Southern Soul Juice
We in the restaurant business, for the most part, didn’t just fall into this craziness. It was in our bones and movements from an early age. Here is another “movement” from mine.
Last summer, in a moment of early morning clarity, I called my friend Chef Susan Spicer in New Orleans and asked her a favor. Susan is a pretty big deal in NoLa and was an early instigator of both the New and Regional American Cuisine movements. In the mid 80’s, she opened “Bistro at The Hotel Maison de Ville” and 8 years later, Bayona – which garnered her a James Beard Award, among many other accolades. She was the basis for the character Janette Desautel on the HBO show Treme, partnered with Donald Link to open Herbsaint, sued oil giant BP for the Gulf spill and the effect it had on the restaurant and seafood industry in Louisiana, and has since opened Mondo and Rosedale in NoLa as well. With cookbooks and Louisiana Culinary Hall of Fame awards in her unknown horizon, Susan was the young up-start badass female chef in the male dominated New Orleans restaurant world, who has become one of its best examples of a culinary career well lived, and still jammin’. I couldn’t have picked a bigger NoLa food personality for this ask – which was this: “I wanna come down and cook.” Not a guest chef or dinner gig, but work. I lived and cooked in New Orleans in the late 80’s, and those were some of the best kitchen memories of my life. A style of cooking and food that is unique to all of the U.S., and I wanted to get some of that soul-juice on me again. She lined me up in some of the very best and most happening kitchens in New Orleans right now, the first being her newest spot Rosedale.
It was just a few weeks ago in late October that I showed up at her Rosedale Kitchen. As luck would have it, one of her cooks didn’t show up that day and another needed to piss in a cup or something right before service – so here I am, first day in NoLa, cooking lunch with one of the culinary icons of my era, and punching myself in the face in disbelief. At 68 years old, she moves around the kitchen like a cat. Tireless, bright-eyed, beautiful and amazing. For the next week, she had set me up to work in the very best kitchens in New Orleans, for the very best and most talented chefs. Peche, Meril, Cochon, Marjie’s Grill, Toups South – the food coming out of these kitchens are the very things that cause addictions and chronic sleeplessness – and every one of those chefs said, “when Susan asks you a favor, there is no answer but yes ma’am.” Only in a few places in the U.S. do you have so much culinary history and regional specifics as New Orleans. New Mexico, parts of Texas, Boston, the Northwest and California, the meat culture of KC and Memphis and the Carolinas. Regional and seasonal cooking, that is like no other place. New Orleans takes this to a completely different planet. It is the most soulful place you can eat in America – in my dumbass opinion.
As a guy who at 55 – has been doing this cooking/restaurant thing for my whole life, owns restaurants and employs close to 800 people, a step back into the kitchen like this raised some eyebrows. Every one of the chefs I worked for during this NoLa stretch – three of whom have received a James Beard Award – said to me in a moment of quiet, “so what are you doing here, you own a bunch of restaurants and you’ve come down here to… just cook?” All of them following that question with, “man, I need to do that myself, I’ve lost myself in the running of restaurants and would love to just cook.” And that is exactly why I was there, to just cook.
It is a privilege to be able to take time off when you own your own or lead a business. As a business gets bigger, that opportunity sometimes becomes easier, it certainly has for me. But for me, going out to eat in different cities and doing chef dinners in different kitchens is not the same thing. It’s easy. You roll in, everything is there for you, you do your course, don’t really set up or clean up like you would after a shift, or stress much about anything. It’s not a shift, it’s an appearance. And there are lots of people to do for you – whatever you need. But getting in and pulling a shift, building a station and grinding out a service, is a completely different level of hustle. It reminds you of what originally got you hooked – what it was about an industry that made you decide to spend your entire life in it, consumed you and your thoughts and became your career. That is what I was looking to do. Get out of my zone, be in the mix of different and busy kitchen environments which are all cooking this soulful southern loveliness that doesn’t exist anywhere else in America. It was fuktastic.
I ain’t a preacher, and I ain’t preachin’ here – but here is what I will say. No matter what path your career has taken you, and what you are doing, I highly recommend you take some time, and go back to work. Really go back to work in the way you originally started working. No matter what your occupation, as you get older, you get busier and sometimes, not always, do your work at a higher and “different” pace. Take the time to grind it back down to your beginnings – and do it for seven or ten days straight. I will promise you – you will come out re-inspired, refocused and a good bit clearer. I’ve taken time off before to “find myself” within my career. But for me, it took diving back into the very thing I was trying to understand, in a way that as time goes on, I didn’t find myself doing. It lit a fire – and I am looking forward to this coming year doing more of what I truly like to do, which sometimes as businesses get bigger, takes a founder out of the pace and rhythm that got his or her attention and passion in the first place. And if you haven’t been lately, get down to Nawlins. There is so much good food and good drink and good mojo going on down there it is hard to believe – rooted and soulful and original – just like Susan Spicer. In February, Jax Fish House will be hosting four of these amazing NoLa chefs, including Susan, in Colorado for four distinct dinners in both Boulder and Denver – stay tuned for details.
Hope y’all have a truly fantastic and memorable holiday this year – filled with family and friends and a new year loaded with a ton of opportunities to do what you are very best at doing – at your very core – old school like.
instagram and twitter: @davequery