Since beginning her cooking career as an apprentice to Chef Daniel Bonnot at the Louis XVI Restaurant in 1979, Susan Spicer has emerged as one of New Orleans’ most renowned chefs. With Regina Keever, Susan opened Bayona in 1990, where she serves as executive chef and has created such favorites as Cream of Garlic Soup, Crispy Smoked Quail Salad with Bourbon Molasses Vinaigrette, Asparagus Flan with Smoked Salmon Potato Salad, Grilled Shrimp in Coriander Sauce with Black Bean Cakes, Sweetbreads with Sherry-Mustard Butter and her take on peanut butter and jelly, the Cashew Butter, Pepper Jelly and Duck Sandwich. From 1997 through 1999, Susan owned and operated Spice, Inc., a specialty food market where her Wild Flour Breads were born. In 2000, Susan and three partners opened Herbsaint and in 2001, along with The Kimpton Group, Susan founded Cobalt as consulting chef.
Waiting to conduct this interview on a beautiful, unusually non-humid (for May) afternoon, I was struck by the ecstatic faces of Susan’s well-heeled patrons as they exited Bayona. Unanimously, they looked as if they’d just had the sort of religious experiences that sent St. Teresa into rapture.
Susan and I have known each other for a long time and, having been enlisted by a mutual organic farmer friend to semi-regularly transport organic produce from his St. Tammany farm to her French Quarter bistro, I sometimes encounter the chef in her kitchen, where she always seems the epitome of grace under pressure. Of course, in 1969, I knew Susan as a fellow music fan, rocking out in the dark, dank, departed Warehouse on Tchoupitoulas Street.
When we first met 35 years ago, I had no idea you were interested in cooking.
Nor did I. I wasn’t into anything in particular except having a good time back then as a freshman at UNO, skipping math class, going out to Audubon Park and doing things, hanging out under the trees. I was pretty aimless at that point in my life.
We went to see Easy Rider together at the Sena Mall Theater.
[laughs] Remember the short they showed with that—Du Duve [a comic parody of Ingmar Bergman]. For some reason, I always remember that they showed that silly film.
So when did your interest in cooking develop?
It actually reared its head right when I was getting out of high school and I thought maybe going into the culinary field might be interesting. I sent away for a catalog from what was then the C.I.A., which was the only cooking school around. It was in its old location, somewhere else in either New York or Connecticut, before it moved to Hyde Park. My dad kinda nixed that. He wanted me to do something more cerebral and less blue collar. So that’s when I went to college. Obviously, I wasn’t very convinced that that was right for me. I wandered aimlessly for about ten years after my one year of college. I moved around and then I finally came back to New Orleans in the mid-’70s.
Around 1976, I met Pamela Westbrook. She was Peter Yokum’s girlfriend and Peter and my boyfriend, Bob Bass, were friends. Pamela started cooking and she got me into it. 1979 was the year that I started at Louis XVI.
As for your dad’s concerns about it being a blue collar job, is cooking a very hard, physical job?
It is. It still is, even as the executive chef, owner, and all that kinda stuff, I still spend the 15-hour days. Fortunately, with the conditioning over the years—26 years now of cooking, I’ve built up a great deal of stamina. But it’s waking up the next morning and going, “Woa!” I feel like a truck ran over me.
Do your legs get really tired?
They do. They get tired more after the fact. Like when I’m doing it, they don’t bother me that much. My feet are kinda messed up. These shoes [plastic clogs] are very comfortable and I like the really, really hard wooden ones—the support that they give me. Your knees get shot from standing. That’s why [restaurateur] Anthony’s [Uglesich] retiring—bad knees. It’s hard physically—it really is. And the heat. I think I’m getting more sensitive to the heat. When it’s hot, I get really distracted and aggravated. Of course, I’m dreading the summer.
Kitchens aren’t air conditioned?
They are but it just keeps it at a semi-tolerable level. It doesn’t keep ‘em cool.
What are your duties as executive chef?
I still cook, I still expedite, I still make the specials, I do a lot of the administrative stuff. I work on special menus and special projects and correspondence. I’m involved in management. I have a wonderful chef de cuisine who’s been with me now for about three years. He’s the guy who pretty much runs the kitchen when I’m here and not here. His name is Jeremy Gresham. He’s super talented and very organized, which I’m not. He’s a wonderful, passionate cook who also happens to be organized. A good delegator, a good teacher. I think he’s really got all the skills.
