A name synonymous with the New Orleans food scene, Chef Susan Spicer has spent nearly 40 years honing her craft. She helped shape the NOLA restaurant industry while inspiring countless chefs. Here, the award-winning chef shares an inside look at her culinary journey.
Tell us a little about yourself and how you got started in the foodservice industry.
I started cooking professionally in 1979 with a girlfriend of mine who went to cooking school in Paris and was also one of the first women that I know of in New Orleans to work a station other than pantry in a restaurant. She taught cooking classes from her apartment and as we had cooked together socially, I started assisting her to prepare for those.
During that time she taught me most of the basic techniques and also recommended books by Jacques Pépin (La Technique, a godsend) and Paul Bocuse (definitely more intimidating). When she was asked to become chef at a new lunch restaurant, she hired me as her sous chef (for a whopping $7/hour, but that was a lot for 1979!), I left my job at a printing company and never looked back.
As a James Beard Award–winning chef and owner of three New Orleans restaurants—Bayona, Mondo and Rosedale—you have helped shaped the New Orleans food scene and inspired countless women across the foodservice industry. Do you feel you’ve had to work harder as a female to get where you are in this industry? Can you speak to some of the challenges you faced and how you overcame them?
Because I was 26 when I started cooking (having searched for a career for 10 years), I realized I had to really get going to make up for time wasted. I therefore did my best to work harder than just about anyone in the kitchen, male or female. I was also fired up to learn anything I could, so I tried to read most of the books in my chef’s office and ask LOTS of questions—probably to the point of being a little annoying!
I feel I owe my progress in the culinary world largely to being a dedicated employee, always willing to go the extra mile, come in early, leave late and do the tasks nobody else wanted to do (like picking up stuff off the walk-in floor, etc.). I tried hard to see the big picture—how the ordering, receiving, prep and execution all came together on the plates going out of the window. I worked with three different French male chefs who all pushed me to be better than I was. Most dissension came from the occasional male coworker who did not like being challenged by a woman, but they were few and far between. I was definitely one of the lucky ones.
Being a woman in the kitchen at that time was quite a novelty, and I think most people just expected me to do it for a while and give it up. Here I am almost 40 years later!
I also believe that working in the same city all this time has allowed me to build a lot of trust and support from my local customers. I sometimes feel that by being around for so long, I do not get a lot of young cooks coming to work for me, because they are all interested in working for the hot new places. They may not realize the value of consistency and longevity in the restaurant industry.
What advice would you give to women just getting started in this industry or who are facing similar challenges?
This may sound old-fashioned or naive, but I believe that if you just focus on the job at hand, think about the food, and use your senses and powers of observation to teach yourself and make connections, you will become more valuable to your team and your chef. These days there are so many restaurants and so many jobs for cooks that anyone with a great work ethic and some skills should be able to get ahead.
If you are being mistreated or harassed, I would suggest you attempt to resolve the issue, and if it is not to your satisfaction, move on. I think we are really making great strides in changing the kitchen/workplace environment, so there should be no need to work for a chef or in a place that does not respect and/or encourage you.
And for goodness sakes, please learn how to sharpen your knives! There are so many cooks that spend a ton of money on expensive Japanese knives and have no idea how to take care of them.
What does being a female in the foodservice industry mean to you in today’s landscape?
I really don’t think too much about that, as I have been asked that same question for 40 years. I was raised to believe that being a woman was not a handicap in any way, so it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be allowed to pursue my career, once I chose it. I’m proud to have mentored some very successful women—and men—in this business and I feel that’s a huge part of a chef’s job. I’m happy to see women—and men—stepping up to bring awareness and changes to the issues of harassment, substance abuse and better working conditions that really need our attention and our support.
Bayona is approaching its thirtieth anniversary. That’s a big milestone in the restaurant industry. What are some of the key learnings that have stood out over the years as a restaurant owner and chef?
As an employee, I tried to be as careful with my boss’s money as I knew I would have to be with my own. I learned about food costs, labor costs and how to read and understand a P&L sheet, so I was already somewhat prepared when I opened my own place.
I have been fortunate to witness some of the great changes in the American culinary scene—from the rebirth of the farmers markets to being able to find almost anything from curry paste to award-winning American-made cheeses to shiitake mushrooms in our neighborhood grocery stores. I’ve observed the transformation of the restaurant guest from uninformed novice to knowledgeable and demanding expert. As a consumer, I’ve enjoyed the proliferation and availability of cuisines from around the world as part of our everyday dining experience.
I’ve seen the chef as advocate come into being. Another dimension of a chef’s job is to educate her/himself on food matters and use his or her purchasing power to support issues such as sustainable farming/husbandry and cleaner water, or whatever she/he considers important.
One thing I’ve learned is that you still can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Nothing is more important than the ingredients you start with, whether it’s the strawberries from the farm down the road or the truffles from across the ocean.
And genuine hospitality will always be in style—the ability to give a warm welcome, personal yet professional, efficient service, good lighting, great food and beverage, attention to detail and a friendly farewell all add up to that memorable experience it is our pleasure and purpose to provide.
What are your favorite parts about the restaurant industry?
Definitely the nutty people I work with and the customers who have become friends and family.
I still love the immediate gratification of seeing a clean plate come back to the kitchen.
I like to sort of peek at people eating in the dining room to see if I can gauge their reaction.
I enjoy watching guests sitting on our courtyard as the sun is setting and the light softens and they are drinking wine and chatting and eating and having a wonderful time—actually, I get a little envious!
I appreciate having the universal language of food and cooking to be able to talk with all kinds of people. I enjoy the camaraderie with other chefs when we get together and we bitch about the same things—finding employees, rising prices, faulty equipment, etc. Mostly we come together for a common cause, to raise money for any number of charities or to make people aware of something they hadn’t thought about before. It’s satisfying to be able to help make your community—and the world in general—a better place.
Anything about the industry you wish you could change?
I believe we are in the process of making very important changes and taking steps to eradicate bias, harassment and poor workplace practices, such as expecting people to work crazy hours for low wages.
I do wish diners who have a problem would Yelp less and communicate more while they’re still in the restaurant.