New Orleans Restaurant Women Chefs: Three Women Helped Build Big Easy’s Reputation for Fine Food

Cajun Chef Paul Prudhomme and Television Chef Emeril Lagasse may be the icons of New Orleans cuisine these days, but the Big Easy owes much of its current food popularity to three women: Restaurateur Ella Brennan, Creole Chef Leah Chase and Avant Garde Chef Susan Spicer.

For starters, it was Brennan who gave Prudhomme, Lagasse and a few dozen other chefs their big breaks in the restaurant world. She is credited with turning Commander’s Palace in the New Orleans Garden District into something of a graduate school for chefs who moved on to operate many of the city’s top restaurants.

Brennan Gave Prudhomme the Go-Ahead on Blackened Catfish

At Commander’s, she gave Prudhomme the go-ahead for his blackened redfish, a dish that became so popular nationally that the catching of the fish had to be put under special controls to save the species.

Under Brennan’s supervision, Commander’s became the flagship of the nouvelle Creole cuisine that revived the Crescent City’s restaurant business late in the 20th Century.

Chase Has Nurtured New Orleans’ Traditional Creole Cuisine

Meantime, her friend Leah Chase, who told The Times-Picayune that she is “just a cook”, not a chef, was nurturing the city’s traditional Creole and soul food at Dookey Chase, one of the nation’s best known minority-owned restaurants.

Chase has cooked and entertained there for six decades, appeared on countless television shows and published two books. As she once told The Times-Picayune, her customers “want food just like grandma made,” such things as chicken and sausage gumbo, crispy fried seafood and chicken breast stuffed with oyster breading.

Both she and Brennan have won the “Hornblower” award presented by the New Orleans Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America to individuals who do the most to promote the city.

Spicer Pioneered City’s New Cuisine at Bayona

Susan Spicer has pioneered the city’s avant garde cuisine at her award-winning Bayona Restaurant in the French Quarter, offering such exotic servings as Goat Cheese Crouton, Eggplant Caviar and Sauteed Pacific Salmon with Choucroute and Gewurztraminer Sauce.

In 2007, Spicer enhanced both her reputation and influence with network appearances and her new book, “Crescent City Cooking: Unforgettable Recipes from Susan Spicer’s New Orleans” (Knopf, $35).

Bayona ranks second to Galatoire’s in popularity in the New Orleans edition of the Zagat Survey and tops Galatoire’s in the Zagat food ratings with 28 out of a possible 30 points.

Aside from Cooking, Brennan Has Been The Complete Restaurateur

But it was Brennan, more than anyone else, who revived and enhanced New Orleans reputation as one of the world’s favorite dining places. And she has done it without cooking.

She has done it, colleagues say, as an entrepreneur, adventurer, business gambler, tireless worker smart business woman, teacher, coach, respected employer, perfectionist, the complete restaurateur. Her admirers add that she has done it with amazing taste, as well as love and respect for food, wine, world travel and a commitment to making every visit to her restaurant an enjoyable one.

James Beard Awards Presented to Commander’s

Under her guidance, Commander’s won the prestigious James Beard Foundation national Award for Outstanding Service in 1993, was nominated for the Outstanding Restaurant Award in 1994 and 1995 and won that award in 1996.

In 2007, Brennan turned over the operation of Commander’s to two other women in the family and retired to her home next to the restaurant.

But even at 81, she was still recognized as the matriarch of a family that owns and operates 12 restaurants. She was still called the New Orleans “queen of cuisine.”

Both Commander’s and Dookey Chase were wrecked by Hurricane Katrina and did not reopen until 2007.