Do you cook at home?
I do now, because I got married last year and I have stepchildren. Two nights a week, I cook for Chip, my husband, and the kids, and then usually on Sunday, it’s just the two of us so I cook differently. I’ve learned to try to take all the flavor out of my food for my stepdaughter Evelyn. Kelly, my stepson, will eat pretty much everything but Evelyn, who’s nine, likes the bland stuff. She will eat red beans and rice, pasta and shrimp is her very favorite—as long as you don’t season the shrimp too much. I grilled some pork chops the other night and cut a few slices for her with canned peas, which she eats like they’re candy. And she was like, “Susan, I’m just going to have to cut the brown stuff off this meat because it just has too much flavor.” [laughs] I was like, “I’m sorry I let some flavor get in your food. I didn’t mean to.”
At first, I was just doing everything I could to win her over, cooking tasty food. And then I’d get my feelings hurt when she wouldn’t eat it. Now, I just understand. I’ve really come a long way.
They eat broccoli, which is great. Kids eat broccoli for some reason—broccoli and canned peas. I do grow vegetables in my garden. Like I grew sugar snap peas and got the kids to pick the peas—at least they’re invested in it a little bit.
Do you think people’s palates are a result of their childhood?
Something like sweetbreads, which I’ve never tasted, seems so weird to me.
It is weird, but we’ve made a lot of converts here over the years with sweetbreads on our menu. People who have never tried them eat them and go like, “Wow! It’s the greatest thing!”
I’m an adventurous eater and my mom cooked lots of different kinds of food. I don’t remember being a fussy eater as a child but I probably was. At some point I just got past it. And I think my mom was such a good cook that I liked a lot of what she made. I was thinking about that today because I was eating some barbecue sauce at home that was really good that we got from ZydeQue. I was dipping bread in it, going, “Ah, I love barbecue sauce!” I was thinking back to when I was a kid, that I really liked it. But it’s too spicy for Kelly and Evelyn. I don’t know. I think they just get over it. I do think it’s a “phase” thing. But then you see some adults who don’t want to eat anything. Who knows what that is.
Yes, I know adults who grew up in New Orleans and won’t eat tomatoes.
It’s some kind of weird personal thing.
Do you believe that New Orleanians have more sophisticated palates than most people?
I think they’re pretty adventurous. I think they’re used to eating unusual things so I think they’ll try pretty much anything because they’re a food-loving society. I’ve noticed that, over the years, people develop a sense of trust. If they come to the restaurant and try things that they like and they like the way you prepare them, then they’re more apt to trust your taste and your cooking style. And they’ll start trying things that might be a little more offbeat.
What are some of these unusual dishes that have become more popular over the years?
We have rabbit on the menu and people really go for that. Again, sweetbreads—we’ve changed a lot of people’s minds about that. Different kinds of fish, some of the game meats. A lot of times it’s the preparation of the dishes—like I’ll do a fairly exotic thing. I like to cook Thai food. More global preparations as opposed to just strictly local preparations.
What is your favorite kitchen tool?
Probably a paring knife—I like a nice razor-sharp little paring knife to do things with. I debone stuff with them, I use them for a lot of different things. I’m not that much of a gadget person although we pretty much have the various gadgets. We have the VitaPrep—the “Naked Chef’s” blender. It’s a real high-powered blender.
(One of Susan’s kitchen assistants interrupts with news about oysters).
We’re getting some West Coast oysters—those are fun, fun to play with.
Is that kosher for you to serve West Coast oysters at a New Orleans restaurant?
Yeah, I think so.
What’s the difference?
They’re more briny, more ocean-y—they taste more like the ocean and kinda metallic. They’re yummy. There’s so many different varieties. Some are rack-grown, some are beach-grown. They’re mostly farmed, cultured. They’re flown here. And I’m getting some albacore and some halibut.
Do you still have to work late every Saturday night?
Oh yeah. I just come in and work here. I’m still a partner over at Herbsaint but after about the first year-and-a-half, I pretty much phased out of the kitchen there. [Chef] Donald Link’s done such a great job with it. I’m still a partner but I just come here and cook because I don’t know what else to do. I’m working on a cookbook. I’m almost finished with my first cookbook. The deadline is the end of May, which I’m not going to make. I was doing really good until about March and then we just started getting too busy and I was here all the time.
