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When asked what a typical day is like in the life of James Beard Award-winning Chef Susan Spicer, the answer is simple: there is no such thing.
After all, the 66-year-old chef owns three popular New Orleans restaurants while also being a wife, a stepmother of two young adults, and the part-time caretaker of her 95-year-old stepfather, who lives on the Northshore. “It’s all about balance,” she says.
That “balance” would drive most mortals to distraction, but the chef seems to take it in stride. After four decades in the food industry, she admits she has pretty much seen and done it all.
“I didn’t get married until I was 51, and my husband came with two small children. It was such a blessing to have this instant family. I felt as if I’d won the lottery in families!” she says.
Today, she rotates among her three well-known restaurants: Bayona, a chic, high-end restaurant in the French Quarter; Mondo, a casual wood-fired pizza eatery in Lakeview; and Rosedale, a hip venue near City Park. She and business partner Sandy Whann also co-own Wild Flour, a gourmet bread business. When the new airport opens in 2019, she will open another Mondo in that setting.
A self-described “control freak,” Spicer still works in one of the kitchens each day developing recipes and supervising the staff. She takes great pride in working with younger aspiring chefs and can tell within a few weeks if one has the potential to make it in such a demanding, endlessly creative job.
“A good chef has to know more than how to cook,” she says. “She has to see the big picture—how to keep a kitchen working smoothly, how to work with a quirky staff. I’d never discourage someone from going into the food industry–and I’ve been wrong about potential chefs a few times–but it’s hard to make it all work.”
Chef Spicer was discouraged by her father from going into the restaurant business after she dropped out of college. But she was determined to become a chef and found ways to get the training she needed and to learn the business of operating a kitchen and restaurant as she went along.
Spicer share she “succeeded because I was a good employee. I worked hard, was curious and excited to learn new things. I went to work early and left late. That’s pretty much what it takes to succeed in any job,” she adds. “I also had mentors who believed in me.”
From 1982-86, Spicer worked with famed New Orleans Chef Daniel Bonnot and did a short stint with Chef Roland Durand at the Hotel Sofitel in Paris. Bayona, which she opened with business partner Regina Keever, was her first solo flight into the restaurant business. It opened in 1990 and serves a packed house daily.
Spicer’s early years were spent traveling the globe with her parents (Dad was in the Naval diplomatic corps) and six siblings. Her favorite posting was in the Netherlands where she was introduced to the Dutch and Indonesian fare of the country, and her love affair with food began.
Today, Spicer incorporates the cuisine and spices she learned to love as a child. Her menus often feature Pork Satay with peanut sauce and other favorite Indonesian delicacies. “In fact, I even use the same thick, sweet soy sauce, Ketjap Manis, that my mother used in the Netherlands in some of my dishes today,” she says.
In 1993, Chef Spicer won the coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef: South/Southwest. She was inducted into the James Beard Foundation for “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America” in 2010. She has appeared on Bravo’s Top Chef and authored her own cookbook, “Crescent City Cooking: Unforgettable Recipes from Susan Spicer,” which was nominated for Best American Cookbook by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. In 2012 she was named to the Culinary Hall of Fame.
Spicer was also the inspiration for one of the lead characters, Chef Janette Desautel, in the hit HBO series, “Treme,” a program about post-Katrina New Orleans, and she played herself in one installment of the hit CBS crime show, “NCIS:New Orleans.”
Once her fourth restaurant opens in the new airport, Spicer would like to slow down a bit. She shares she would “like to have more time to entertain—or just hang out with—my friends. I’d love to have a dinner party with just a few friends. I’d fix a big ribeye roast or leg of lamb and roasted potatoes. And I’d serve some good wine and whiskey. Food really is the universal language among friends, isn’t it?”
She’d also like to get involved in the community in an effort that is not food related. “I can see myself teaching reading to adults, or maybe I’d work with the libraries. I’ve always loved libraries and want them to thrive.”
For now, she’ll continue running her restaurants and being a wife, stepmother and part-time caretaker of her stepfather. “I really wouldn’t change much about my life at 66. The food industry has been good to me, and I have a world of loyal supporters,” she says. “My mother volunteered with Meals on Wheels until she was in her 80’s, and I can see myself doing the same sort of thing for literacy. It’s just a matter of making the time to do it all.”
Laura Claverie is a local mom, grandmother and writer. Laura is Nola Family’s ‘Hip Grannie’ and the Executive Editor of Nola Boomers Magazine.