Hot, boozy, loose, wild: These are the words that, to most, describe New Orleans. But don’t try to apply these descriptions to Susan Spicer, one of New Orleans’ preeminent chefs.
Spicer is the calm in the storm. Her restaurant, Bayona, offers diners a tranquil garden tucked away in an 18th-century Creole cottage in the French Quarter, where breezes blow, a fountain gurgles, and the food is the only thing getting anyone excited. Spicer has been cooking in New Orleans for more than 20 years and has developed her own take on Creole cuisine, one that incorporates North African, Mediterranean, French, and Italian flavors. That said, the woman knows her catfish from her crawdads.
“An event like Katrina makes you cognizant that you’re a keeper of the culture, a big part of the cultural fabric. It was important to get back to work and keep things going.”
More than her unique approach to Creole cuisine, though, she’s been a key figure in the New Orleans food community for many decades. Bayona, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, was one of the first restaurants to reopen after Hurricane Katrina. Along with other New Orleans chefs, Spicer was honored with a humanitarian award from the James Beard Association for her work in bringing awareness and aid to post-Katrina New Orleans.
Hungry Beast caught up with Spicer and got her thoughts on the food of New Orleans, Indonesian soy sauce, and Dutch croquettes.
You were living in New Orleans four years ago, when Katrina hit. What happened to your restaurant? Bayona was fine because we were in the French Quarter. Most of the French Quarter had no flooding, though some places on the periphery had a little flooding, which caused problems. But we’re in the middle of the block, we’re protected, and we’re in a 200-year-old Creole cottage. The restaurant isn’t going anywhere, unless the whole city goes under. So the restaurant was fine, but my house was flooded.
So you had to leave the city. When did you return?We reopened the restaurant in mid-November of 2005. I had to commute from Jackson, Mississippi, and I commuted back and forth for eight months.
What was it like reopening the restaurant?It was great. It was very intense, people were very excited. It was very emotional. Our customers and regulars came back and many of our employees came back. For the first couple of years, emotions were running pretty strong. Every time there was an opening or a first “something” it was a big deal. But it was great being back in New Orleans early on.
Do you think your role as a chef and restaurateur changed in light of the damaged state the city was in after the hurricanes?I don’t think it changed, I think it intensified. An event like Katrina makes you cognizant that you’re a keeper of the culture, a big part of the cultural fabric. It was important to get back to work and keep things going, to help to bring attention and focus to post-Katrina New Orleans, and to offer people a place to go to sustain themselves. It was very proud time to be a part of the community; it has always been a tight culinary community.
The cuisine of New Orleans is a historical record of the place, and reflects the French, Spanish, Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Southern influences on the city. How do you think New Orleans cuisine has changed to reflect Katrina’s impact on the city? I think people feared that after Katrina a lot of the culinary history would be lost, but there are people taking up the cause of traditional cuisine and making sure that doesn’t happen. And rather than its destruction, we’re finding ways to add to it. Now we have a much stronger more prevalent Latin community, so that’s being added to the pot. The Mexican and Central American population wasn’t here before, and now taco trucks are becoming proper restaurants. So that’s adding to the cuisine. And at the same time people are also trying make sure that traditions don’t die out, people like Leah Chase and Willie Mae’s Scotch House and Frank Brigtsen.
What are your favorite traditional New Orleans dishes?I love them all. I love gumbo, crawfish étouffée, a lot of those things.
You’ve said that you could eat gumbo every day for a week. Probably for a year! There are that many different versions.
What are the most important elements of a great gumbo?The roux’s deep flavor. There’s not much new to be said about gumbo at this point, but that smell of onion, bell pepper, and celery being added to a hot roux…there’s no other smell like that in any other food culture that I know of. It’s a particular smell that belongs only to Louisiana. Unique. The rest is very subjective: Some people like gumbo thick, some people like it thin, some people like okra or file powder, some people will put tomato in, some abhor that. So that’s all very subjective. But the roux is the soul.
You’ve said that your favorite hard-to-find ingredient is Conimex Ketjap Manis, which is an Indonesian soy sauce. That particular brand and that particular sauce is something that’s been part of my family tradition since I was a little kid, since we moved to Holland when I was 4 or 5. My mom learned how to make a lot of the Indonesian dishes when we lived over there, and they became family favorites.
How does having lived in Holland influence your cooking? Is there any crossover in your cooking between the cuisines of Holland and New Orleans?Some of the best things that I ate when I was a kid in Holland were fried foods, like French fries in mayonnaise. Fried food in a mayonnaise-based sauce is heaven for me. And that fits right in in New Orleans, where we like to fry everything. The croquettes we used to get in Holland were also fried, and that was my first experience with crisp-on-the-outside, creamy-on-the-inside textural thing that I loved, and which I applied to my own cooking.
Those Dutch croquettes are so unique. I had bitterballen in Amsterdam; they were served with mustard, and I thought, “I have no idea what’s inside of this.”Aren’t they incredible? When I first tried them I was like, “Oh, man, this is so good.” The croquettes I remember are different than any other croquette. They were so creamy and smooth. Any other recipes for croquettes call for some texture, like shredded meat, but I think they should just be creamy.
What are the five things you always have in your refrigerator?Lemons, chili paste, bacon, cheese, eggs, and white wine. I love bacon or sweet things with bacon for breakfast, and my eggs slow scrambled with lots of butter or scrambled with pepper jack cheese.
As you approach 30 years in professional cooking, what are you most proud of?I’m proud Bayona is going to celebrate 20 years next year. I’m proud of a lot of the people that have come through the kitchen who are now chefs and instructors. Reflecting back on what I’ve accomplished, I’m proud to have created something that contributes culturally to New Orleans. We participate actively in the community, we do every fundraiser known to man, and we really try to give 110 percent to all the various charities and things like that. And I still love to cook! I still like what I’m doing. There are days when I want to pull my hair out, but teaching is a big part of being a chef and sharing your knowledge and passing it on and all that. There’s a lot to it that is very rewarding.
What would you be doing if you weren’t cooking?Wandering lost through the world.
Sarah Whitman-Salkin is an editor at Cookstr.com. She lives in New York City.