Creole Culinary Legacy

When Creole Feast hit bookstores in 1978, co-author Chef Nathaniel Burton stared out from its cover with his toque, chef’s whites and serious expression. This was quite a departure from the portrait Americans were used to seeing of black culinary professionals. When Aunt Jemima, Rastus and Uncle Ben peered out from their pancake, Cream of Wheat and converted rice boxes, respectively, they were all smiles and eagerness to please. They were more caricatures than chefs.

In her James Beard Award winning book, The Jemima Code, Toni Tipton-Martin put it this way: “Historically, the Jemima code was an arrangement of words and images synchronized to classify the character and life’s work of our nation’s black cooks as insignificant. The encoded message assumes that black chefs, cooks, and cookbook authors — by virtue of their race and gender — are simply born with good kitchen instincts. It diminishes the knowledge, skills and abilities involved in their work and portrays them as passive and ignorant laborers incapable of creative culinary artistry.”

Chef Joe Randall, the Savannah-based chef and founder of the African American Chefs Hall of Fame, remembers the impact that cover had on him.

“I walked into a bookstore in Sacramento, and I looked up and saw a black chef on the cover and bought the book without even looking inside it,” he says. “I had been cooking since the ’60s and this was in the ’70s. I had never seen a black chef on the cover of the book.”

Rudy Lombard, the co-author and driving force behind their book, conceived of Creole Feast as a way of documenting the dominant influence that African American cooks and chefs have had on New Orleans culinary culture. But in the process, he also chronicled an era of restaurant history that was fast passing away. In those days, before cooking became a cool career choice, the majority of the cooks and many of the chefs in the city’s finest restaurants were African American.

The University of New Orleans Press will release a new paperback edition of the book in the spring [of 2019]. The book’s full title is Creole Feast: 15 Master Chefs Reveal Their Secrets. This new edition promises that the chefs and restaurants featured in the book, many of whom are no longer with us, will once again have a moment in the spotlight. Annie Laura Squalls, Rochester Anderson and Louis Evans from the Caribbean Room; Charles Bailey from the Grand Hotel; Malcolm Ross and Larry Williamson from Galatoire’s; Rosa Bargainer from Corinne Dunbar’s; Louise Joshua and Letitia Parker at Bon Ton Café; Henry Carr at Pascal’s Manale; Sherman Crayton from the Vieux Carre Restaurant; Charles Kirkland at Broussard’s; Austin Leslie from Chez Helene; Leah Chase from Dooky Chase’s Restaurant; and, of course, Nathaniel Burton from Broussard’s.

“In this book we introduce the reader to an elite group of Black chefs and cooks who in our opinion make up the finest selection of Creole cooking talent in the world. All of them are professionals who have held or are at present holding top culinary positions in the most renowned and widely acclaimed restaurants in New Orleans.

“The men and women who make up this prestigious circle of chefs are all primarily self-taught rather than formally trained. Almost without exception they began their professional careers as dishwashers. Along the way they received help, guidance and assistance (were tutored, if you will) from other professionals whom like them also lacked formal training. In this sense, they are proud heirs to the rich legacy of Creole cuisine they have inherited from Black professional cooks. And it is certainly to their credit that they have perfected the art of Creole cooking in almost complete anonymity and frequently in a hostile environment.”

The senior chefs among those included here often talk for hours about the other Black chefs who were their peers and teachers. Their reminiscences reflect the great mutual respect and the enormous pride they take in their profession. As one of the senior chefs said, “To the chefs I worked with every order was important, and there was always an attempt to cook it to perfection; to make it something you could be proud of.”

Even when the book was first published there were some notable African American chefs who were not included. Lombard acknowledges that in his introduction when he lists Charles Hall, a 25-year veteran of the Monteleone Hotel; Isaac Harris, a 40-year veteran of Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s; Bob Richards, a 25-year veteran of Commander’s Palace; and Dan Williams, a 15-year veteran of the Pontchartrain Hotel.

Perhaps most notable in that number was Stanley Jackson, who worked at Commander’s Palace and K-Paul’s before being selected by Lombard to be his partner in opening Lombard’s Restaurant in Oakland.

“The only reason why I wasn’t in the book was he couldn’t find me,” said Jackson, 75, who will be moving back to New Orleans from Atlanta later this year. Jackson went on to work for the late Al Copeland in the founding of the Copeland’s of New Orleans restaurant chain.

The late Michael Roussel was chef at Brennan’s for 30 years, starting in 1974. He was featured on the PBS television show Great Chefs of New Orleans. His successor, Lazone Randolph, continued to work at Brennan’s, overseeing the making of thousands of pots of gumbo and made-to-order omelettes for the restaurant’s famous brunches. He went on to helm the short-lived Ted Brennan’s Decatur.

