’m in survival mode for my family,” he said. “We try to get to the TV and see what’s going on, the pictures start coming in of New Orleans East and the water that has come through Midtown and is heading toward the Superdome. You see these pictures of all these people wading in waist high water. The visuals are crazy.”
Dwayne said that people began to flee from the Caesars Superdome as the space became more and more crowded. From the Superdome, many New Orleans residents began to try and seek shelter in the Convention Center to escape the crowds.
“Day one, you’re hearing stories of people getting hurt,” he said. “As the Dome fills up with people, that’s when the migration of people start moving from the Dome to the Convention Center.”
Escaping the Storm
Dwayne said most of his extended family had already fled New Orleans and the state of Louisiana, but he was one of the last of his family to leave. “It took us 13 hours to get to Houston,” he said. “You had people running out of gas on the interstate.”
Dwayne goes to get in his car and none of his or his families’ car have gas in them. Every gas station in New Orleans had been shut down during the time.
“This is survival mode,” he said. “People feel like they are at their wits end, and that they are about to die.”
Dwayne talks about the chaos of his surroundings and how people who were driving to flee the storm were being “snatched out of cars.”
“I am looking for gas,” he said. “I run out of gas at a gas station that finally had gas. I’m running out of gas right there at the gas pump.”
The first major city that Dwayne came up on was Baton Rouge and he reiterates the importance of striving to keep his daughters safe throughout the process of their survival. Dwayne speaks on how he believes Divine Intervention occurred on his escape from New Orleans.
“I am a man of faith,” he said. “My prayer was for my daughters, I don’t want my girls to have it experience it this way.”
Dwayne comes up on an ATM and experiences another event that he feels is miraculous.
“We go to the ATM,” he said. “I went to get the money out of the bank that I had left, and the ATM gave me $800 so now I have enough to be comfortable and get us somewhere to stay.”
Dwayne talks about the heartbreaking moment of having to separate from his mother and hoping that she is safe. He also talks about how it was the “cell phone age, but not the cell phone age” as it was an era of flip phones and very limited social media. “It was Myspace age,” he said in regards to early and mid 2000’s.
“I don’t really know how my mom is doing at this point,” he said. “I just have to trust that she’s okay because she told me she would be okay.”
Dwayne said he is hearing reportings during this time that there was looters trying to break into the convention center and even that one of the chefs in the convention center was killed.
“One of the staff (members) was killed, and now your head is everywhere,” he said. “You are seeing that people are outside, people are sick and people are dying. It is chaos.”
Making his way to Alabama
Dwayne drives to Houston, Texas and stays with a family friend. During this time, people are being paid to take in Hurricane Katrina victims.
“We wake up, and there’s two other families there,” he said. “So, you wake up with like seven or eight other people in the house that you didn’t go to bed with.”
Dwayne said he did not want to be in a house with strangers and decided that it was like time go and experiences another event that he believes to be a divine act from God.
“We go to breakfast before we leave Houston,” he said. “We are at breakfast, and these people raise money (unknown to us) and hand us an envelope before we leave the restaurant. So now, here’s another close to $1,000 for us to get on the road. I believe God is provided for us. He provides for everyone, but this is my prayer.”
Dwayne talks about how the days that proceed as he escaped the hurricanes felt as though they were much longer than days, the journey felt as though it was stretched much longer.
“This isn’t months,” he said. “This is days.”
Dwayne talks about how he chose to go to Alabama and move away from Louisiana. Dwayne is provided with a place to stay at the Residence Inn off of 280.
“My kids are in kindergarten,” he said. “Everybody wants to go back home, I am not going to say I didn’t want to. New Orleans was all we knew.”
Dwayne said he was impressed with the children he met in the area and their passion for learning.