What’s the cookbook going to be like?
It’s sort of my culinary travels, recipes from my mother that I grew up with and stuff I learned all along the way in my career, from traveling and the different chefs I worked for, the different restaurants I worked for, and things I developed for different menus at some of the restaurants where I’ve been. It’s sort of autobiographical. I’m working with a writer—a woman in Texas that’s a friend of mine.
You have a publisher?
Yep, it’s going to be published by Knopf.
Oh, that’s really good!
Yeah, I’m happy. Now I have to think about the photography. I’m looking at portfolios from people from all over the country. The cookbook should come out next year.
Do you ever use a microwave?
I do at home and actually I was considering, the other day, buying one for the kitchen here because sometimes we make tamales. I had done some to test them and brought them home and threw them in the microwave and they came out perfectly. Microwaves are perfect for things with a lot of moisture. I might get one for here—I haven’t yet in fifteen years but it might be fun. It’s always nice to get a new toy, I guess. It makes you look at what you’re doing a little differently, makes you think about other ways to cook things.
What about your partnership with Leidenheimer’s Sandy Whann, Wild Flour Breads?
Wild Flour is coming along pretty well. We often talk about the artisan bread market here in New Orleans. It’s not like other cities. It’s not huge. People still perceive bread as a commodity item—to pay for a handmade product is hard for some people, mentally getting around that and actually paying for it. If you’re a small, independent restaurant, it definitely costs more than buying the typical French bread. But I think it’s so worth it.
I think the product is really good. We have a great staff right now. It’s gotten to the point where it supports itself and one day, it may just be more than an expensive hobby.
Do you love baking?
I don’t bake. I couldn’t bake my way out of a paper bag. I’m sorry to destroy that myth. I own Wild Flour and I hire people who can bake. At Spice, Inc. we developed the formulas but it was mostly Anne Weatherford and some of the other people that worked for us originally that put the formulas together. Then we just kept going with it.
So Sandy bakes all the bread at Leidenheimer’s.
We’re partnered and they make it at Leidenheimer’s but we’ve carved out a space within Leidenhemer’s and it’s Wild Flour’s 700 square feet. We have our own employees. It’s a completely separate entity that Sandy and I own together.
It was an amazing 11th hour partnership. When I closed Spice, Inc., we kept baking—it was kind of semi-legal at that point. I had gotten down to where I had one person baking. Bacco was buying the bread, and Bayona, and maybe one or two other places. I didn’t know what to do. I knew I had to get out of that space but I couldn’t afford to do it independently somewhere else. Cedric Martin [proprietor of Martin Wine Cellar] actually said, “Why don’t you talk to my friend Sandy Whann? He’s interested in the artisan bread movement.”
It was literally the 11th hour when we got together. We moved on June 1, 2000. We baked bread in the morning at Spice, Inc. Sandy sent his guys over, they dismantled our one little oven, took it over, set it up and that night we were baking at Leidenheimer’s. It was amazing. He had one employee and I had one employee. That’s how it started. Now we have about eight employees and lots of customers. I’m very happy.
What’s the most decadent meal you’ve ever had?
The most decadent meal I would have to say was definitely at Alain Ducasse in Paris. It was a lunch and it lasted for hours and hours and hours, like from one in the afternoon until six that night. Of course, about three-and-half hours of that was drinking after the lunch. We had lots of after-dinner drinks. It was just a very sumptuous, wonderful French meal.
What was served?
I remember sweetbreads.
Sweetbreads?! Is that all you ever eat?
I’m not good at remembering.
Why was it decadent?
Just because it was expensive, it was rich, it was very luxurious, it was delicious. We had wonderful wine.
One of my favorite meals I ever had was at a street cafe in a Turkish port town, Kousadasi, when I was cooking on a cruise ship and we got off and we went and toured this ancient ruin of the Virgin Mary’s hometown. I just had the most delicious meal—lamb and eggplant and wonderful tomatoes and olives and yogurt. Super super tasty delicious stuff. It was outside and exotic and just wonderful.
Is there a lost New Orleans specialty that you miss?
It might be Trout Muddy Waters real soon. That’s the dish at Uglesich’s that has garlic, jalapenos and anchovies in a meuniere butter. I loved that. So I’ve had to create my own version of it because as of now, I might not be able to get it from Anthony anymore.