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Before the Celebrity Chef in New Orleans

09:45 March 08, 2017
By: Phil LaMancusa

To prove my point, before we start, Google: “photos of celebrity chefs.” On that site, you will see hundreds of pics of hundreds of chefs. What you’ll see, by in large, is that most are male (the female chefs will have a link to see them naked. I’m not kidding). And overwhelmingly, they be palefaces. Caucasians. Bleach Boys. Caspers. Snowflakes. Only occasionally will you spot some color, perhaps a café au lait, maybe an Asian tint or two—flies in the buttermilk, raisins in the sun. This has nothing to do with a disparaging of the races, it’s stating the obvious: what the world pictures when it looks for culinary expertise is a reliance on the images that the media has burned into their brain pan. Youngish, well-coiffed, white—as if kitchen work is done on a movie set. 

This was not the case, especially in New Orleans, until about 40 years ago. There were no celebrity chefs per se. The reason why: not many of the chefs running kitchens—Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s, Brennan’s, Brousard’s, even Commander’s Palace—left their kitchens. They worked, most times up to 85 hours a week. They did not have time for stardom. They spent their time getting kitchens to run smoothly and making money for their owners.

The chefs and cooks who brought our food to the attention of the world were African American. The men and women who charmed the world with Creole food and worked the long hours, for low pay, in harsh conditions, and took pride in everything that they put out to table were African American. For too many years, the famous places where the food our people of color cooked and served and cleaned up after were not frequented by their peer group—people of color. And, the rich soul cooking that was enjoyed in black establishments was not to become famous to anyone except people of color and those others who knew how to search out new (and delicious) experiences.

Before the Celebrity Chef in New Orleans
^ Leah Chase, Dooky Chase

Therein lies the rub. Go back half a century and see the difference between then and now; the situation is completely reversed. The caveat here is to rule out the French, German, and other European heads of kitchens who were employed mainly for their training, knowledge, and ability to command. Remember, at that time, our restaurants served mostly Creole derivatives of European cuisine. 

“The outstanding characteristic of a chef is dedication and a willingness to work.” So says Rudy Lombard in his 1978 seminal cookbook Creole Feast, co-authored by Nathaniel Burton. In it, “Fifteen Master Chefs of New Orleans” (African Americans, all)  “reveal secrets of Creole cooking.” Among them: Austin Leslie (Chez Helene), Rosa Barganier (Corrine Dunbar’s), Louis Evans (Pontchartrain Hotel), Nathaniel Burton (Broussard’s), and Leah Chase (Dooky Chase). Of these, Leah Chase is the last of that breed standing. At 93, Mrs. Chase still commands her kitchen on Orleans Avenue as she has since 1941. 

These chefs worked their way up in kitchens, oft times starting as porters or dishwashers. They learned from the chefs who were there before them. They learned to cook by sweating over a skillet of roux, a deep fryer, a pot of gumbo, or the oven heat of jambalaya for 50 people. They learned to filet fish, bone hams, make stock, and perfect sauces; most times, the recipes were stored in their brains, only to be passed down to those they deemed worthy.

Before the Celebrity Chef in New Orleans
^ Austin Leslie, Chez Helene

I learned to cook this way from a woman named Ms. Vicky at the Embers Steak House who had worked there for 28 years, learning the recipes from the chef who had been there for decades before her: red beans, gumbo, jambalaya, etouffee, bread pudding—nothing written down on paper. She worked with a steak knife taken from the dining room. She measured in gallon buckets that oysters came in, her instructions (when I finally deserved them) were, “Put too much oil in that pan, now add just enough flour; add a hand of paprika and three fingers of garlic.” She measured her seasoning vegetables (onions, celery, bell pepper) 1-2-3: one part bell pepper, two of celery, three of onions. “Always add your onions first to the roux; it stops the cooking right where you want it. Don’t add salt to the beans until they’re finished cooking. Save that water from boiling the shrimp and use it as stock for the etouffee sauce. Here, let me show you the real way to roast a prime rib!” After having spent almost 40 years in kitchens myself, she treated me like a child who had “no learning and less sense” when it came to “her food.” But she took pity upon me. After all, I was the chef, and she schooled me in the tradition of the black hands that had been in New Orleans pots for almost 200 years. 

The African American chefs who shaped our city’s food have all but disappeared, like the dinosaurs. However, all young cooks coming up today could do with an archeological dig into what really put (and has kept) our food on the culinary map of the world before they aim for celebrity status. 

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