New Orleans is one of the greatest food cities in the world, but what's really noteworthy is the number of women chefs and restaurateurs who have come to dominate the Big Easy's foodscape in recent years. Indeed, Zagat's latest New Orleans restaurant guidebook awarded Bayona, owned and operated by chef Susan Spicer, the highest food rating of all the eateries it surveyed. Three other women-run restaurants, including the venerable Commander's Palace, owned by the legendary Ella Brennan, also received superior marks.
That was enough to convince me that things needed further investigation. So I spent two days and two nights in New Orleans eating 12 meals, all in restaurants with women in charge of the kitchen, the front of the house, or both. I also got an answer from Dooky Chase, the city's most prominent African-American restaurant owner, to my question about why so many women in New Orleans have become influential chefs and restaurateurs. "Food is what we're all about," said Chase, at 77 a nearly 60-year veteran of the New Orleans dining scene. "Women are all about hospitality. Who could possibly do food and hospitality better than a woman?"
My culinary tour included Chase's restaurant, but my first stop was Bayona, a gorgeous restaurant in the French Quarter that features oversize flower arrangements and a spectacular dining courtyard. Chef Spicer's best dishes, such as oyster gratin with stone-ground grits, fried green tomatoes, and tasso (spicy Cajun ham) cream, were a perfect melding of classic French technique and local ingredients.
Almost as fine was the crispy smoked quail salad with bourbon molasses vinaigrette. Other dishes, such as cream of garlic soup and and apple-and-boudin-stuffed rabbit leg, were undistinguished. The service was friendly, if haphazard. But thank heaven I saved room for dessert. Spicer's mixed-berry pie had the flakiest crust imaginable and came with ultrasmooth lemon ice cream.
My next stop was Dooky Chase's. What started as a small sandwich shop in 1941 in a black neighborhood has become an upscale, white-tablecloth restaurant in a series of "shotgun" houses--narrow, white row houses--whose mauve inside walls are adorned with Chase's extraordinary collection of African-American art. The eaterie, a 10-minute cab ride from the French Quarter, is the place to be seen both for the city's influential black power brokers (such as Mayor Marc H. Morial) and for prominent blacks coming through the Crescent City. Chase has played host to Sarah Vaughan, Thurgood Marshall, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey, among others.
Chase wasn't always hobnobbing with celebrities. When she started in the kitchen, male cooks hazed her, ordering her to heft enormous stockpots. "Sure I had that done to me," she says. "But when you become the executive chef, you'll find some man to pick it up for you."
To artists, pols, and common folk alike, Chase serves up heaping plates of classic Creole soul food. Don't miss her smoky gumbo, miraculously crispy fried chicken, crab soup, or more elaborate dishes--including shrimp Clemenceau, made with potatoes, peas, and mushrooms in garlic butter so powerful it could ward off evil spirits forever.
Around the corner from Dooky Chase's is a much less fancy soul-food establishment, Willie Mae's Scotch House. It's a tiny (seven tables), lunch-only cafe, its plain walls adorned with a Hawaiian travel poster, a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and some green, gold, and black Mardi Gras ornaments. Presiding over it all is 80-year-old Willie Mae Seaton.
"NURTURING." When my dining companion, local mystery writer Julie Smith, and I walked in and sat down, Seaton's son came by and said: "We don't have much left." Did that spell trouble? New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie (author of Smokestack Lightning, one of the greatest books about barbecue ever written) had told me that Willie Mae's served the best fried chicken he had ever had in a restaurant.
I wasn't let down. Twenty minutes later, he brought us one plate of powerful, full-flavored red beans and rice and another of the most beautiful fried chicken I had ever seen. Its crunchy, burnished brown skin adhered to moist, tender meat, and as good as the fried chicken at Dooky Chase's had been, this was even better. Even though this was my fifth meal of the day, Smith and I found ourselves fighting over the last piece. Seaton has no fancy theories about why she's in the restaurant business: "I had a bad marriage. I had to do something."
Commander's Palace is about as far removed from Willie Mae's Scotch House as any place could be. Located in the fashionable, staid neighborhood known as the Garden District, Commander's Palace is where both Emeril Lagasse (of Food Network fame) and Paul Prudhomme came to prominence. The current chef, Jamie Shannon, is also a major culinary talent. His New Orleans barbecue stew features gulf shrimp, homemade seafood sausage, and local redfish in barbecue sauce flavored with beer and rosemary. A classic redfish-and-shrimp court bouillon was perfectly rendered in a Creole tomato sauce. Dessert was the restaurant's famous bread pudding souffle, which was earthy-tasting, yet delicate and light.
Presiding over all this is the elegant, 74-year-old Ella Brennan. Since Brennan and her family took over Commander's Palace in 1973, it has become the city's most talked-about restaurant. In 1996, the James Beard Foundation named it restaurant of the year. When Brennan and her brothers took over the business, she admits that she had a bias against women working in the kitchen. "I felt it was too tough, physically," she says. Her views have evolved since, thanks in large part to the many women cooks who have passed through Commander's Palace in recent years. And she remains an unabashed champion of women running their own restaurants: "We have a nurturing nature that pulls the whole thing together. We come to this business naturally." In fact, Brennan's daughter, Ti, has her own cafe, Foodies.
Ella Brennan is a role model for JoAnn Clevenger, the former bar owner and costume designer who 16 years ago opened the Upperline Restaurant in the artsy Uptown district. While restaurants such as Commander's Palace and Bayona stray well beyond New Orleans cooking, Clevenger and current chef Ken Smith are content with first-rate renditions of many Creole-Cajun favorites, such as oyster stew, fabulous roast duck, and shrimp remoulade served atop fried green tomatoes.
Clevenger makes her employees and customers feel like family. The evening I spent there, she greeted nearly every diner in the place. She has her own theory of why women chefs and restaurateurs have risen to prominence recently in New Orleans: "It's the Big Easy syndrome--life is easier here," she told me. "You don't have to elbow other people out of the way to get somewhere." Unless, of course, there's only one serving of gumbo left.