Portraying New Orleans Cuisine

Portraying New Orleans Cuisine
May 25, 2010
The Wall Street Journal

It's the musicians who are central to David Simon's HBO series "Treme," about life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The neighborhood Treme, after all, is considered the birthplace of New Orleans jazz.

But in the Big Easy, with music comes food, and restaurants, like many other businesses, struggled to reopen in the hurricane's aftermath. To illustrate, Mr. Simon wrote chef Janette Desautel—played by Kim Dickens ("Friday Night Lights," "Deadwood")—into the show's script.

The fictional Ms. Desautel is an up-and-coming chef who owns the Uptown restaurant Desautel's. In a recent episode she is aghast, but up to the task, when real-life celebrity chefs David Chang, Tom Colicchio, Eric Ripert and Wylie Dufresne drop without a reservation.

To help give authenticity to the character and the restaurant scenes, Mr. Simon turned to notable New Orleans chef Susan Spicer for advice. Ms. Spicer's life is loosely based on Ms. Desautel. "The personal life is very different from my own life," says Ms. Spicer. "I was happily married before the storm and am happily married now." Ms. Spicer serves as a consultant to the show, teaching the cast cooking techniques, tweaking scripts and being on set during restaurant scenes to make sure kitchen life and the New Orleans dining scene are portrayed accurately.

Ms. Spicer has been a key player in the New Orleans dining scene for more than 30 years. For the past 20 years, she has served as owner and chef of Bayona, where she creates twists on New Orleans dishes, such as the grilled shrimp with a black-bean cake and coriander sauce that made a cameo in a recent "Treme" episode.

The 57-year-old chef took a break from opening her second restaurant, Mondo, to speak with The Wall Street Journal about her work with "Treme," New Orleans's historic and changing food scene, and her own experiences following Hurricane Katrina.

The Wall Street Journal: How did Hurricane Katrina change New Orleans cuisine?

Susan Spicer: In the months after the storm, even getting product from out of town became more challenging. Actually oysters were great after Katrina, because of the salinity of the salt water blowing into marshes. You pay more for the local product, but you are not having to pay for shipping product in from all over the country and are supporting your local producers. I think the demand for local product was starting before Katrina, but there was more emphasis afterward.

WSJ: What traits of New Orleans cuisine are important to you in making the show accurate?

Ms. Spicer: Certain ingredients. I wanted to make sure there were things that people would recognize — crawfish and andouille, and serving desserts with satsuma, which is a local tangerine.

WSJ: Did you have to train the actors in the kitchen?

Ms. Spicer: Kim Dickens and Ntare [Mwine], who plays the sous chef [Jacques Vaz], came and spent time in our kitchen, hanging out and watching. Then came time when they had to stop watching and start touching. They spent a couple of hours on the grill and on the line when we were closed for lunch and I had them cook a bunch of stuff.

WSJ: How were they?

Ms. Spicer: Ntare is a vegetarian and there was a scene where he had to cook pork chops. He couldn't pick it up with two fingers with disgust -- he had to act naturally. There was another scene where he had to sauté a piece of fish and he actually did a pretty good job.

WSJ: Can you talk about a few of the nuances on "Treme" you helped tweak?

Ms. Spicer: There was a day where Ntare was chopping and he was picking the knife up and chopping and making a lot of noise. The knife is made so there is a rocking motion so you can cut without making a lot of noise unnecessarily. I also just tried to convey the emotional rollercoaster that everyone was on after Katrina.

WSJ: The emotional rollercoaster?

Ms. Spicer: Trying to find relatives. Trying to find friends. Trying to get their lives back together. Trying to deal with insurance companies. Trying to find a gas station that was open after work. For the first year-and-a-half just trying to live a normal life was a challenge. The normal little things that you take for granted were just that much harder. We still don't have enough grocery stores. I remember one day driving around for an hour trying to find a place that had air to fill up a low tire.

WSJ: How does Desautel's compare to your restaurant in the months right after Katrina?

Ms. Spicer: My restaurant was already well-established before the storm. We didn't have trouble falling behind on the bills and it helped that we had a landlord who was willing to work with us. We had a better time of it than [Kim] is having.

WSJ: What was the state of your restaurant after Katrina?

Ms. Spicer: We were not flooded. But we lost all of our wine -- with no power, it fried. We had 15 years of a really great wine list. It was more about getting staff back. My house flooded so I was in Jackson, Miss., with my husband's family. I was going up there and trying to go back and forth before moving down here and living in an apartment until my house got fixed.

WSJ: How long were you closed?

Ms. Spicer: Two and a half months. Opened the week before Thanksgiving. We were among the first. We were lucky.

WSJ: Have you recovered?

Ms. Spicer: We were definitely working towards recovery. We had just bounced back from 9/11, and 2005 would have been one of our best years ever if it weren't for Katrina. We were in a slow, steady incline and now we have this BP disaster. It's going to be another setback. There is no reason not to come to New Orleans. But perceptions, the balance is very delicate. We are not feeling the brunt of it yet.

WSJ: How do you think the BP oil spill is going to affect food in New Orleans?

Ms. Spicer: Now we are not going to be able to take for granted the bounty of gulf seafood. It hasn't sunk in yet, but prices are going up. There are two places we get oysters from and if they shut them down, which could be overnight, that will be it for oysters. So it's going to change our cuisine again. I get very emotional about it. It's going to be a disaster economically, ecologically and culturally.
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