New Orleans has a long and rich history of successful women chefs dating back to as early as the 1850s. Elizabeth Kettenring, for one, was the queen of butcher’s breakfast. Butcher’s breakfast (a.k.a. brunch) was served daily at 11:00 a.m. at the Dutrey Market Coffee Exchange (later called Begue’s) in the French Quarter.
Lena Richard, a black woman, was the first to demonstrate cooking on television during segregation. Richard’s show, “New Orleans Cook Book,” aired on New Orleans’ WDSU television in 1949 and 1950.
These women and many others thrived despite the economic, social, and gender-related challenges of their day. Even today, women chefs often balance motherhood with long kitchen hours while slowly climbing to the top. However difficult the male-dominated industry can be, women chefs in New Orleans are finding ways to flourish and are turning heads in the culinary world.
“New Orleans is a remarkable food community,”says food historian Poppy Tooker. “We support each other all the time.” Tooker, who says she credits women she’s never met (like Kettenring or Richard) as some of her culinary she-heroes, knows the power of New Orleans food and storytelling. She hosts “Louisiana Eats!,” a weekly radio show on WWWNO 89.9 FM, the local NPR station, and has authored books about her experiences as a New Orleans food preservationist.
If you want a good New Orleans story with a perfect bowl of gumbo, pull up a chair at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. At the age of 92, chef Leah Chase still shows up to work in her restaurant’s kitchen in Treme. Fridays are a favorite for eating whole catfish; try the buffet if you can’t settle on one thing to eat. On any given day, if you’re lucky, you can meet Chase and chat with her. She’s got lots of stories.
In addition to cooking for generations of New Orleanians, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant provided a safe haven for civil rights leaders during stops in New Orleans. Chase is as happy to serve presidents (she’s served several, including President Barack Obama) as she is travelers: there’s even an outpost of her iconic restaurant located inside Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.
Gautreau’s chef Sue Zemanick is learning to balance her chef duties with a newly blended family. Since marrying in January, she wakes up early on Mondays to ensure her daughter’s school schedule and activities are on track.
“It’s a different challenge for me,” Zemanick says. “Sometimes babysitters fall through and you have to adjust quickly.” She credits a supportive network of friends, family, and peers who support her as a chef and mom. Zemanick, who moved south 12 years ago notes that New Orleans is a better fit for her than New York. “Here it’s more supportive,” she says. “Women hold each other up.”
Zemanick prides herself on a cooking style that’s always evolving, just like the city she works in and loves. She credits her grandmother, who often criticized her for stirring wild mushroom soup the wrong way, for piquing her interest in cooking. Zemanick concedes that she still doesn’t know what her grandmother meant by stirring the soup wrong. But, hey, who can argue with a grandmother in the kitchen?
Kristen Essig grew up spending weekends with her grandmother in the kitchen. She learned how to use cool kitchen gadgets and make instant pudding. Her culinary path began after high school when she attended the prestigious Johnson and Wales culinary school in Charleston, S.C. Her experience there was rigorous. Along with her culinary instruction, she was required to take math, science, and languages courses — just in case there was a change of mind.
Luckily, there was no dream shifting.
Now the chef at Meauxbar, Essig says she learned her work ethic from her mother. “Everyone says it’s difficult to be a female chef, but I find the New Orleans community is very accepting and willing to share.” But are there enough women represented? Essig responds simply: “I’d like to see more women in industry,” she says.
Essig believes hard work, networking, and goodwill can help any chef succeed— woman or man.
“I just want to be the best,” she says. “Not the best female chef or any of the other titles out there. Lists are great for business, but you have to be in this business for your own self-satisfaction.”
When asked what flavor best describes her, she replied, “lemon zest.” Why? “It brightens and lifts the ingredients up. It makes everything come together, which is what I have to do as a chef to lead the people who work with me.”
A newcomer to New Orleans, Nina Compton brings along cooking roots from St. Lucia. “When people try my food, they should crave it and always want more,” she says of her upcoming restaurant Compère Lapin, opening in June.
Compère Lapin will be one of few restaurants owned by a woman of color in the area; the Top Chef: New Orleans runner up embraces the challenge. “I have never considered someone’s color or mine [as an obstacle],” she says. “I think if that is always a focus, it will hold you back .”
In the beginning of her cookbook, Crescent City Cooking, Susan Spicer acknowledges her mother as her “inspiration for love, life, and cooking.” Spicer believes cooking side by side with her mother was the spark that led to her booming culinary career. In her young adult years, Spicer says that when she was trying to figure out life after school, she always came back to cooking. “I knew I was good at it.
Really good at it.
The James Beard Award winner is known as a slow food innovator who creates astounding flavors in each bite; her restaurant, Bayona, is a staple in the French Quarter.
Like Zemanick, she became an instant mom after building a culinary career. “I got married, had a husband, two kids and a dog — all in one day,” she says. “My life changed pretty dramatically.”
It is her adventurous, fun, loving-personality that has helped her make life adjustments while steadying a career that many New Orleans women chefs admire.
If you need sobering up after a New Orleans night out, Linda Green affectionately known as “The Yakamein Lady,” makes the spicy noodle dish New Orleanians eat to get back on the wagon.
Green was schooled by her mother, Shirley Green, who often did catering for Orleans Parish Schools. Green worked for 25 years as a cafeteria cook in the same school system where her mom’s food was so popular. “People still remember my mom,” she says.
Green says that as a girl, she dreamed of being an anthropologist rather than a cook, noting a lifelong love of history and science.
Green believes her life took the right turn, anyway. In September, she’ll be one of the food vendors in the food court opening on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. Green is appreciative of the support she’s received in New Orleans over time.
“I am New Orleans, born and raised,” she says. “You have to work hard to accomplish anything, and success doesn’t come easy. I have worked hard, and I’m still working.”
Green says one of her favorite New Orleans cooking memories is when her mother took her and her classmates to eat at Dooky Chase after graduating from F.P. Richard elementary. She proudly remembers meeting Leah Chase, and she even remembers what she ate: “I had chicken, gumbo and French fries,” she says. “I admire Ms. Chase so much for being an example for me to follow.”
The New Orleans culinary industry is always growing, and its women continue to shape our eating experiences. Whether it’s our grandmothers, mothers, or local businesses like Divine Cuisine, NOLA Girl Food Truck & Catering, or Kid Chef Eliana, the future for women chefs in New Orleans is in good hands.
Kelly Harris is a freelance writer and blogs at brassybrown.com