Other chefs weren’t included perhaps because their restaurants were not the kind of white-tablecloth establishments that were featured. Clarence “Buster” Holmes operated Buster Holmes’ Bar and Restaurant at 721 Burgundy Street for decades. “Buster wasn’t a fancy cook, but everything that came out of his kitchen was down-home,” Tom Sancton wrote in his book, Song for My Fathers: A New Orleans Story in Black and White.

“His menu, which he posted on a chalkboard each day, was likely to include such fare as garlic chicken, barbecue ribs, ham and turnip greens, and shrimp jambalaya. But his most popular dish was the most famous New Orleans staple, red beans and rice, which he sold for twenty-seven cents a plate in those days. For sixty cents, he’d add his gut-scalding hot sausage.”

Willie Mae Seaton, who won a James Beard America’s Classics award in 2005, had been making her famous fried chicken at Willie’s Scotch House in Faubourg Treme since the 1960s. Her great-granddaughter Kerry Seaton Stewart has taken the restaurant’s helm. She’s managed to expand the operation while maintaining the spirit and flavor of the old place. The lines to get into the place are fitting testimony to the quality of the food.

Leon West, who served as executive chef at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center for 14 years, is now plying his trade at Messina’s Runway Cafe at New Orleans Lakefront Airport. His crab cakes and shrimp and grits are signature dishes, but the omelettes named for famous aviators are also not to be missed.

At times Rudy Lombard talked about writing a second volume or an updated edition of Creole Feast. His hope was to include some of the chefs left out of the earlier book and also take stock of the younger black chefs who were cooking in the city. There are not nearly as many black chefs leading New Orleans kitchens today as there were in the 1970s. Still, there are many noteworthy chefs who would merit inclusion in an updated version of the book.

Erik Veney was named executive chef at Muriel’s Jackson Square in 2002. He left the restaurant for stints at Stella and Restaurant R’evolution before returning to Muriel’s a few years ago. His crawfish and goat cheese crepes are a signature of the restaurant.

Albert Singleton, the chef and co-owner of Cafe Sbisa, is a New Orleans native who worked his way up through the ranks in jobs at Bacco and Desi Vega’s Steakhouse before becoming chef de cuisine at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse. He ultimately returned to Cafe Sbisa, where he had worked earlier in his career, to help Craig Napoli re-open the French Quarter landmark.

Nina Compton, a native of St. Lucia, has re-infused Caribbean cooking into the New Orleans dining scene with her James Beard Award winning Compère Lapin restaurant. She has gone on to open another successful eatery, the Bywater American Bistro.

While Leah Chase was included in the original Creole Feast, her grandson, Dooky Chase IV, was far too young to be considered. But his Dook’s Place Restaurant and Seafood Bar at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport continues the family tradition of serving excellent fried seafood and New Orleans specialties.

Marlon Alexander worked for years as a private chef and as the banquet chef at Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, before a trip to New Orleans for a bachelor party altered his ambitions. He fell in love with the city and decided to stay, opening Poulet and Cru in the Pythian Market food hall. Fresh off those successes, he is opening a full-service version of Cru in the Feelings Cafe building in Faubourg Marigny.

Martha Wiggins worked for seven years at Sylvain and even served as the restaurant’s executive chef. She has since moved on to join Alex Harrell at the Elysian Bar in the new Hotel Peter and Paul in the Faubourg Marigny.

Perhaps no chef working in New Orleans today bridges the gap between the old era and the new as well as Dot Hall, the chef at Bon Ton Café on Magazine Street. She’s worked at the restaurant nearly 50 years. It’s the only job she’s ever had.

“When I came here, I only came to stay two weeks,” she said in a 2013 interview for Saveur magazine. “When I looked up I had been here 40 years.”

“I came as a salad person. I worked the pantry. I did that for I guess about a year,” she recalled. “I’m a very nosy person, so when I was working the pantry, I looked to see exactly what they were doing at other stations. So one day when somebody was out, I was able to move up. I moved up to fry cook. Then as things when on, I went from fry cook to second cook and then to first cook.”

Despite her success, she urged her children to find other professions. “Working in a restaurant can be hard work,” she said. “Even when my kids were in school, I never allowed them to come here and work. No summer work; no nothing. It’s a lot of people that are in the restaurant business that wanted their kids to get this experience, but I wasn’t one that wanted that.”

Like Hall, many African American chefs have urged their children to seek careers in other professions. Hall’s three daughters all pursued careers in health care.

It is certainly a good thing for the city and the nation that African American professionals have broader career options than they did when Creole Feast was first published. Still, the city’s restaurant scene is somewhat impoverished by the fact that many veteran chefs have not chosen to extend their legacies through other family members.