“I’ve been the line cook, the a.m. sous-chef, the p.m. sous-chef and a purchaser. I’ve worn a lot of hats at Commander’s Palace,” says Meg Bickford. She wears the loftiest cap now—that of executive chef, the first woman to hold the title in the restaurant’s 128-year history.
Commander’s Palace occupies a revered place in American dining, with seven James Beard Awards and former top chefs including Emeril Lagasse. Bickford grew up in a Cajun family, and for her, the haute renditions of Cajun and Creole classics served at Commander’s mark a sense of place.
“In south Louisiana,” she says, “many fishermen are Vietnamese. I’m fascinated by their spices and techniques. There’s also a German influence, and a strong Italian culture, too. In our Creole cream-cheese gnocchi, for example, we use the trinity—celery, onion and bell pepper—adding house-smoked andouille sausage, cherry tomatoes and eggplant. It’s gnocchi, but when you eat it—man, you know you are in New Orleans.”
Women have always been instrumental in Louisiana cuisine, from white-tablecloth étouffée to po’boys consumed on a curb. Everything goes back to home kitchens. As men went to work in decades-long past, women kept the fires burning on the bayous, breaking down alligator meat and catching red-fish. Those chefs—especially the African-American ones, like Leah Chase—were not always recognized. That has changed.
Born in 1923, Chase became the Queen of Creole Cuisine, and her Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, opened in 1941, continues to be a pillar in Louisiana’s complex food history. A key meeting point for civil rights leaders in the 1960s, it also set the bar for beautifully rustic shrimp Clemenceau and chicken Creole. Chase earned a James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016, three years before she died. Her contemporary Willie Mae Seaton opened Willie Mae’s Scotch House in 1957; it too received a Beard Award in 2005. People still wait in line for hours for the restaurant's crispy fried chicken.
Linda Green is the city’s Ya-Ka-Mein Lady. “I did not create ya-ka-mein,” she clarifies. “It’s been here for a very long time. It came with the Chinese and the African Americans, as a poor man’s dish. What I did was to revive it, to take it from the Black bars to the people.”
Known as Old Sober for abolishing hangovers, ya-ka-mein consists of spaghetti noodles, chopped boneless chuck, green onions, boiled egg, soy sauce and hot sauce in a deeply flavored broth. Green honed her recipe, like so many others, at the hip of her female elders. “When my grandmother cooked ya-ka-mein, the aroma was so high people would come to the porch with a bowl in hand,” she laughs. “I started selling at the Second Lines, and then expanded to Jazz Fest.” Anthony Bourdain couldn’t get enough, and Green has since trade-marked her version, appearing at numerous festivals and pop-ups. Her Ya-Ka-Mary Bloody Mary mix is also set to roll out nationally.
From Susan Spicer, of the fine-dining restaurant Bayona, to Sue Zemanick, serving astounding, delicate seafood with giant flavors at Zasu in Mid-City, the female talent in New Orleans is furiously growing. “Sue and Susan have been incredible influences in this city,” says Melissa Martin, who grew up in Chauvin, Louisiana, on Bayou Petit Caillou. Martin launched Mosquito Supper Club in a house on Dryades Street in 2014. It only offers two seatings per night, for 24 diners. Her rough-hewn tables and minimalist decor set a stage for the stars: bouillabaisse and crawfish étouffée, as well as truly rare bayou delicacies such as soft-shell shrimp, which have shed their exteriors. It helps to know a fisherman to get this naked protein, and Martin does, frying them to salty perfection for po’boys. Her recent cookbook, Mosquito Supper Club: Cajun Recipes From a Disappearing Bayou, made best-of lists in Bon Appétit, Food & Wine and Epicurious.
The Good Book of Southern Baking: A Revival of Biscuits, Cakes, and Cornbread was also named one of last year’s best cookbooks by The New York Times Book Review. Author/chef Kelly Fields, who helms the airy Willa Jean in the Central Business District, won the James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef Award in 2019. “Historically, pastry chefs might not have been taken that seriously,” she says, “but New Orleans was once a bakery town. We got away from it, but it’s coming back. There’s some incredible pastry talent here.” At Willa Jean, Fields fosters conversation about how and why people have baked in the South, and then experiments enthusiastically. “My biscuits incorporate a laminated dough, normally found in croissants,” she says. “Our serrano and cheddar biscuit is actually cooked like a pretzel. I love finding that line and seeing just how far I can go over it. After all, New Orleans is the perfect place to break the rules.”