By Lolis Eric Elie
One of the stories we try to tell on 'Treme' is the role that culture plays in New Orleans' long recovery after the federal levee failures. With all the commemorative CDs and all-star performances, even people outside of the city are aware of how our music and musicians helped tell the New Orleans story and make the case for rebuilding.
In a similar way, our chefs re-dedicated themselves to demonstrating that New Orleans food is an emblem of this city. Our food is necessary for our identity; our city is the necessary nurturing space for our food.
Kim Dickens' character Janette Desautel is meant to embody much of that story. In the first season, a combination of infrastructure failures and mounting bills forced her to close her restaurant. She spent most of Season 2 in New York, working with real-life chefs David Chang and Eric Ripert, and with the fictional psychopath Enrico Brulard. Season 3 has seen her back in New Orleans in a new kind of restaurant hell. Throughout this turmoil, Kim Dickens has done an amazing job of conveying Desautel's hope and humor. I spoke to the actress recently about her role as Janette and her own restaurant background.
What made you decide to accept this role?
Kim Dickens: From the first scripts, she just read as this really resilient, strong firecracker. I loved being able to play a chef. I loved being able to play a New Orleanian who came back after this tragedy. I get to play a real character, a real person. She's cooking, she's running a restaurant. She's drinking, dancing, struggling, fighting. It's a whole well-rounded character, which is really rare, and so very exciting to play.
Everybody asks if I'm really a good cook. I can get the basics done at home, but it's not my forte. But I actually love being in the kitchen. I did wait tables early in my career. I worked in a really, really, busy restaurant, the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. It's a big restaurant on Hudson and 10th street in New York City. It's probably been there about 22 years so I did a lot of my research a long time ago. I learned the real energy of a professional kitchen, waitressing there. I know what it's like when you're slammed, when you are in the weeds.
When did you know you'd make it as an actress?
Kim Dickens: With 'Truth or Consequences, N. M.,' directed by Kiefer Sutherland. I covered all my shifts while I was filming -- I didn't give up my job. I was out for a month and a half or two months. I came back, worked one shift and then quit. I give Kiefer the credit for getting me out of the kitchen.
How did you learn how to move like a chef?
Kim Dickens: I was in Susan Spicer's kitchen a lot, shadowing her. I took a whole salmon and deboned it and portioned it. It was good to see her at work because I knew that my character was inspired by her journey and she’s such an elegant, graceful person in the kitchen.
Whenever I was at home shooting in Los Angeles, I'd go into the Craft kitchen, Tom Colicchio's restaurant, and cut and chop.
But you're a vegetarian, right?
Kim Dickens: No, I’m a pescetarian. I eat fish.
How have restaurant people reacted to your work on the show?
Kim Dickens: I have to say a lot of people come up to me in New Orleans -- even people who don't work in the kitchen. Kitchen people going to work will yell at me, "Hey, chef." A lot of kitchen folks -- chefs, sous chefs, pastry chefs -- say, "I work in the kitchen and thank you so much for telling that story." It's a good story to tell, the inside-the-kitchen story. They are colorful characters and they work so hard. It's an honorable profession.
We now know that Season 4 will be the last. So what's next for Kim Dickens?
Kim Dickens: I'm just looking for the right thing right now. We are really having fun on 'Treme,' especially in the final season. It'll be sad to see it go.