How a gourmet chef stirred a city's communal spirit and became the hero of ground zero

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The Independent US

Few areas of New York were more directly touched by the attack on the World Trade Centre than Tribeca. Made trendily desirable in recent years by the likes of Robert De Niro, co-owner of the TriBeCa Grill restaurant, it was blanketed in white ash on that day in September. The ash is gone. The pain remains.

Ask Jamie Wolff, 41, who has lived in the area for 20 years. Last June, he fulfilled a dream and opened a wine shop on Chambers Street and West Broadway, just a few blocks north of the twin towers. The space was perfect – a charming old fire station that had not actually seen a fire engine since the Fifties.

Now the cutesy front of Chambers Street Wines is marred by a crudely painted sign that stretches like a banner over the entrance. "We are open," it reads. That is a good thing. For three weeks, the shop lay within the boundaries of what was considered a crime scene and even Mr Wolff could not get to it.

The impact on his new business has been disastrous. His phone lines are not working even now. Still, things are picking up slowly. As he let himself in yesterday morning to prepare for the day, Mr Wolff pointed to the blackboard he would be putting out on the pavement inviting customers for winetasting at five. But it's hard to feel festive.

"I am not spiritual or anything, but there are 5,000 dead people down the street and that's just a very strange feeling day to day. But it feels good to be here and to have the wine tasting. Somehow, I hope we are another light burning on the street," Mr Wolff said. He uses the vocabulary of the Blitz almost without noticing.

Americans are being urged to get back to their routines. President Bush says it daily and so does New York's Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. But Tribeca (triangle below Canal Street) will be the last place where that will happen. When will things be back to normal here? "I have no idea," says Mr Wolff. "Maybe a couple of years."

Certainly, it isn't there yet. Go up to a high floor after dark and you can see why. It still looks like Dante's Inferno in the spot where the towers stood. Smoke and steam fills the air, obscuring the helmeted workers who toil over the wreckage. Sparks from oxyacetylene torches spew from the steel beams pointing to the sky. How can things be normal when the air is pungent with a smell you want to think is autumn bonfires but you know is something more like a crematorium?

David Bouley, another man who helped make Tribeca desirable in the 1990s and one of the city's best known and best- connected chefs, thinks the question almost stupid. "Who knows?" he replied. "There is no such person who could tell you that unless they had a crystal ball." He was a bit gruff, because he was tired and very, very busy.

When it comes to Blitz spirit in New York, few have personified it more completely than Mr Bouley. For the past five weeks he has diverted all his energies to producing meals for the volunteers, construction teams and rescue workers down at ground zero. It is a gargantuan effort all happening in the kitchens of the Bouley Bakery on West Broadway and Duane Street in the heart of Tribeca.

Just after daybreak, traffic in Duane Street by the bakery was at a standstill, blocked by refrigerated lorries and vans delivering supplies to Mr Bouley. With a dozen professional chefs aided by 200 excited volunteers brought in to chop, slice and stir, he was readying, once again, to turn out 35,000 hot meals in just 24 hours. The quantities of unprepared food arriving were astonishing. They included cases of cucumbers, great trunks of potatoes and coolers with salmon.

At least business for Mr Bouley, who is financing the operation from charitable donations, is hectic. "This is meant to be the busy season we are getting into now, but who knows what will happen?" he says.

Since 11 September, 30 restaurants in downtown Manhattan have collapsed and many remain mothballed with uncertain futures. Count among them Layla's, another De Niro venture, which is just a few blocks north from the bakery on West Broadway. It should reopen soon.

Mr Bouley said he embarked on feeding the ground zero volunteers because "I knew we could do a better job'', when he saw the shambles of the catering operation in the first few days after the disaster. He started by setting up a kitchen in a deserted shop close to Wall Street. He put up green plastic sheeting to keep out the dust, and the place was called The Green Tarp. But now everything is cooked in Bouley's Bakery and taken down to the site in white paper bags.

While Mr Bouley is keeping the heroes of the World Trade Centre nourished, he is also providing another important service: giving hundreds a way to make their own contribution in the aftermath of the tragedy. These may be local Tribeca residents, arriving to core apples for an hour or two. Or they may be Hollywood celebrities – which is where the connections come in. Mr Bouley says Brooke Shields has been down to hand out food after starring in Cabaret on Broadway. Harrison Ford has been helping too.

At the bakery yesterday was a group of almost hyper-ventilating women wearing white aprons they had had made for the occasion. The aprons were embroidered with the initials MPBP and the smudged blue "b" that stands for Bouley Bakery. "We are the Mothers of Professional Basketball Players," said Flo Allan, who had travelled from Hartford, Connecticut, to helpin the kitchen. "We came here to give our support. Anywhere we are needed, that's where we will be," Ms Allen said. Her son, she said, played for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Tribeca bears the worst of the wounds of 11 September. But that Blitz commitment for now gives it a new kind of energy. There is a bustle in the neighbourhood that is almost deceiving. It conceals the gaps between the tables in the restaurants, assuming they have reopened. And it conceals the pain.

In his wine shop, for instance, Mr Wolff keeps asking himself about all the customers he has not seen since that terrible Tuesday. Customers he knew well enough to say hello to but to whom he could not attach jobs or even names.

Did they flee the neighbourhood? Or did they perish? "I didn't really know where any of them worked so, when I see a familiar face coming in the door, I feel like giving them a hug," he said.