“What truly got me to stay (in Alabama) is that I’m outside the hotel one day and I hear some kids arguing downstairs,” he said. “They were arguing not about if they’re going to go to college, but what college they were going to go to. I had never heard an argument like that from school children. At that moment is when I knew I was going to take residence up in Birmingham. Despite what I wanted, I knew it was going to be a better place for my children to be educated. That is when it became transitional to permanent.”
Dwayne begins work in Pelham during this time “and so the story starts,” he said.
“I found a house in Alabaster,” he said. “I have been in Alabaster ever since. I created a life here.”
Finding passion in the kitchen
“I have always been cooking,” he said. “My actual cooking and getting back into cooking started about seven years ago. I had already been in Birmingham seven years when I started getting back into it.”
Dwayne has started his own line of barbeque sauces and seasonings and was featured in the Hulu original series ‘Best in Dough’ where he showed his cooking skills to the world.
“The casting director said ‘I think they’re going to love you,’ and in about two weeks they called and gave me the good news that I would be on the show,” he said. “I knew they liked what they heard.”
Blues, Bourbon and Brews in Pelham uses his Big Daddy Bomb Sauce on the bourbon chicken pizza and the sauce has also been used on pizzas in the Pelham located pizzeria, Buck Creek Pizza.
“This is the first step,” Dwayne said. “The final step would be my own show. That would be the full circle dream. But you can see the end of the street from here, this has been a seven-year journey. I started the sauce seven years ago.”
Dwayne said the cooking and catering business that he began started mostly due to needing extra income during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Once the pandemic hit, I had to find a way to create income,” he said. “So, the plan was to start catering. People started loving my food again, and everything I cook with has my sauce and my seasoning in it.”
Dwayne said that his larger-than-life personality that clearly shines through when he is on camera, can be equated to the fact that he is from New Orleans.
“The personality part is coming from New Orleans. There are a lot of chefs that are on TV,” he said. “There are these big lifelike over the top personalities that really carry them. I have also dabbled into radio and TV and this is what I want to do.”
Dwayne also said that living in Shelby County for the past 17 years has allowed him to feel as though he can represent the county.
“Although I am from New Orleans, to represent Alabama on a national stage on a streaming platform is an honor and privilege,” he said. “We are trying to make it the most viewed episode of the show, for recognition, not only for Alabama, but also for myself-for people to see that this is something I take seriously and something I really like to do.”
Dwayne said he has always loved cooking and tells the story of piddling in the kitchen with his mother who raised him as a single mom.
“We are trying to make it the most viewed episode of the show,” he said. “For recognition, not only for Alabama, but also for myself-for people to see that this is something I take seriously and something I really like to do.”
Dwayne’s mother Elaine Thompson tells the story of what it was like to raise Dwayne as a little boy and his cooking days as a child.
“When I was growing up, my mom worked two jobs,” he said. “I started dabbling in the kitchen as a youngster making her breakfast. It grew from there to something you can kind of make money doing on the side of the road. It kind of faded away, Katrina happened. I was cooking outside of night clubs, and that’s when the whole sauce and seasoning started.”
“He was always a good child,” she said. “I was ecstatic (when I saw him on the show) I just kept saying, ‘you’re just so good,’ and I think he did real good.”
Elaine said she is proud of her son and the progress that he has made throughout the years and that he was always been a “trier.”
Through it all, Dwayne has found his passion and prevailed. Surviving Hurricane Katrina and coming to Alabama was just the tip of the iceberg in the success that was going to come his way. His journey and story is a powerful one of survival and the ability to listen to the voice within. But for Dwayne, this is only the beginning.
“This is the first step,” he said. “The final step would be my own show. That would be the full circle dream. But you can see the end of the street from here, this has been a seven-year journey.”
For Dwayne, this journey continues. “It is kind of surreal,” he said. “It is amazing because of the response. You feel one step closer to your goal.”
He is more than a chef, he is a survivor, a storyteller and an inspiration to those who have a dream. With every signature bite of any food he cooks the memory rings true: from Louisiana with love.