Interview with Chef Susan Spicer of Bayona – New Orleans, LA

October 2011

Antoinette Bruno: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
Susan Spicer: I started cooking with a girlfriend of mine, first socially, then when she started cooking professionally, she recruited me. When I started working for the French chef that she had trained with (Daniel Bonnet), I knew I was hooked. I loved the immediate gratification of it – knowing from looking at the plates coming back in the kitchen whether I had done a good job or not.

AB: Where did you train?
SS: I trained in New Orleans from 1979 until spring of 1982 at the Louis XVI. In the summer of ’82, I was lucky enough to do a stage in Paris with Chef Roland Durand, at the Sofitel Paris. Then I returned to New Orleans and worked with another French chef, Jean-Yves Gueho, one of Mark Haeberlin’s protégés, at the Hotel Meridien.

AB: Who are your mentors? Which chefs do you consider to be your peers?
SS: I consider my mentors to be all the chefs I’ve worked with, especially Daniel Bonnet, who was the first, and who really pushed me to do much more than I ever thought I could. My peers would be all the wonderful local New Orleans chefs, like Frank Brigtsen, Anne Kearney, Donald Link, Adolfo Garcia, Greg Collier, Agnes Bellet, (John Neal and Jamie Shannon, both of whom are missed terribly), and all the others who have created a thriving, competitive, but friendly and supportive food community. Also, my good friend, Loretta Keller, in San Francisco, and numerous others. I feel like a bit of an old timer!

AB: What chefs do you most admire?
SS: Goodness, there are so many. Paul Prudhomme, Daniel Boulud, Robert del Grande, Jody Adams, Rick Bayless, Paul Kahan, Nancy Silverton, and there are so many new, young talented ones that I’m just not familiar with. I think the thing I admire most about chefs is that they’re all pretty much self-made successes. You may find investors, supporters and all that, but it’s really all about the work and a lot of sacrifice, as far as personal time is concerned.

AB: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
SS: Probably just a good, sharp utility knife – I’m not really a gadget person. Our little bar blender gets a good workout, too, even with the fancy new Vita Prep around. A good blender is a great way to utilize product - tomato scraps, herb bits, root vegetables - can be transformed into delicious sauces, aromatic oils and creamy purées.

AB: What cities do you like for culinary travel? Why?
SS: New York, Paris, Chicago, Bangkok - I love the cuisines of the world and you can find both comfort and exotic foods in all these places.

AB: What are your favorite food haunts in New Orleans?
SS: Again, mostly ethnic joints or comfort food – Divina Corazon (for pupusas and yucca with chicharones), Rio Mar (for ceviche and chorizo), Mona’s (for falafel, hummus and much more), Herbsaint (for gumbo, french fries, duck confit and short ribs), and numerous sushi joints, such as Horinoya…..

AB: What is your favorite spice? Why?
SS: I love cooking with spices – probably coriander seed, as I think it is versatile and has a subtle warmth that is hard to identify.

AB: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way? Please describe.
SS: I like to cold smoke various ingredients, then finish cooking them in other ways. We use smoked onions in our smothered greens instead of adding pork (we originally did this to use on a vegetarian entrée, then decided we liked it better than using bacon or pork, since we use a lot of pork products in other things). We also marinate, then cold smoke the quail for our quail salad, which is coated with a rice flour batter and fried to order.

AB: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
SS: What is the difference between a line cook and a sous chef, and how do you get there?

AB: What advice/tip do you have for culinary students just getting started?
SS: Learn how to keep your knives sharp. Taste everything. Start thinking like a chef before you are one.

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