By Lolis Eric Elie
Susan Spicer has been involved with 'Treme' since the beginning. She’s helped write menus for the two Desautel’s restaurants; she’s helped check our scripts for culinary accuracy, and she’s helped us imagine what a young chef like Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) would go through in opening and maintaining a restaurant. We recently talked to discuss how her experiences compare.
What did you do to help Kim Dickens prepare for her role as Janette Desautel?
Susan Spicer: Originally, Kim came in the kitchen at Bayona and watched us prepping and getting ready for service. I would give her lots of shallots to mince and vegetables to slice or dice so that she could be comfortable handling a knife. Then she would hang out and observe during service -- I think it was important for her to get the "sense of urgency."
How much do Janette Desautel's experiences, particularly opening a new restaurant this season, mirror your own?
Susan Spicer: I think I've been a lot luckier than Janette in that the restaurants I've been involved in have been pretty successful, although I did open a business, a specialty food market, a few years ago that just didn’t work out So I can relate to the pressure and frustration she felt in the first season. It's hard to bounce back from that and feel confident, but going to New York and just cooking for a while helped her rebuild that confidence. So, this new restaurant gives her the opportunity to showcase her talent and ambition. Opening Herbsaint (with Donald Link in 2000) helped me reconnect with what I was good at. Fortunately, I have had good luck with partners!
Do you have a favorite food moment from the shows?
Susan Spicer: I always loved when Janette was cooking at Desautel’s for the New York chefs that popped in on her -- she puts up a dish that she created just for them and says to Jacques, "take a picture of that sh*t, my friend!" To me, it had just the perfect combination of pride and cockiness.
Delmond Lambreaux orders the smoked duck, cashew-peanut butter and pepper jelly sandwich in Episode 4, "The Greatest Love." As you know, that's my favorite dish on the lunch menu at Bayona. (If we had shot it as a night time scene, I would have insisted he order the crispy smoked quail salad with pears and bourbon molasses dressing from the dinner menu.) How did you come up with those unusual dishes?
Susan Spicer: I always give props to one of my old sous chefs, Scott, who came up with the original idea for the sandwich. Michelle Nugent (who was my original sous here at Bayona and has been running the food side of the Jazz Fest for several years) and I sat with him and brainstormed ideas about how to tweak it and what to serve with it. It has become one of those dishes that you cannot take off the menu, although I would never really want to.
The Quail Salad, man, I have no idea how I put all those elements together but I do know it works! Usually you just start with an idea and then try to imagine what would taste good in combination with that and it builds from there. I love the process of collaboration and that has always been a process here. I owe a lot of our success to the many sous chefs who have helped me dream up these dishes.
Your new restaurant, Mondo, is not a New Orleans restaurant per se. You refer to it as "flavors of the world with a New Orleans accent." What was your thinking behind the menu there? What made you want to reach beyond your Creole-Cajun-French influences?
Susan Spicer: Well, truly, I have always ventured beyond Creole-Cajun because I didn't really have those roots, being a Navy brat with a Danish mom (who grew up in South America) and then trained with French chefs. I've always had what I call "an adventurous palate."
But I chose the name Mondo because it’s Italian for "world" and we had a wood-burning oven so I knew we'd be doing pizza and other rustic things. But I also wanted to do some good ol' New Orleans dishes and a great burger... In short, I just decided that I could pretty much do anything I wanted to -- I love Asian, Mediterranean, Indian, you name it! My chef, Paul, has worked with me for many years, so he's on the same wavelength.
I have to thank you for one thing in particular. It was almost impossible to buy a loaf of artisan bread in downtown New Orleans before the New Orleans Food Cooperative started selling your Wild Flour Breads. What made you start that bakery? Where else is the bread available?
Susan Spicer: You may remember, we started baking that European, artisan-style bread when I opened Spice, Inc., a specialty food store/cooking school, in 1997. After we closed (let's just say we were location-challenged), we continued to bake bread until we had to leave that location, at which point I formed a partnership with Sandy Whann from Leidenheimer and it was going strong by 2005, when Katrina hit and we had to start all over again. We were fortunate to put together a great team, led by Angelo and Jose, and Wild Flour is rolling along better than ever. We mostly do wholesale, but you can find us at Langenstein's, both uptown and in Metairie.
What's next for Susan Spicer? Is there a new project in the works?
Susan Spicer: I have a great chef now at Bayona, Brett Duffee, so I may be able to actually think about a new project. Maybe it's time for the Mondo cookbook? Or maybe just live a little!