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Katrina survivor launches food truck; credits education and God

Tracee Bright is Katrinhurricane victim who started her own business called Bayou Express using food truck deliver fresh 
tasty New

Tracee Bright is a Katrina hurricane victim who started her own business called Bayou Express, using a food truck to deliver fresh tasty New Orleans style food to South side neighborhoods of Chicago. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: July 2, 2012 9:59AM

The New Orleans cuisine truck parked outside Kennedy King College on Tuesday wasn’t just selling red beans and rice, gumbo, shrimp and grits, and other Cajun eats.

Proprietor Tracee Bright, a 38-year-old mother of four and 2010 graduate of the South Side school’s Washburne Culinary Institute, was also selling a dream.

Bright relocated to Chicago two weeks after surviving Hurricane Katrina.

On Aug. 28, 2005, her family followed thousands evacuating New Orleans on a crowded highway to Nashville, arriving in the morning to TV footage of their town underwater.

Losing everything, they sought refuge with family here, bouncing from couch to hotel to shelter, until FEMA offered an apartment. She and husband Patrick struggled to make a go of it, him working for various hotels. Then angels started showing up.

First was the woman at her job who got her kids scholarships to St. Mary of the Lake School. Then it was the school’s principal, who saw to it the family had Christmas.

Then the principal linked them with school donor James Perry, a managing director at Madison Dearborn Partners, who with his wife and kids adopted this Katrina family.

Over the years, the families’ friendship grew, the Perrys helping to keep Bright’s kids in Catholic school, then helping Bright herself enroll at Washburne.

“I wanted to be a chef. After tasting my gumbo, he thought I could,” said Bright.

She enrolled fall 2009, and made honor society, president’s and dean’s lists on the way to earning an advanced certificate in culinary arts in spring 2010.

Going back to City Colleges to work toward an associate’s degree, she attended a National Restaurant Association conference where she learned food trucks now are one of the industry’s hottest trends, requiring low start-up with high success rates. Bright did her research, wrote her business plan and pitched Perry for a $75,000 loan to start Big Fat Tuesday, which launched May 11, and already has a loyal following.

“When she came back to let me know her plan, everything on my checklist, she’d already done,” said Washburne Executive Chef Kristopher Murray. “It’s what I wish for all my students, to see a need and put their ideas into action. Tracee’s a true survivor.”

Murray said Washburne will partner with Bright, allowing use of its incubator kitchen.

As for staff, it’s a family business. Her retired parents, Raymond and Octavia Bright, even came from New Orleans for the summer to help. And the Perrys are still there.

“It’s only God that’s made all this possible,” says Bright, of Roseland, who will be the first in her family to earn a college degree. “I tell other students, ‘Believe in yourself. Get an education. Know that God is good. With that, you can do anything.”

You can find Big Fat Tuesday on any given day by calling 312-371-7464.

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