Growing up in Lafayette placed Ashley Roussel in close proximity to food, farms and sports. Her dad was a quarterback for the Ragin’ Cajuns and “the best cook I knew,” while her mom ran a wholesale herb farm in Loranger, Louisiana. Her brother played football (and baseball and basketball) while she played volleyball (and softball and basketball and high jump). Sports was family life, and vice versa. “Outgoing” wasn’t quite strong enough of a word to describe the 6-foot-1 force that was Ashley Roussel at 18. She was six months into a broadcasting major at ULL when a local sportscaster happened to walk by her porch, recognizing her immediately as an important player on the university volleyball team.
“I wanted to be a sports broadcaster on ESPN,” she remembers. “And here’s this guy walking by who’s the weekend sportscaster for Channel 10. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re doing what I want to be doing!’”
He joined her on her porch for a career chat that didn’t go the way the young athlete was expecting. Within minutes, he’d convinced her that her current path would make her “jaded, cynical and angry.”
“I really didn’t have a clue,” she said. “I was taking classes I couldn’t relate to, lots of technical stuff, lots of cameras and computers. I’m an analog girl, and the digital world was not where I lined up.”
That’s when she called her dad and coach, Butch Roussel, who was one of the original owners of Fat Harry’s. What did he think about hospitality management instead? Within days, she’d switched majors and was soon off to apply for her first job at Zea—their third restaurant had just opened in Lafayette. They hired her on the spot as a server.
“I had no experience,” she said. “I told them, ‘Shape me, mold me, make me what you want. I don’t have any bad habits to break. I want to learn.’”
She worked her way though all of the roles in the front of the house, and was then moved into a management program, which involved learning each and every job in the restaurant. Soon, Roussel found herself mostly in the kitchen, and having a difficult time leaving it. That’s when she decided to go to culinary school, seeking out the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, a part-time program she combined with a job on the line at ABC Kitchen in Union Square.
“I cried my whole walk to ABC Kitchen that first day,” she recalls. “I was scared out of my mind. But at the end of the shift they’d offered me an opportunity, and four months later, we won Best New Restaurant [James Beard, 2011] in the country—the most surreal experience.”
Of course, living in New York was way too expensive for a line cook so Roussel maintained two other jobs, serving and bartending at the same time. For Jazz Fest and Festival International, she’d travel home and bring a new friend who hadn’t yet been to Louisiana with her.
“And every time, something else was pointed out to me about what makes Louisiana special. I kept being reminded,” she said.
Moving back to Lafayette to open her own place, showcasing local farms and produce, made sense. But on her drive back, Roussel did some research and realized that someone else was now doing just that at a place called the Saint Street Inn.
“I was like, ‘Somebody beat me to it!’” she recalls. “Lafayette wasn’t a farm-to-table town yet and I was like, ‘Man, I missed my chance of doing something new!’ But there is so much room; that’s what I didn’t realize. Really, there shouldn’t be any other kind of food in my opinion.”
Yet at the time, Roussel doubted herself, thinking she maybe wasn’t ready after all, so she got back on the line at another new place, Social Southern Table & Bar. Within a month and a half, she’d been promoted to executive sous chef. The chef there, Marc Krampe, had just moved back to Lafayette from Austin, Texas.
“Ashley has exactly what you look for in a long-term salaried employee,” Krampe told OffBeat. “She’s a go-getter and she works really hard; she cares about what she does. As far as being ready to have your own place, you just don’t know, I think most people aren’t ready—I sure wasn’t when I opened my first restaurant—but you do it and then it’s sink or swim.”
“I joke that I’m a perpetual sous chef,” Roussel adds. “I have a lot of fun helping other people’s visions come through.”
In this way, Roussel was a perfect fit for Simone’s Market, which opened last spring on Oak Street. Roussel met Simone Reggie, who’d been handling farmers’ relations for the short-lived local branch of Good Eggs, at a charity dinner—a boucherie in a backyard compound in the Irish Channel that was organized by Runaway Dish.
“She had a vision for Simone’s Market and she’d eaten my food,” Roussel said. “Simone understood that I understood what it’s like to have beautiful ingredients right around the corner—working with farmers and local guys and giving them an avenue to showcase their beautiful produce without having to set up a stand in a farmer’s market and sweat it out.”
“Plus, a grocery store sounded nice,” she continues. “Something where I could go in and set a menu and roll with the seasonal stuff and get in a little bit more time for me, too. You can only work 90-hour weeks for so long.”
Customers at Simone’s Market might be coming in for a six-pack of beer, or a gallon of milk, or 20 sandwiches.
Their top seller is the fried, smoked chicken thigh sandwich with slaw on a brioche bun. Prepared to order (of course), it’s what fast food should be—less fast, and completely satisfying.
“We’re really lucky to have Ashley,” Simone Reggie said. “I think we slept four hours the weekend before we opened and we were still under construction and working out of a commissary kitchen and had 100 pounds of chicken. A friend of mine took it in a huge ice chest to smoke at his house and then Ashley fried it. I was like, ‘Shit better be good, or I’m going to kill you…’ But it was. It was delicious!”
Reggie and Roussel oversee a small, dedicated team. It’s the team mentality that Roussel, quite literally, brings to the table. Chef Kristen Essig of Coquette knows what a rare quality this mindset can be in the restaurant world.
“It’s a rarity to find people willing to work with those around them,” Essig said. “I’m not surprised to learn that she’s played volleyball—she’s one of the tallest people I’ve met. Food can be very contrived, but hers is honest, because she’s an honest person. She’s dynamic and passionate and self-motivated, and those are some of my favorite traits in anyone.”
Roussel—more than capable of acting as a coach as she calls out the plays in her kitchen—prefers to think of herself as a cheerleader.
“The best kitchens I’ve worked in are the ones that have a team sport mentality, like ‘We’re all in this together,’” she said. “If you drop the ball I’m going to look bad, chef’s going to look bad, managers and servers—it all trickles. If you don’t have the camaraderie and the ability to move around and the actual agility—some of these lines are only so wide and I’m 6’1; I’ve got to be able to maneuver around the guy who’s 5 feet or the guy who’s 300 pounds. You’ve got to be in it for the team. The second you’re in it for yourself, it all falls apart.”