Before the Celebrity Chef in New Orleans
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. Snow flakes. Only occasionally will you spot some color, perhaps a café au lait, maybe an Asian tint or two; flies in the buttermilk, raisons 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 forty years ago. There were no Celebrity Chefs per se; the reason why was, not many of the chefs running kitchens—Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s, Brennans, Brousards, even Commanders Palace--- left their kitchens; they worked, most times up to eighty-five 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 that brought our food to the attention of the world were African-American. The men and women that 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 in the famous places that 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 that knew how to search out new (and delicious) experiences.
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 that 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 (Hotel Ponchartrain), 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 that were there before them, they learned to cook by sweating over a skillet of roux, a deep fryer, pot of gumbo or the oven heat of Jambalaya for fifty. 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.
I learned to cook this way from a woman named Ms. Vicky at the Embers Steak House who had worked there for twenty-eight years, learning the recipes from the chef that 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 me having spent almost forty years in kitchens myself, she treated me like a child that 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 schooled me in the tradition of the black hands that had been in New Orleans pots for almost two hundred years.
The African American Chefs that 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 to celebrity status.